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Volunteers unpack new fitness equipment in the weight room at McKeesport Area High School. (All photos: Richard Finch Jr., special to Tube City Almanac)
McKeesport Area High School became the latest destination on the nationwide Team8 Tour this week, after volunteers with the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation and United Healthcare's “Do Good, Live Well” employee program gathered in the gymnasium to kick off the two-day event.
The weight room in the high school and the courtyard at Founders Hall Middle School were targeted for improvement. The Team8 Tour is a national campaign aimed at encouraging young people around the country to make healthy choices, build character and learn critical life lessons that will inspire them to be catalysts for positive social change, according to the foundation's website.
McKeesport Area School Superintendent Mark Holtzman Jr. credited baseball coach Ron Bishop with connecting the district to the program.
“Coach Bishop had contacts with the foundation through his previous employment,” Holtzman said. “He helped get us in contact with United Healthcare to begin the process.”
Ripken was a baseball player, coach, manager and scout for the Baltimore Orioles for 36 years and the father of Baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. and Billy Ripken.
Sara Bell, program manager for United Healthcare, said the McKeesport Area School District qualified for the program because 100 percent of district students are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches.
“We have a lot of members in Pennsylvania, so it's important that we are taking care of them,” Bell said. “We want them to be healthy, so we are very focused on youth fitness and giving them the tools to be healthy.”
Chris Welsh (above), fitness consultant with the Ripken Foundation, was in charge of revitalizing the weight room. “What I do, is I put a plan together, build-out the weight room, advise the staff on how best to utilize the space, whether it involves general training or equipment upgrades,” Welsh said.
Welsh has been traveling the country for the past three years, helping qualified schools and institutions with similar projects. On Wednesday he was in the McKeesport Area High School gymnasium, quickly unpacking huge boxes of “toys,” dumbbells, distance bands, racks, TRX equipment and new flooring mats.
Holtzman said the courtyard was neglected and underutilized because of staff reductions affecting the custodial and maintenance departments.
“We don’t have enough hands and feet to go around,” he said. “The courtyard could use some landscaping. It's a reasonable project, not overwhelming financially, it will be a nice place to get fresh air when the weather is nice.”
Holtzman said he was excited to see “all the volunteers we have here, donating time to McKeesport kids for this awesome project.”
Athletics have always been an important part of McKeesport Area School District, Holtzman said. The district has produced many athletes who have gone onto college success or professional leagues, as well as two olympians.
The revamped weight room and refreshed courtyard are bright spots in what has been a difficult month for McKeesport Area students, teachers and staff. Two students were killed in May in separate, unrelated incidents.
Holtzman called the deaths “heartbreaking” but said administrators and teachers were coping as well as they could, and were focused on meeting student needs first. “We don’t feel sorry for ourselves,” he said.
McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko (above) was on hand as the Team8 volunteers worked in the weight room and courtyard. A former teacher in the district, Cherepko said the project exemplified the level of cooperation between the students and the community.
“I admire the perseverance the students have, to fight through anything, it's incredible,” he said.
Over the past four years, the Team8 Tour has engaged thousands of volunteers to support high schools and community centers across the country, a spokeswoman said, reaching nearly 50,000 young people. The program has donated fitness and outdoor materials worth more than $1.5 million, she said.
Richard Finch Jr. is a freelance writer who covers news from McKeesport Area School District and North Versailles Twp. for Tube City Almanac. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published June 28, 2019.