Penn State New Kensington focuses on King's legacy
Recognizing that the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was more than just a champion of racial equality, Penn State New Kensington officials on Tuesday honored King's broader legacy.
In addition to a celebration of diversity, the annual campus Unity Day also touched on volunteerism, community involvement, access to education and the elimination of poverty.
“We wanted to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a day that brings this community together,” said PSNK Chancellor Kevin Snider.
Sandwiched between an opportunity for nonprofit organizations to advertise volunteer opportunities and an evening performance by the August Wilson Center Dance Ensemble was a panel discussion on hunger, homelessness and education.
Moderated by Audrey Murrell, an associate professor of business administration, psychology, public and international fairs from the University of Pittsburgh, the panel featured five community representatives with backgrounds in one or more of those topics.
• Patrick Coulson, the coordinator of the Westmoreland County Community College's New Kensington Education Center
• Scott McMannis, a community engagement specialist with Westmoreland Community Action's Westmoreland Circles Initiative that promotes community involvement to end poverty
• Sam Goldstrohm, an Armstrong County district court judge and professor of administration of justice at PSNK
• John Pallone, the new superintendent of New Kensington-Arnold School District, an attorney and a former state representative from the 54th House District
• Karen Snair, executive director of the Harrison-based Allegheny Valley Association of Churches, whose programs aim to address poverty, homelessness, hunger and unemployment.
Poverty can be cyclical
Panelists named issues from the devolution of families to a lack of transportation as contributing factors to poverty.
Snair said poverty often is cyclical — her organization assists many of the same families repeatedly through the years.
Not only do those families lack a support system in the way of helpful family or close friends, but their children also are echoing their parents' choices, Snair said.
Pallone said many of the young people he's encountered, both through the school district and as a foster parent, don't have good role models in their family lives.
Coulson agreed. He noted that his own parents divorced when he was a teenager and he subsequently lacked parental guidance.
Once he entered college and the workforce, Coulson said he had to seek out mentors to help him fill in the gap in life and people skills he was lacking — a problem many of his students encounter as well.
McMannis said he'd like to see more community involvement in the problem of poverty. He noted that about 20 percent of the population is living below the poverty level in his Circles organization's service area of Arnold, Lower Burrell and New Kensington.
“How does it become all of our problem?” he questioned. “We don't really see them (the poor).”
Goldstrohm, a district judge for 32 years who said he is old enough to recall King's Poor People's Campaign, which was was begun shortly before King's assassination in 1968, said the search for quick solutions often contributes to crime and destitution.
McMannis added that many who already are poor don't have the luxury of planning ahead: “When you're in poverty, you live in the moment with no future plan.”
Even those who are getting by can quickly land in trouble when faced with circumstances like death, divorce and debt, McMannis said.
Stress on young people
Murrell noted that debt in the form of escalating college loans is particularly troubling for young people these days.
Snider agreed, although he added that some students don't manage the money they have wisely. Even though many are struggling to work and go to school at the same time, they also feel they must have a smartphone, cable television and a car, he said.
Snider and Pallone said there is a sense of immediacy for younger generations that can be a disadvantage.
“They want what you and I have right now,” Pallone said. “They don't want to earn it.”
Community spirit on the rise
But Pallone said youth today also have developed a community spirit that perhaps was lacking in earlier generations.
Rather than “being an island on their own,” he said they're building their own support networks.
Theresa Bonk, PSNK's director of student affairs, agreed: “I see such hope. Their ability to work together to accomplish a task is large.”
Combining forces key
Perhaps that spirit will drive one of McMannis' goals for breaking the poverty cycle: connecting the disparate social services to combine forces and reach more people in need.
Coulson said he believes that already is happening, with colleges like Westmoreland Community College and Penn State New Kensington partnering with each other and other organizations to address student needs.
That never would have been considered a college's purview a few generations ago.
Other suggestions included Pallone's recommendation that adults lead by example, providing role models for both impressionable young people and older folks who could be more involved.
Snair said she'd also like to see more programs addressed at young children, which would hopefully prevent them repeating bad habits that lead to poverty and other social problems.
Sitting in the audience, Maxine Howard of Tarentum echoed the sentiments of several panel members.
“We have to be role models and let our young people know what to do,” she said. “I'm truly betting on our youth.”
Liz Hayes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4680 or firstname.lastname@example.org.