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Heinz Endowment funds McKeesport's investment in youth

| Wednesday, June 12, 2013, 4:26 a.m.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
Community opportunity specialist Keino Fitzpatrick, right, reveals details of Heinz Endowment funding for McKeesport's Youth CAST Leadership Program with McKeesport Area Diversity Committee member Harold Allen, Bethlehem Baptist pastor the Rev. Earlene Coleman, city administrator Matt Gergely, McKeesport Area school board president Patricia Maksin and Mayor Michael Cherepko in a city hall conference room on Tuesday.

With financial support from the Heinz Endowment, McKeesport is seeking a diverse “cast” of youth to invest in the community.

The Select Committee on Crime and Violence that Mayor Michael Cherepko formed in 2012 is showing tangible evidence of success a year later by acquiring $162,560 in private grants to conduct a two-year Youth CAST Leadership Program. It will focus on 25 students in grades six through 12 in its first phase, and reach more than 300 kids by the end of its second year.

CAST — Community and Schools Together — was developed by community opportunity specialist Keino Fitzpatrick in partnership with the city, the MGR Foundation, YMCA, LaRosa Boys & Girls Club, Penn State Greater Allegheny, Carnegie Library of McKeesport, Bethlehem Baptist Church and McKeesport Area School District.

“This grant is about maximizing everyone's effort to impact change,” Fitzpatrick said. “Leadership will be a model for civic engagement for students. They can organize themselves in the right way and engage in positive activities with adults in the city, the schools and the faith-based community.”

The program focuses on changing relationships through leadership. It is intended to encourage youth, the community and schools to promote service learning, community service and civic engagement.

In September, seven students — one from each grade level involved — will travel with parents and committee chaperones to watch Detroit's Skillman Foundation-funded Youth Development Alliance in action for four days.

When they return, they will select 18 more peers to build a core group for the first year of Heinz Endowment funding. Those 25 will use peer-to-peer recruitment to organize community service projects that will be completed by August 2014.

“We want to be able to reach 315 kids over two years through our leadership training,” Fitzpatrick said, estimating a direct impact on 15 percent of the McKeesport Area student body.

Members of the mayor's select committee said young people were the focus when the committee sought grant funding.

“They are our future,” Bethlehem Baptist pastor the Rev. Earlene Coleman said. “If we don't invest in our future, we can look to be at a loss; but the whole community will gain on our investment.”

Cherepko said the committee's choice was correct.

“They are a committee focused on solutions, rather than just discussing a problem,” he said. “We wanted to see action, not just words.”

While the committee has made strides over the last year, Cherepko said the CAST program is something the whole community will recognize as progress.

Cherepko said he hopes the city will begin to have more faith in its youth as the children learn to have faith in themselves and in their ideas.

“A lot of kids aren't making the most of their education,” said Harold Allen, a McKeesport resident who sits on the McKeesport Area Diversity Committee. “This will get them on track, making them mentors and having them involved in the success of their community.”

The face of education is changing to give students hands-on opportunities to apply classroom lessons to real life. McKeesport Area school board president Patricia Maksin said that applies not only to core curriculum, but to volunteerism as well.

“For kids at this age level, community service means punishment,” Maksin said. “We are trying to turn that around — to make them realize that community service is about giving back to your community in a positive way.”

Coleman said the CAST program should help to instill values that many children don't have. She hopes it will help them establish goals with productive futures in mind.

“You cannot desire what you don't understand,” Coleman said. “We can open doors for children and let them see the good opportunities that are out there.”

Heinz Endowment funding should help McKeesport gain future support to sustain the program, and to establish new programs as time goes on, the mayor said.

“There is an instant credibility that comes along with this grant,” Cherepko said. “We look at this grant not only as something that will be successful in its own course, but as a step toward more to come. This is just the beginning of something that will continue to grow.”

Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1956, or jvertullo@tribweb.com.

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