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Mayor promises Boys & Girls Club CEO will face ‘a fight like she’s never had’
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City officials, parents and volunteers are blasting a decision by the Boys & Girls Club of Western Pennsylvania to close the LaRosa Boys & Girls Club on Ravine Street.
The Pittsburgh-based organization notified McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko of the closing in a letter to city hall on Wednesday, and with a posting on its website.
In an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Lisa Abel-Palmieri, president and chief executive officer of BGCWPA, called the closure a “merger” of the Duquesne and McKeesport programs, and blamed it on declining attendance in McKeesport and the high cost of overhead, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic.
But Cherepko and two former directors of the LaRosa club said Abel-Palmieri’s statements are not accurate.
“That story in the Post-Gazette made me sick,” said City Administrator Tom Maglicco, who served as executive director of the club for 13 years and sits on its advisory board. “In my opinion, she’s wrong. There is no doubt in my mind there’s enough kids in this community to fill that club.”
Although Abel-Palmieri told the Post-Gazette only 25 kids are currently using the LaRosa Club, Maglicco and other insiders said that a year ago, 150 kids were routinely using programs at the LaRosa Club and the Duquesne-West Mifflin Club.
Popular basketball and hockey programs at the McKeesport club regularly attracted 70 to 100 kids on weeknights, members of the advisory board told Tube City Almanac.
“She’s only getting 25 kids (at LaRosa) right now because that’s all she was allowing,” Cherepko said. “Right now the McKeesport club has a very long waiting list.”
The decision to close the LaRosa Club does not affect the CareerWorks after-school program for young adults operated by the Boys & Girls Club from the second floor of the former Daily News Building on Walnut Street.
The LaRosa Club, named for McKeesport Boys Club founder Sam LaRosa, is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. As of Thursday night, nearly 700 people had signed a Change.org petition protesting the closure.
It is the latest of several suburban Boys & Girls Clubs closed by the Pittsburgh parent organization, including the McKees Rocks club and the Duquesne-West Mifflin Club, which closed this summer, over the protests of parents.
Programming at Hosanna House in Wilkinsburg also has been discontinued.
“I’m seeing a pattern where I see them closing these clubs in areas that need them the most,” Cherepko said.
“I don’t see how they think it’s OK to close the clubs in the areas that need them the most, while in more affluent areas they’re going to keep the clubs open because those kids can afford to pay more,” he said.
The Boys & Girls Club now offers an after-school program at the Orchard Park apartment complex in Duquesne and has promised before-school and after-school programs at Duquesne Education Center.
In an announcement posted Wednesday on the Boys & Girls Club’s website, the parent organization said the decision to close the LaRosa Club and direct resources to the Orchard Park program was “based on an assessment of current opportunities for after-school care.”
“Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania will offer free transportation to students who have been members of the LaRosa program so they can attend the Duquesne program,” the announcement said.
According to the announcement, the parent organization also is “compiling information for families about other after-school programs available in the McKeesport area if families are interested in attending those programs and not going to our sites in Duquesne.”
Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania “will continue to work to plan innovative programming for your children in the coming months and is working on strategic efforts to do a community needs assessment as we determine through feasibility studies the best location going forward for a state-of-the-art new clubhouse in the Mon Valley,” the announcement said.
But the mayor and others said that many participants in programs at LaRosa are McKeesport residents who live in the nearby neighborhoods, and walk to the club, which is about a half-mile from Carnegie Library of McKeesport and Twin Rivers Primary-Intermediary School.
Maglicco and Barry said in their opinion, the offer of bus transportation is little more than an attempt to pacify the community’s anger.
“I haven’t encountered one parent who was willing to do that,” Barry said. “Imagine during a pandemic putting your 6-year-old on the bus to go to Duquesne with people you don’t know.”
Besides tutoring and mentoring programs, the most popular programs at LaRosa included afterschool basketball and hockey leagues, he said.
Barry, who was former director of special projects for the Boys & Girls Club, said he was fired this summer, along with the program manager of the Duquesne club, Pat Bluett.
He said that Abel-Palmieri has labeled him a “disgruntled employee” but he disputes the claim.
“She’s attributing everything to sour grapes by former employees,” Barry said. “I’ve been involved in the Boys & Girls Club movement for 49 years. I was there as a kid and I went back in the 1980s to coach sports and volunteer, and I didn’t even have kids of my own yet.”
Barry said he was asked by Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania to become an employee in 2011 and had to step down from an executive position at another organization.
“I didn’t need the job,” he said. “I had to take a 40 percent pay cut. But I’ve dedicated much of my life to the Boys & Girls Club because I want to continue the legacy of Sam LaRosa.”
Abel-Palmieri was named CEO of the parent organization two years ago. Barry said after she took over Boys & Girls Club of Western Pennsylvania, membership fees at the LaRosa and Duquesne clubs were doubled from $20 to $40 per month, per child, and discounts given for families with multiple children were eliminated.
“They want to move to more of a fee-for-service model,” Barry said. “I don’t want to hear about COVID or anything else. This was a financial decision.”
Barry said his son, Jim Barry III, who was serving as program manager of the LaRosa club, was fired this week.
