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McKeesporter establishes Healthy Village Learning Institute in former school building

| Saturday, May 3, 2014, 12:01 a.m.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
Keith Murphy will teach the McKeesport community that it takes a healthy village to raise a healthy child by promoting youth development, wellness, education and the arts at the new Healthy Village Learning Institute in the former St. Pius school.

Everyone knows the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” but Keith Murphy of McKeesport is asking what children have when the village itself isn't healthy.

“If the village is not healthy, can you raise a healthy child?” Murphy asked. “I've adopted the motto, ‘It takes a healthy village to raise a healthy child.' I think we need to infuse language that is positive and progressive … as we work with our very young and our very old.”

Murphy, executive director of Bethany House Academy, has worked on the front lines of socio-economic and racial inequity for 20 years. His efforts have focused on public housing environments in Pittsburgh's North View Heights and St. Clair Village.

Bringing his expertise to his hometown, Murphy is opening the Healthy Village Learning Institute in the former St. Pius School at Freemont and Boyd streets. He thanks the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh and the Rev. Stephen A. Kresak for making the property available.

“Without their generosity, none of this would have been possible,” Murphy said. “We want to use every part of this building to do something positive and productive — not just for McKeesport, but for the whole Mon Valley.”

Murphy's vision is for the Healthy Village Learning Institute to operate year round and for upper levels to be renovated as the volume of visitors grows.

He is planning programs for manhood and womanhood development with age-appropriate lessons for anyone from 8-21 years old; international rites of passage with trips to Ghana; health and wellness workshops; elder work for folks 50 and older; leadership training for those 18 and older; entrepreneurial training and development; and Solution Series workshops geared toward education, job readiness, youth violence, family, and Healthy Village living principles. There is a technology component for individuals interested in photography and video editing, and an arts program featuring African drums and dance.

With 150 residents and public officials attending an April open house, Murphy is optimistic the Healthy Village Learning Institute will be a success.

“While (the center) is heavily ridden with African history and culture, it is still something in which everyone can share,” Murphy said, referencing a collection of artifacts and artwork he brought home from trips to Africa. He wants the public to know more about African history and world history.

“We want to tie that all in to a space that is unique,” Murphy said. “It's about exposure. How do you get people to see things differently? As we move from a space of a Catholic school to an African center that is open to all, we welcome everyone to come, ask questions and learn.”

This weekend, the center will be open Saturday for a free Zumba class sponsored by Akwaaba Fitness from 11 a.m. to noon. Attendees are asked to wear comfortable workout clothing and athletic footwear. They should bring a mat and bottle of water.

On Sunday, the center will welcome visitors from 4-7 p.m. for a showing of “12 Years a Slave,” sponsored by the Sankofa Leadership Institute Initiative. After the movie, there will be dinner and a discussion.

As community members become interested in the Healthy Village Learning Institute, Murphy hopes to form a Council of Elders in which area residents 50 and older can provide instruction and guidance to the “village” at large. They will be expected to speak with moral and ethical authority as they guide the center's leaders and teachers.

“We believe in the potential of our elders to make a difference,” Murphy said. “One of the common things I've witnessed in 20 years of doing this work is that there is no longer a respect factor offered — not only to the parents, but to the elders in the community.”

Societies are judged on how they treat their youngest and oldest citizens, Murphy said. He believes children who learn to respect their elders have a better understanding of their own responsibilities now and in the future.

For more information, contact Murphy at 412-889-9329 or kmurphy8084@me.com.

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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