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Gift to capital campaign honors commitment to inclusion
A medallion of William Shakespeare that once decorated the front of White’s Opera House in McKeesport is now displayed on the lawn of McKeesport Regional History & Heritage Center. (Tube City Almanac photo)
Staff at the McKeesport Regional History & Heritage Center thought it was a fraud, or an accident, when they were notified of a $10,000 donation that had been received through the organization’s website.
“It came through on PayPal,” said Meagan Donnelly, community outreach coordinator for the museum and historical society in Renziehausen Park. “We thought it was a scam at first, then we were worried that maybe someone meant to send us $10 or $100 and typed in too many zeroes.”
A quick call to Terry Merlin of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., a former White Oak resident and McKeesport Area High School graduate, confirmed the donation was very real and made intentionally.
“Our average donation is more like $5 to $20,” Donnelly said. “For a program or a big event like our golf outing, we may occassionally get a hundred dollars. This was a very pleasant surprise, to say the least.”
Merlin, who has lived in Florida for about 30 years, made the gift in recognition of the Heritage Center’s commitment to inclusion and equality — in particular, an Aug. 2 informational program called “The ABCs of LGBTQ.”
The program, which Donnelly described as non-political and non-partisan, was held in conjunction with the Pittsburgh Equality Center, and was designed to explain basic definitions of human sexuality and gender identity. It was held without a hitch, she said, but not without some controversy.
According to people who observed the exchange, a local woman campaigned on Facebook to organize a boycott of the Heritage Center, and several others threatened to picket or protest the event.
The boycott did not materialize and the protest did not happen. Tube City Almanac was unable to view the messages directly and confirm the content because apparently, the original Facebook poster has blocked this organization from viewing her Facebook page.
Merlin, who began his career as a nurse at McKeesport Hospital, is now the founder and chief executive officer of Merlin Healthcare Group and MHS Staffing Solutions, a healthcare employment and recruitment agency.
He said he has seen first-hand the harm that anti-LGBTQ propaganda and messages cause, especially to young people. Along with a partner, Merlin is currently raising money to building a homeless shelter for LGBTQ teens and young adults in Ft. Lauderdale.
“I think that there are narrow-minded people everywhere,” Merlin said. “Everyone is entitled to their opinion, sometimes those ideas can be harmful to others. The suicide rate in the LGBTQ community, especially among teen-agers, is very high. Negative comments that are made in public forums can have a harmful effect.”
Merlin said the Heritage Center was performing a valuable service by providing programs such as the Aug. 2 event.
“If you don’t agree with being lesbian or gay, then don’t be lesbian or gay,” he said. “The Heritage Center was doing a great thing by trying to educate people.”
Since his business has grown and become successful, Merlin said, he has tried to support organizations in his hometown, including the Heritage Center, the McKeesport Agape Center and the LaRosa Youth Club.
“Those of us who have the resources need to step up to give back,” he said. “There’s so much history that (the Heritage Center has) been able to preserve over the years and I think they do an amazing job with the limited resources they have.”
Founded in 1980 as a genealogy society, the Heritage Center has expanded and now includes a museum, a research library, and McKeesport’s first school house, erected in 1832. A major expansion project is currently underway to add climate-controlled storage space.
In addition to the McKeesport area, the center now provides resources encompassing the neighboring Mon Valley communities such as West Mifflin, Duquesne, Glassport, Port Vue, Liberty, Lincoln and the surrounding area.
Support for the LGBTQ event far exceeded any opposition, Donnelly said. The angry comments came from a small number of people, she said, but were extremely vocal.
It’s not the first time the Heritage Center — which mostly stays under the local radar — has faced an attack recently. One man cancelled his membership last year after the Heritage Center presented a program on Native American history, Donnelly said. In what she described as an “angry” letter, the man accused the center of pushing what he called a “woke” agenda.
“Woke” is the buzzword used by supporters of former President Trump and his allies to target ideas and groups they find objectionable.
Donnelly chalked up the threatened boycott to the current hyper-political social-media climate. The LGBTQ program was meant to be non-controversial and simply educational and informative, she said.
“We’re happy to be be here and happy to represent all citizens of the Mon Valley,” Donnelly said. “We will continue to offer inclusive programs. We are about making sure everyone feels inclusive, whether it’s different cultures, different races, indigenous people — we’re going to make sure everyone feels included.”
Merlin’s donation will be applied to the Heritage Center’s “Moving History Forward” capital campaign, which has a $1 million fundraising target, Donnelly said. The campaign has quietly raised almost $700,000 and the center’s board is hoping both current and former residents and business owners will help take it over the finish line, she said.
Jason Togyer is volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc. and editor of Tube City Almanac.
Originally published August 17, 2023.