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Former state rep says communities must bridge communication gap

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Thursday, April 18, 2013, 1:26 a.m.
 

If communities like Apollo are to survive, people need to start talking to each other, former state Rep. Jeff Coleman says.

That includes neighbors, families and generations all getting to know each other, passing on and sharing knowledge and values, said Coleman, who expanded “Apollo” beyond its literal borough boundaries to encompass much of the Kiski Valley.

“It's not just an Apollo thing. It's a country thing,” Coleman said. “A conversation has to begin to happen.”

Coleman spoke before about 70 people Wednesday in Apollo-Ridge High School auditorium. He appeared at the invitation of the Apollo-Ridge Education Foundation, which has been sponsoring a free Speakers Series.

“I think he's an inspiration for the Apollo community,” Armstrong County Commissioner Bob Bower said after Coleman's hour-long presentation.

“He brought up some interesting ideas,” Apollo Council Vice President Cindee Virostek said.

Coleman, 37, now lives in Camp Hill, near Harrisburg, and runs Churchill Strategies, a public relations and branding firm he founded in 2005.

Coleman, a conservative Republican, was 25 when he was elected to the state House of Representatives in 2000. He won election in the heavily Democratic 60th Legislative District, unseating longtime incumbent Democrat Tim Pesci.

He was a rising star in the Republican Party and viewed by Harrisburg insiders as a likely congressional candidate.

But after two terms, Coleman stunned many by choosing to walk away in 2004 and did not seek election to a third term.

His reasons were evident at the start of his talk, when he displayed pictures of his wife and three children. Coleman said he chose to be a husband and a father, a life he found not possible with politics.

“I'm enjoying being a dad now,” he said. “There are very few things that would change my view of that decision.”

His appearance was billed as a homecoming and his first public talk in the area since leaving office. Coleman lived in Apollo and served a year on Apollo Council.

Coleman said he got quickly caught up on the local goings-on after a visit to a barbershop.

The community has been hit by job loss, economic decline, drug abuse and the disintegration of family, he said.

“It is a story that is unique — and a lot like other southwestern Pennsylvania towns,” he said. But, “there are plenty of places that are much worse off.”

There are tales of public corruption and private depression.

Some pain passes almost undetected, with memorial pages appearing online after suicides and drug overdoses.

“If you listen closely enough, there's a lot more going on,” he said.

The generation gap, and the “cut-off of the generational conversation,” was a major focus and a thread throughout Coleman's remarks. A “generational exchange” needs to start, he said.

“There's not that level of conversation happening,” he said.

There needs to be a rediscovery of what it means to have a community. That starts with knowing its history, Coleman said.

“You lose a sense of community when you've forgotten the story,” he said.

Renters are often seen as hurting communities; Coleman said it can be overcome with an old-fashioned welcome.

Perhaps most controversial, Coleman said, is the role of faith.

“You cannot have a conversation about community renewal if you focus on the economics of it and ignore the spiritual,” he said.

Coleman said he tells his children that they are not here by accident, that they are special, and that God made them with talents and abilities that they need to discover — and the same is true for a community.

The way back includes things we know, Coleman said. Families can stop fighting; neighbors can invite each other over for dinner; and those with knowledge can mentor others.

“What is Apollo about? Is it about survival only?” he asked.

“There's so much here,” he said. “There's so many people who are about this not being the last chapter of Apollo.”

Brian C. Rittmeyer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4701 or brittmeyer@tribweb.com.

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