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Valley volunteers, regional champions share spotlight at annual awards banquet

Mon Valley Initiative celebrated its 30th anniversary on Oct. 18 by presenting awards to local residents who made the organization’s work possible over the past year.

People who volunteer and participate with local groups “are vitally important,” said East Pittsburgh Councilwoman Mary Carol Kennedy, who chairs Mon Valley Initiative’s board of directors. “Without them, so many projects — both large and small — wouldn’t get done.”

About 200 people attended MVI’s community awards ceremony and annual dinner, held at the Sunset Room in Elizabeth Township. Pittsburgh radio broadcaster Larry Berger, a Churchill native and graduate of what is now called Woodland Hills High School, served as master of ceremonies.

Berger said he was impressed by the stories being told by MVI’s award winners. “It takes people like those who have been up here tonight — and just about everyone in the room — to help bring necessities to people, and hope,” Berger said. “It’s remarkable how simple the solutions can be when the problems are so complicated and messy.”

Pittsburghers for Public Transit, which mobilized bus riders from Braddock, Duquesne, Homestead and McKeesport to stop the Port Authority from making drastic cuts to Mon Valley area bus lines, including the 61 A-B-C routes, received Mon Valley Initiative’s Regional Partnership Award for 2018.

“We were moved by the clarity of the argument that was made by Laura Wiens, (PPT’s) executive director,” said Patrick Shattuck, MVI’s director of real estate and community development. “It was clear, it was passionate, and it was something we could believe in.”

MVI and PPT are together encouraging the Port Authority to extend the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway to McKeesport and Monroeville, Shattuck said. “They’re continuing to fight and working with us again to ensure that the expansion of the East Busway continues to be a project we can look forward to,” he said.

Laurel Shaw Randi of the McCune Foundation was honored with MVI’s 2018 Sen. John Heinz III Award for Community Service.

Rankin Council Vice President Bill Pfoff, who recently announced his retirement from the Mon Valley Initiative board of directors after 14 years, was surprised by MVI Chief Executive Officer Laura R. Zinski with an award recognizing his service. “You guys know I’m an elected official and I can talk all night, but you caught me off-guard,” Pfoff said. “Thank you. I’m just looking forward to seeing the awardees.”
Community partner awards were presented by local organizations that work together in the MVI coalition.


Alyssa Kail of Braddock Economic Development Corp. presented Cheryl Johnson, owner of Aunt Cheryl’s Café, with a community partner award on behalf of BEDCO.

Cheryl Johnson, owner of Aunt Cheryl’s Café in Braddock, was honored by the Braddock Economic Development Corp. Johnson opened the café following a career as a social worker.

She has used the café as a way to bring together people from throughout the community, including her annual “Thanksgiving Feast for Peace” dinners, which bring together residents with police officers to discuss ways to prevent violence.


Debra Keefer, retired executive director of the Mon Valley Regional Chamber of Commerce, accepts a community partner award from Adele Hopkins of the Greater Charleroi Community Development Corp.

Debra Keefer, retired executive director of the Mon Valley Regional Chamber of Commerce, received a community partner award from the Greater Charleroi Community Development Corp. for helping to stabilize Charleroi’s business district and launching activities such as “Hoodie Hoo Day.”

“Many times I’ve looked to Mon Valley Initiative for help, because they get results,” Keefer said. “I’m all for studies, but when you make things happen, I’m impressed.”

East Pittsburgh

Gary Brougher, founder of the Pittsburgh Dream Center, was presented with a community partner award on behalf of the East Pittsburgh Economic Development Corp. The dream center’s outreach in the borough began in 2011 and has included an “adopt-a-block” program, snow-shoveling and grass-cutting for elderly residents, a mobile food bank and after-school programs.


‘Recognition doesn’t come very often,’ says Teresa Seh, president of Monessen Communities That Care. The group received one of eight “community partner” awards presented at Mon Valley Initiative’s 30th anniversary banquet.

Monessen Communities That Care, a program that provides mentoring, job-skills training and drug-prevention education to teens and young adults, also was recognized with a community partner award.
Teresa Seh, the group’s president, said her group is a “grassroots” effort.

“I stand here just as the mobilizer,” she said. “All of the work is done by community partners and volunteers. For those of you work in community (services), I don’t have to tell you, sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s tough … and recognition doesn’t come very often.”


Jean Warren of Glassport, who serves as Act 47 coordinator for Rankin as well as borough secretary in Whitaker, received a community partner award from Rankin Community Development Corp. in honor of her efforts to secure funding for sewer replacements, new police equipment and other improvements.


Swissvale Bowl-a-Rama owner Carol Palangio receives a community partner award from Terry Ward of Swissvale Economic Development Corp. for her efforts to save the borough’s Senior Center from closing.

Swissvale Economic Development Corp. recognized Carol Palangio, owner of the Swissvale Bowl-a-Rama, who rallied the community in 2016 when the Swissvale Senior Center was threatened with closure.

Palangio lobbied local and county officials to secure funding for the center and helped to create a non-profit organization, Seniors Always Matter, or “S.A.M.,” to support older residents of the borough.

Turtle Creek

Lynn McClelland was honored by Turtle Creek Development Corp. for her support of the borough’s revitalization efforts, including her maintenance of the Turtle Creek Community Pride page on Facebook.

“There is a lot of negativity around, but she’s brought such a positive note,” said Beth Hamill, who presented McClelland with the award on behalf of TCDC. “She’s been so helpful, she always has ideas, and she’s always reaching out to people.”

West Newton

Downtown West Newton Inc. honored Jim Sykes with its community partner award for his dedication to providing music and music education in the community.

A lifetime resident of West Newton, Sykes is the owner of West Newton Piano & Voice, a music school located in the very same building where his father and mother operated a service station and, later, a restaurant.

Berger remembered 1988, when the Mon Valley was in a dire state.

“I was a recent college graduate with a chemical engineering degree who was underemployed and looking very hard for a job in the steel industry — which was not providing much employment at the time,” said Berger, whose “Saturday Light Brigade” is heard on radio stations in five states.

If the outlook in the Mon Valley looks better today, organizations such as Mon Valley Initiative deserve credit, he said.

Some of the success stories that guests shared were “incredible,” Berger said. “It’s remarkable how simple the solutions can be when the problems are so complicated and messy.”

Joseph P. Flynn Jr., MVI’s vice chair and a senior vice president at WesBanco, called MVI’s staff and volunteers “the greatest team in America,” but challenged the younger people in the audience to imagine what the Mon Valley will look like in the future.

“What are you going to do in the next 30 years?” Flynn, of Mt. Lebanon, said. “Because most of the projects that MVI gets involved with come from people like you.”

Founded Dec. 1, 1988, Mon Valley Initiative is a regional community development corporation that provides housing counseling, workforce and business development services, and real estate and community development in Allegheny, Washington and Westmoreland counties.

Based in Homestead, MVI in 2018 opened a second office in Charleroi to better serve residents of the mid-Mon Valley area.

Mon Valley Initiative