The LaRosa Club was originally independent but in 1974 merged with other Pittsburgh-area Boys & Girls Clubs into a regional organization.
Although there is a local advisory board, Maglicco and Barry said its advice has been more or less ignored by Abel-Palmieri since she became CEO of the regional organization two years ago.
“I don’t think she even recognizes us,” said Maglicco, who serves on the board.
McKeesport officials said the city has used $300,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant funding to pay for multiple improvements to the LaRosa club, including three new roofs in 2018, new LED lighting, bathroom renovations and new ceilings.
The bathroom renovations were completed earlier this year.
In her letter to city officials, Abel-Palmieri offered to sell the LaRosa club to McKeesport at fair market value. Cherepko and others said the offer was offensive.
“She’s going to get a fight like she’s never had,” Cherepko said. “If she insists on closing it, we want the building that the LaRosa family so generously donated to the community years ago.”
Maglicco said that besides the city’s support and donations from the LaRosa family, the club also was the recipient of hundreds of thousands of dollars from the family of G.C. Murphy Co. chairman Walter C. Shaw Sr., as well as the G.C. Murphy Co. Foundation, the E.R. Crawford Estate, the Peters Foundation and others.
“All of that money that was raised by the community over the years, and she’s just wiping it away?” Maglicco said.
Despite the promise of a new Mon Valley clubhouse, Maglicco said he feels that the Pittsburgh organization has broken promises to the McKeesport area before.
When the LaRosa Club was forced to temporarily close in March and April due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Abel-Palmieri promised to bus McKeesport kids to summer camp, Maglicco said. “She never bused any kids to summer camp,” he said.
The announcement of the club’s closure feels like the death “of a loved one,” he said.
“We are turning these kids back into the street, and it’s just disheartening,” Maglicco said. “This is a club that has done so much for our community. This club saved many kids’ lives. We were latchkey kids. That’s where we went after school.”
Statement from the Boys & Girls Club of Western Pennsylvania:
LaRosa of McKeesport Clubhouse Update
Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania LaRosa of Mckeesport Clubhouse and our Duquesne Clubhouses are merging effective December 1st. Starting on December 1st, LaRosa of McKeesport Clubhouse members will have the opportunity to attend our Orchard Park Clubhouse in Duquesne. Please express your interest in attending Orchard Park Clubhouse on this Google Form.
Based on an assessment of current opportunities for after-school care, the determination was made to direct resources to our operations in Duquesne. In other words, youth from all three Clubhouses and communities will continue to be served at the Duquesne sites, while the McKeesport LaRosa Clubhouse will close; however, Boys & Girls Clubs of Western PA will offer free transportation to students who have been members of the LaRosa program so they can attend the Duquesne program, should they choose and be provided with scholarships to attend the after school program through the partnership with BGCWPA and Allegheny Department of Human Services. Again, free transportation and free programming will be offered to current McKeesport Clubhouse families if they choose to participate.
Boys & Girls Clubs of Western PA is also compiling information for families about other after-school programs available in the McKeesport area if families are interested in attending those programs and not going to our sites in Duquesne.
BGCWPA will ensure that in the coming months we prepare to identify summer camp options for the families in McKeesport and share this information with families.
For the first time ever, McKeesport families will be able to apply for Child Care Works funding, meaning that families will be invited to apply for government subsidy based on household income, and work requirements. We will partner with the Early Learning Resource Center 5 in Allegheny County to answer all of your questions. This means that the cost for Before and After school care could be subsidized allowing you to afford High Quality Care for your children at an affordable cost for your family.
75 years ago, Sam LaRosa started the Boys’ Club of McKeesport in an effort to keep boys in McKeesport engaged in positive activities and over the years the Club has worked with hundreds of children to continue this legacy. BGCWPA is committed to ensuring Mr. LaRosa’s vision lives on through our other programs and services and looks forward to expanding that vision into the future. BGCWPA understands now more than ever the delicate balance of caring for children to ensure safety, health and security while maintaining business operations in a responsible way so that we can continue to serve our members and beyond. COVID-19 has impacted the world in ways that no one anticipated, but we have worked tirelessly to act quickly to serve those who need us most. In fact, BGCWPA has implemented Club on the Go, virtual learning through Outschool, both stand alone and school based Clubhouses in Duquesne and other locations, BGCWPA is stepping up to address the continuation of urgent needs and leading the way to help youth and communities overcome the long-term impacts of the COVID-19 crisis. In the Mon Valley we have held hot food truck events free of charge, delivered hundreds of boxes of food, cleaning products, clothing and pizzas. Visit our website at http://www.bgcwpa.org to look at the yellow bar on the top where you can access a form to request these types of resources.
BGCWPA will continue to work to plan innovative programming for your child/ren in the coming months and is working on strategic efforts to do a community needs assessment as we determine through feasibility studies the best location going forward for a state of the art new Clubhouse in the Mon Valley. Questions about this merger should be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org
Again, please express your interest in attending Orchard Park Clubhouse on this Google Form.
Response from McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko
Jason Togyer is editor of Tube City Almanac and volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc. He may be reached at email@example.com.
Originally published November 19, 2020.