Mary of Nazareth Catholic School student Aleena Halaszynski was honored by McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko for upholding the value of "Love." Aleena, who just finished first grade, raised $1,300 for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.
McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko and city council on Tuesday honored four people for upholding the "McKeesport Message" of "Respect, Dignity, Hope and Love."
Proclamations were presented to three of the four awardees during council's July meeting. Each of the awardees was nominated by the public and selected the McKeesport Message Committee, a subgroup of the Mayor's Select Committee on Crime and Violence.
Honored for this quarter were Walt Yager for upholding the value of "Respect," Tricia Hoover for upholding the value of "Dignity," Hasaan Allen for upholding the value of "Hope," and Aleena Halaszynski for upholding the value of "Love."
Respect: Walt Yager
Through the McKeesport Allied Veterans Memorial Organization, Walter Yager is working with the City of McKeesport to bring The Wall That Heals to Renziehausen Park in August.
Walter has dedicated much of his life to what he calls, “Operation Sammy and Sean” – a program he uses to honor the late Samuel LaRosa of the local Boys & Girls Club and his own son Sean Yager, who completed a community service project on the club’s longstanding Vietnam Memorial as his senior project for Norwin High School in 2004 before his untimely passing.
For many years, Walter has been on the committee that organizes annual Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies at the LaRosa Boys & Girls Club to honor 11 members who made the ultimate sacrifice in Vietnam – Norman Johnson, Michael Nemchick, James Brooks Jr., Tyrone Burse, James West, Gregory Popowitz, Curtis Gay, Thomas Sweeney, Louis Huff II, John Germek Jr., and Lee Thomas. Separately, McKeesport Area High School is home to a memorial recognizing 23 students, known as the “McKeesport 23,” who were killed in Vietnam. Ten names appear in both locations.
Walter said The Wall That Heals is important to the McKeesport community. He wants area residents to have an opportunity to pay their respects to all Vietnam veterans.
“It’s of national prominence,” he said. “In all of the years I have been working on ‘Operation Sammy and Sean,’ I wanted McKeesport to get recognized as one of the first Vietnam memorials … Now, we’ve hit a home run in bringing The Wall here to McKeesport.”
Veterans’ organizations from across the Mon Valley and Southwestern Pennsylvania are reaching out to Yager to volunteer their time and donate funds to bring The Wall That Heals to McKeesport. The exhibit will be on display around the clock Aug. 9 to 12 at Jimmy Long Field.
Anyone wishing to support Yager’s effort may send donations payable to the McKeesport Allied Veterans Memorial Organization, 500 Fifth Avenue, McKeesport, PA, 15132. Information is available online at bringthewalltothemonvalley.com.
Dignity: Tricia Hoover
Tricia Hoover is doing her part to guarantee all students at Twin Rivers Elementary have access to creative programming, field trips, and other positive experiences.
As president of the Twin Rivers PTO, Tricia leads a small group of parents in organizing fundraisers – everything from candle or cookie sales to and book fairs – that that cover the cost of field days, pizza parties, assemblies, and special events.
“Not every family can afford to donate to the school, and we understand that,” she said. “We have them contribute in other ways, and we have creative ways to give prizes to the kids.”
This year, students attended skating parties at Eden Park Roller Rink, watched plays at the Gemini Theater, toured Triple B Farms, rode the Gateway Clipper, and visited the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium.
“Whether it’s watching a play or going to a game, kids start thinking about activities they want to join in high school or what jobs they might want to do as they get older,” Tricia said. “They all have different interests, and we try to expose them to as many good experiences as we can. They can try new things or share their interests with their friends.”
Regardless of whether children have the means to raise funds, Tricia said, they are given every opportunity to participate.
PTO funds also provide classroom resources to enhance students’ in-school experiences, with each year focusing on a different elective. Funding in 2017-18 paid for robots used in STEM (Science, Engineering, Technology, and Math) classes.
Parents have noticed Tricia’s effort and thanked her for putting her “heart and soul” into the PTO program. They’ve praised her for working tirelessly to ensure McKeesport Area students have all of the “extras” on top of their already well-rounded curriculum. Tricia is present during and after school on many days – completing her paperwork, organizing materials, and offering a helping hand to Twin Rivers staff. Teachers praised Tricia for her kindness and her love of the McKeesport Area School District and all of its students.
