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LaRosa Grandson ‘Disheartened’ By Club’s Closing

State rep expresses ‘extreme disappointment’ in parent organization

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
November 20, 2020
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

McKeesport’s Boys & Girls Club bears the names of both founder Sam LaRosa and benefactor Walter C. Shaw Sr. (Tube City Almanac photo)

The grandson of the founder of the LaRosa Boys & Girls Club is surprised and disappointed by the parent organization’s decision to close the 75-year-old institution on Ravine Street.

Don Michel of Cranberry Twp., whose grandfather, the late Samuel R. LaRosa, founded the club in 1945, served on the board of directors of Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania for more than 10 years, until July 1.

Michel, who had also served as vice chair of the board for the past five years, said the relationship between the Pittsburgh-based parent organization and the suburban clubhouses has been deteriorating.

“What I see is a shift away from operating brick and mortar facilities that carry high levels of overhead, and trying to shift to operating in somebody else’s facilities,” Michel said Friday. “So we’re no longer a safe place for kids to gather. We’re a provider of programming.”

On Wednesday, Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania, or BGCWPA, which absorbed the McKeesport organization in 1974, announced the LaRosa Club would close permanently on Dec. 1.

The announcement surprised members of its local advisory board, which includes Michel as well as City Administrator Tom Maglicco and Councilman Jim Barry Jr., both of whom are former LaRosa Club employees and longtime volunteers.

On Friday, state Rep. Austin Davis, McKeesport Democrat, sent a letter to BGCWPA expressing his “extreme disappointment and opposition” to the closing.

“Prior to making this decision there should have been input from community members, families, youth and stakeholders,” Davis said. “Instead, we were all blindsided by this decision.”

In an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Lisa Abel-Palmieri, chief executive officer of BGCWPA, said the decision was made because of low attendance, high overhead and expenses related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Abel-Palmieri also said BGCWPA is looking for locations for a new clubhouse that would serve the entire Mon Valley area.

In June, the BGCWPA closed the Duquesne-West Mifflin clubhouse and fired longtime program manager Pat Bluett, moves that caused outrage and sparked a petition drive.

Some programming continues in Duquesne at the Orchard Park housing complex. BGCWPA has offered to bus children from McKeesport to Orchard Park to participate in that programming.

In his letter, which was addressed to Abel-Palmieri and Robert Luffy, chair of the BGCWPA board of directors, Davis said the closure of the McKeesport and Duquesne-West Mifflin clubs “highlights that your organization no longer has an interest or desire to serve low-income communities.”

Clubhouses in McKees Rocks and Wilkinsburg also have been closed in recent years. BGCWPA maintains facilities in Pittsburgh’s Shadyside and Lawrenceville neighborhoods as well as Shaler Twp. and Carnegie.

It’s unclear when the parent organization decided to close the LaRosa Club, whose sprawling property includes a baseball field, sports pavilion, gymnasium, dek-hockey court and classrooms and offices.

According to documents reviewed by Tube City Almanac, BGCWPA was still soliciting contributions just a few months ago to provide “37 weeks of programming at our LaRosa of McKeesport Clubhouse location.”

Neither Abel-Palmieri or Abby Blake, director of advancement at BGCWPA, responded to an email Friday from Tube City Almanac seeking comment.

The Pittsburgh Press Sunday Roto magazine profiled LaRosa in 1970 on the club’s 25th anniversary. (Tube City Almanac file)

Sam LaRosa, who died in 2003, was a 1932 graduate of McKeesport High School who suffered polio as a child and struggled to walk for the rest of his life.

Although LaRosa loved sports, he was unable to play the most physically demanding games, so he volunteered to manage and coach his classmates, according to a 1978 interview in The Pittsburgh Press.

The experience led him to apply for a charter for the McKeesport Boys Club in 1945.

After 11 years of fundraising — including donations from singer Perry Como and Walter C. Shaw, Sr., chairman of McKeesport-based G.C. Murphy Co. — the Boys Club purchased property on Ravine Street and broke ground for a permanent clubhouse.

The building has expanded several times since then, most recently with the addition of an outdoor sports pavilion in 2009.

Michel said LaRosa maintained an office at the club even after his official retirement in 1978 and continued working with youth until he became too ill to visit in the early 2000s.

“He’s one of the greatest men that I ever knew,” Michel said. “What a model — a shining example. And I model my life after his, and I try to live up to the high standards that he set.

“In terms of serving others and taking care of people in the community, his ingrained values were integrity, trust, respect and love,” Michel said. “If you’re centered around those you’re a good solid human.”

Abel-Palmieri was named CEO of the parent organization in 2018. Michel, who said he pushed for more community representation on the BGCWPA board, not less, said he was not surprised this summer when he was not asked to continue serving as a director.

“They told me (the board) had become too large and unwieldy,” he said.

Michel said he and other members of the LaRosa advisory board were stunned Wednesday morning to receive an email saying the club was closing. There was no warning from the parent organization beforehand, he said.

It was “disheartening” for McKeesport to be informed of the decision after it was already made, Michel said.

“There are hundreds of years of experience living in that community — many of the people on that board were members of the club when they were younger,” he said. “They understand the value of the club. And we could have provided meaningful input to (BGCWPA) to help them make the right decision.”

Although the LaRosa Club and Duquesne-West Mifflin Club did not make a profit, he said, they were charities and were never meant to. Neither club operated at a deficit either, Michel added.

“It all depends on how you present the books,” he said.

“It’s curious about the decision-making for the closure of those brick-and-mortar facilities,” Michel said. “So you close the facilities in McKees Rocks, Duquesne-West Mifflin, McKeesport, but you leave the facilities in Shaler, Carnegie, Lawrenceville. Do you see some similarities and differences between the demographics of those neighborhoods?”

(Tube City Almanac photo)

Davis and McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko have both urged BGCWPA to donate the LaRosa property to another qualified tax-exempt organization that would continue to operate it as a community recreation center for neighborhood kids.

Both also raised the issue of $300,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant money — allocated to the city of McKeesport by the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development — that was used to put three new roofs on the LaRosa complex in 2018.

Davis said he had written “various letters” supporting grant applications by BGCWPA. He noted that the organization also had promised to bring STEM programming to the LaRosa Club from the PPG AI Pathways Institute and Teen Accelerator.

“I am not sure why the sudden change of mind, or why suddenly you feel this location is not deserving of the new programming, but our youth deserve these programs,” he said.

Davis, who said he spent “countless hours” at the LaRosa Club as a child, urged BGCWPA to “do the right thing” and turn the property over to the city.

Michel said he suspects BGCWPA leadership is surprised at how vocal and vehement McKeesport is about preserving the LaRosa Club.

“It was always about the kids and always about the mission — doing whatever is necessary to ensure that every kid in that community has a chance at a great future,” he said. “We have a passionate group of people who are aligned together to make sure the kids of the McKeesport area are able to succeed in life. We are passionate and we’ve got a plan.”

Jason Togyer is editor of Tube City Almanac and volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc. He may be reached at jtogyer@gmail.com.

State Rep. Austin Davis’ letter to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania:

Originally published November 20, 2020.

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