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Earnest Oatneal of the McKeesport Recreation Board and Mayor Michael Cherepko at the Oct. 2 council meeting. (Tube City Almanac photo)
McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko and city council on Oct. 2 honored four people for “Living the McKeesport Message” of Respect, Dignity, Hope and Love.
“Living the Message” awards are presented quarterly by the McKeesport Message Committee, a subgroup of the mayor’s Select Committee on Crime and Violence.
Honored were Ernie Oatneal (respect), Barbara Williams (dignity), Jonathan Stark (hope) and Helene Moux (love). The following biographies of the award recipients were submitted by the committee.
Respect: Ernie Oatneal
Ernie Oatneal is committed to recreation and veterans programming in the City of McKeesport. He’s a member of the McKeesport Recreation Board, McKeesport’s Veterans Activities Committee, McKeesport Lions Club, the Rotary Club of White Oak, and the Burt Foster American Legion Post 361 of White Oak.
“A busy mind makes a happier person,” Ernie said with a smile. “That’s the great part about it. When you do something nice for someone, a smile comes across their face, and it reflects back.”
With the Rotary and Lions clubs, Ernie volunteers at Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, helps area residents with disabilities, and participates in countless community activities, including Toys for Tots drives and the Summer Concert Series.
With the recreation board, he assists fellow volunteers with the Easter Egg Hunt, Halloween Parade, and Movies in the Park; but his favorite activity every year is the Salute to Santa Parade, where he serves as the lead lineup coordinator.
“It’s joyful,” Ernie said. “The little ones are full of joy and happiness. We’ve had rain, we’ve had cold. The enthusiasm of these children, whether they’re marching in the parade, riding on the floats, or watching from the sidewalks, it doesn’t change.”
An Army veteran who served in Yokohama, Japan, during the Vietnam era, Ernie has been loyal to his fellow servicemen and women by helping to plan local veterans activities, including a visit from the Wall that Heals in 2018, and participating in biannual ceremonies to honor fallen Vietnam Veterans at the LaRosa Boys and Girls Club.
“Veterans serve this country, and they give 100 percent,” he said. “No matter what branch of the service you’re in, we all become brothers. When you’ve been in a combat situation, you know what other people experience when they serve. I try to do what I can now to keep those thoughts alive.”
Dignity: Barbara Williams
Barbara Williams is a lifelong McKeesporter who has dedicated her life to education through the course of her work and volunteerism.
Today, Barbara is a substitute teacher by day and a community liaison for the rest of her waking hours. With a bachelor’s degree in education from California University of Pennsylvania and a master’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh, her background has been educating those in the criminal justice system and other special populations. She has worked for the St. Francis Medical Center, Mon Yough Community Services, and the McKeesport Area School District.
It was during her time as a Mon Yough therapist that Barbara became the agency’s first staff member certified to work with HIV-positive clients who were navigating a full range of medical and social services. She became active in Pittsburgh-based initiatives for HIV/AIDS education and was moved to serve as the first president of the McKeesport-based Community Partnership for Minority HIV/AIDS Prevention.
That group hosts two annual events at Zion Baptist Church with support from St. Paul AME and other organizations — the Balm in Gilead prayer service and a full day of outreach on National HIV Testing Day.
“Everything we do for the public is free of charge because we have such amazing community partners,” Barbara said. “We’ve come a long way, and I think that’s because McKeesport is such a tight-knit community. We are teaching young people, especially young women, to communicate with their partners, to be healthy, and to teach others to do the same. They take our message out into the community.”
In addition to her roles in HIV/AIDS prevention, Barbara also serves on the boards of the McKeesport Little Theater and the NAACP McKeesport Unit. She is a mother of two, grandmother of five, and great-grandmother of seven.
Hope: Jonathan Stark
Developer Jonathan Stark is taking on the riskiest project of his career, and he didn’t think twice because he knows McKeesport is making a comeback. He purchased the former People’s Bank Building from the Redevelopment Authority of the City of McKeesport.
Stark hopes to maintain the building’s use as a multi-tenant office building. In its eight floors, which once housed professional offices for dentists, attorneys, and even the city treasury, he sees potential for small offices, large corporate-style offices, a community space for recreation, and a destination restaurant like those in various Pittsburgh landmarks.
“In a year, this could be a huge failure or an incredible success,” Stark said of his endeavor. “What I do know is that this is an exciting, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I would have regretted if I didn’t try. There’s a lot history here – not just in this building, but in all of McKeesport.”
Stark started a Facebook page to document his finds and progress, and he’s getting positive feedback with every post. Not only are current and former McKeesporters enjoying the nostalgia of watching the building evolve, but they know how significant it is for the local economy.
“This project is extremely important to the city,” Stark said. “It could spark even more development downtown.”
With the great things happening in McKeesport – whether it’s within the RIDC park, along the Walnut Street corridor, or downtown – Stark said he’s happy to be part of it. In addition to reviving the People’s Building, he’s set to develop a parcel at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Market Street.
“I’ve been somewhat of an ambassador for McKeesport,” Stark said. “The people who live here or are already investing here know the city’s potential. I spend a lot of time telling others how successful you can be here and how many opportunities there are.”
Love: Helene Moux
Altrusa International is dedicated to building better communities through the positive impact its members can have through volunteerism, donations, and small efforts that truly add up.
Helene Moux serves as president of the Altrusa Club of McKeesport and sought a grant from the international organization to bring Christmas gifts and everyday necessities to students in need after visiting Twin Rivers Elementary School’s CANOES afterschool program.
“Not every child may be in need, but there are definitely members of our community who are experiencing extreme poverty,” Helene said. “The more tools you can give a child to build a positive foundation in their lives really can bring them hope.”
Helene worked with McKeesport Area School District’s elementary literacy coach Dr. Amy Dellapenna to develop a grant application that detailed the CANOES program as well as the needs of the student population. They were awarded $4,000 to buy every CANOES participant holiday pajamas, a book, a stuffed animal, and nonperishable food items to get them through winter break. With the remainder of the grant funds, Altrusa helps to stock a pantry in Twin Rivers’ guidance office with items students can take home on weekends.
“What’s so heartwarming now is that our Altrusa district conference is behind this idea and is now supporting our McKeesport club’s partnership with CANOES,” Helene said. “It’s truly humbling.”
Helene believes that every child deserves a chance to succeed in life, and if taking away some of their daily stress can help, then she’s willing to do what she can.
“We are all created equal, and we don’t equally get in our society,” she said. “In a community, it takes people to step up and do something, and not think that someone else is going to do it. If everyone had the mindset that someone else is going to help, no one would.”
Living the Message
The McKeesport Message Committee, a subgroup of McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko’s Select Committee on Crime and Violence, invites the public to nominate community members who exemplify the words, “Respect, Dignity, Hope and Love.”
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 Nov. 15.
Originally published October 09, 2019.