Hope: Hasaan Allen
Hasaan Allen, the creative force behind HADC Pittsburgh, is sharing his love of dance with children and teens in the community and club where he was raised.
Hasaan, a 2012 McKeesport Area High School graduate, has been a member of the LaRosa Boys & Girls Club since his early youth. He earned the club’s Youth of the Year award for his positivity, his participation, and his extra effort in providing dance lessons to fellow club members during his senior year of high school.
“It started off as just a dance group after school,” he recalled. “The club was just a space we were using. Once the kids and the staff noticed what we were doing, they asked for a program for the following year.”
From there, the Hasaan Allen Dance Company was formed. Focusing on hip-hop and street jazz with contemporary and modern styles, Hasaan is a talented dancer and choreographer. He has performed with companies in the Pittsburgh area and Chicago.
“All of the girls I taught during the year I graduated, they graduated this year,” he said. “We started with six girls, and we doubled that. It’s been such a cool ride to watch them evolve.”
Hasaan describes dance as an outlet that builds confidence – a phenomenon that “changes attitudes” and “matures.” Watching dancers gain a sense of discipline as they hone their skill has been rewarding for him.
A member of The Youth Department ministry, Hasaan has a good rapport in the McKeesport community, and he is respected by children and parents, alike. One of the most fulfilling aspects of his work has been knowing that parents are genuinely excited for their children’s progress.
“I want to be for these kids what so many people have been for me,” Hasaan said. “So many people in my life have helped me become who I am today. I don’t look at this as being a huge thing until I see how the kids react. You can see the impact it has on them.”
Love: Aleena Halaszynski
Aleena Halaszynski is proof that a person is never too young to embrace McKeesport’s message. With a bit of inspiration from her family, community, and school, Aleena was looking for ways to raise funds for children less fortunate than herself. She saw YouTube videos and commercials involving lemonade stands and wanted to try it in her own neighborhood, with proceeds benefitting St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital.
“I wanted to help kids and sick people,” Aleena said. “I wanted the money to go to people who need it.”
Her parents, Jennifer and Chris Halaszynski, contacted St. Jude and obtained permission to advertise their daughter’s fundraiser as a charity event. The family received a formal letter outlining St. Jude’s commitment to patients and examples of what one day of treatment would cost for various patient conditions.
The Halaszynski family expected to raise anywhere from $50 to $200, thinking it would be a nice contribution, but with support from neighbors, city officials, and Turner’s Dairy, they brought in close to $1,300.
On May 26, Aleena set up shop at the corner of Arnold and Wainwright drives in McKeesport’s Haler Heights neighborhood. “People walked up to us and they pulled up in cars,” Aleena said. “It make me feel joyed and happy.”
Aleena’s heart was warmed by the support her project received. For two hours, she was busy serving local residents, first-responders, and more. She talked with strangers as well as friends, including classmates.
Aleena recently finished first grade at Mary of Nazareth Catholic School in White Oak, where she is learning the value of ethics along with other subjects.
“In religion class, they teach me how to be kind and nice,” she said. “We draw pictures of people helping others. We want to help the earth get better.”
Aleena is looking for new ways to support her community, and she hopes to host a second lemonade stand this summer to raise funds for local charities.
Living the Message
McKeesporters of all ages – from youth volunteers to senior citizens – display characteristics of Respect, Dignity, Hope and Love on a daily basis in our community. Whether through organizing community activities or offering a helping hand to those in need, everyday people are doing their part to make our city a better place. If we look within our schools, our neighborhoods, our churches and our service organizations, we will find acts of kindness for which we all can be proud.
Living the Message awards are intended to showcase these individuals and give the community an opportunity to share its good news. Awards are given quarterly. Using 250 words or fewer, describe how the individual of your choice embodies one of the four words.
For more information, contact the mayor’s office at 412-675-5020, ext. 605. Nominations can be mailed to the mayor’s assistant Jennifer Vertullo, 500 Fifth Avenue, McKeesport, PA 15132, or emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org. The deadline for the next round of nominations is Aug. 17, 2018.
Originally published July 15, 2018.