Saltsburg senior recalls life-changing experiences
McDonald, a graduating senior at Saltsburg High School, is also graduating from the Indiana Technology Center's masonry program this spring.
His life hasn't always fit together as neatly as the block walls he has learned to lay with precision, but MacDonald credits caring people with making positive imprints on the paths he has chosen to follow.
MacDonald, age 19, has lived in a foster family situation for the past four years. As a child, he says he struggled in both school and in his personal life. Then he became a junior fire fighter with the Slickville fire department, near Saltsburg.
That's where he met Sarah and Earl McCall. She's president of the fire association and he's the fire chief.
The McCalls' son, Mark, now age 30, noticed MacDonald when he first joined the firefighters. 'Mark said, 'Take him under your wing, Mom,'' Sarah McCall says. 'Matt was the kind of kid who always wanted to do things, he couldn't sit still ... he was constantly hugging, just wanted someone to love him. He started calling us aunt and uncle, then mom and dad.'
In 1997 MacDonald asked the McCalls if he could live with them. 'He's got a home here as long as he wants,' Sarah McCall says.
The McCalls aren't officially MacDonald's foster parents, but the young man said in his eyes they are his family.
As Westmoreland County residents, Sarah McCall said they did not go through the office of the county's children and youth services to obtain foster family status, but instead made informal arrangements for MacDonald to live with them.
After four years of living with the McCalls, MacDonald says his life has totally turned around.
This year he passed a skills test in masonry with the highest grade in his class at the Technology Center, in both the written and performance exams, exceeding national standards, he said, adding, 'All that hard work paid off.' The hard work of his foster parents has apparently paid off, too.
MacDonald says he went from earning D's and F's at his former school to being on the honor roll at Saltsburg. 'I credit it to parental guidance,' McDonald said.
The McCalls and MacDonald attended family counseling sessions with a service in Greensburg for about a year. 'That was fantastic,' Sarah McCall said. 'It helped Matthew tremendously. It helped all of us; it helped us understand him.'
Bringing MacDonald into their family was like a new start for the McCalls, she said. Their other son is 11 years older than MacDonald.
'Matt's turned himself totally around,' Sarah McCall said in a phone interview, unknowingly repeating the same phrase MacDonald used earlier at the Technology Center to describe what's happened to him since coming to the McCall's home. 'We have a lot of good times with him.'
MacDonald was selected as a Lions Boy of the Month. McCall says he shared his personal story when the honor was bestowed and she was very proud of him.
MacDonald is now a full-fledged volunteer fireman, working along side his foster father. His first call as a senior fireman came as a surprise, as most fire calls do.
'It was the day of the prom. I was on the way to pick up my date's flowers. It was a vehicle accident with entrapment, a kid going to the prom. He was life-flighted to Pittsburgh.'
During his fire fighting training MacDonald had an opportunity to watch a video in which a third-generation fireman misread a situation at a critical moment and it cost him his life.
MacDonald, who would like to be a city fire chief someday, says the video made him think about the influence each decision he makes has on his future.
The McCalls aren't the only examples MacDonald has valued.
He says as a child he looked up to Dan Trent, the father of his best friend, who lived in the community in which MacDonald originally lived. Trent was a union block layer and a role model for MacDonald.
'I idolized him like a dad,' MacDonald says. As a result, he determined to become a union mason himself and consequently selected the masonry vocational training at the Technology Center.
John Koenigsberg, his masonry instructor for three years, said MacDonald is interested in learning all he can about the trade. 'He's not afraid to tear (something) down and rebuild it to make it better. He's a really good student to have in class, he's interested in cooperating.'
Another Technology Center teacher, Marlin 'Bing' Stephens said it was refreshing to work with MacDonald because he pursues excellence. ''Mac' rose above reasons to fail. He came out here to excel and won't settle for less.'
Saltsburg high school guidance secretary Janice Thompson says she has known MacDonald since he arrived there in eighth grade. 'He's a great kid, well-mannered. He's like a second son to me.'
Karen Ruda, his guidance counselor, echoed those sentiments. 'He's the kind of kid you want to take home. I don't know what he's gone through, I just met him last year. He's a very sharing person, very warm.'
MacDonald is also courageous, Ruda says. 'I'm impressed by his willingness to do something different (from other students) and to do it well.'
Ruda says she rides a Harley motorcycle and MacDonald often talks with her about it. 'He told me 'Someday I'll own a Harley.''
She has no doubt he will achieve that goal, along with others has sets out to accomplish.
He has enlisted in the Navy and in a few weeks will leave for boot camp and train as a fireman apprentice.