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McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko presents a citation to youth leader Helene Phelps of the McKeesport Black Berets for upholding the value of "Respect." (Tube City Almanac photo)
Four people were honored this month by McKeesport Mayor Mike Cherepko for upholding the city's message of "Respect, Dignity, Hope and Love."
Citations were presented at the Oct. 5 city council meeting to Helene Phelps, Janet Kulis and Jason Togyer. The fourth recipient, Arlen Harper, was unable to be present at the meeting. Biographies of the winners, written by Jennifer Vertullo, assistant to the mayor, follow.
Respect: Helene Phelps has more than 40 years in the Black Berets. At just 17 years old, she joined her cousin and a friend from Pittsburgh’s North Side in creating a step team for girls whose families couldn’t afford to put their girls into performance groups with high-priced dues.
“My parents were poor,” Helene recalled. “There was a group I wanted to be in, but I couldn’t afford the boots. We got a few girls together and started doing our own thing. We made something for ourselves.”
That go-getter attitude guaranteed success for Helene and for the Black Berets. She has worked with generations of elementary-age and teen girls – instilling not only dance skills, but everyday life lessons as well. With each generation, Helene said, comes a new set of challenges. But with a bit of discipline and hard work, anything is possible.
Helene said much of her work with the Black Berets is about teaching respect and values. She wants girls to learn discipline in their craft, in their education and in their social lives.
“I want to see these girls do well in school,” Helene said. “I want to see them go to college. I want them to look at someone like Swin Cash, who had one of her roots in the Black Berets, and know that they can make it, too.”
Helene credits her mother Mary Phelps, who passed away in October 2015, as a great inspiration who kept her motivated, and in turn, helped her keep the Black Berets going.
Helene also is a youth leader at St. Paul AME Church of McKeesport, applying the same life lessons there as she conveys to the Black Berets.
Above: McKeesport Mayor Mike Cherepko with Janet Kulis, who was honored for upholding the value of "Dignity."
Dignity: Janet Kulis, a trustee on the Kane Foundation board, has a special place in her heart for the John J. Kane Regional Center of McKeesport.
Janet and her cousin, the late Joan Burns, formed the McKeesport Kane Family Council in 2009, when their mothers were residents of the local nursing home. Seeing a common need for information, and resources, the council began as a source of support and encouragement to families and friends whose loved ones lived at Kane.
The McKeesport Kame Family Council started with an education theme. It was a means to exchange information and ideas. Over the years, the council has brought enlightening speakers to Kane, including elder care attorneys, representatives of the Department of Aging, local legislators, and staff from the District Attorney’s office.
Janet and other members of the Kane family council work closely with the Kane administration to guarantee their loved ones are living engaged, dignified and fulfilling lives. They also apply for grant funding on behalf of the residents --- purchasing big-screen TVs for common areas, flat-screen TVs for private rooms, automated external defibrillators, and other medical equipment.
Janet carries on the Kane Family Council and other Kane initiatives in Burns’ memory, including the Kane Walk 4 Fun each fall. This year’s event is planned for September 17. Proceeds from the fun walk go toward special events and extracurricular activities that keep Kane residents connected with the community, including shopping trips, restaurant visits, Pirates baseball games, Steeler camp visits, and entertainment.
Hope: Jason Togyer is a lifelong resident of the Mon Valley. A former newspaper reporter at the Observer-Reporter of Washington, Pa., the McKeesport Daily News and the Tribune-Review of Greensburg, Pa., Togyer is the founder and executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc., a non-profit corporation that runs the Tube City Online and McKeesport Obituaries websites as well as Internet radio station WMCK.FM.
A graduate of Serra Catholic High School and Carnegie Mellon University, he is a member of the vestry at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in McKeesport, a board member of the McKeesport Regional History & Heritage Center as well as WRCT Radio Inc. in Pittsburgh, and a vice president of the G.C. Murphy Co. Foundation in McKeesport.
Jason’s love of history and his marketing talents brought him to the forefront of McKeesport’s plan to market its recently acquired the former Penn-McKee Hotel at Fifth Avenue and Strawberry Alley. Built in 1926 with a sold frame of steel and concrete, this once-booming hotel was designed by architect Benno Janssen.
The hotel was widely popular and earned the saying that if something of significance happened in the Mon Valley, “it probably happened at the Penn-McKee.” That includes a debate between then-freshmen Congressmen Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy on the Taft-Hartley Labor Act.
Drawing on the architectural and historic significance of the Penn-McKee, Jason pieced together a marketing packet to sell the former hotel as a new destination in the McKeesport cityscape. With an untouchably positive perspective on revitalization, Jason shares the city’s vision for a multi-faceted rebirth of the Penn-McKee, which could include anything from retail storefronts to office space, or even a chic hotel component.
Formerly assistant director of communications at the Carnegie Mellon University School of Computer Science in Pittsburgh, on Aug. 22 he became communications manager for the Mon Valley Initiative in Homestead. He and his wife, Denise L. Ritter, live in West Mifflin.
Love: Arlen Harper is committed to his spirituality and to the youth of McKeesport. At just 22 years old, he has become a community leader through his involvement at Trinity Church of God in Christ.
In 2012, Arlen started a youth organization called The Future is Ours, which helps children of all ages work to better themselves and the community in which they live. While the organization doesn’t host formal meetings, it plans community events and gives children a place to go.
Arlen’s role within the Trinity Church of God in Christ has given him the courage to reach out to his community. As a young minister, he believes his faith is strong enough to have a positive impact on others.
Focusing on Ephesians 4:3-6, Arlen’s love of the community grew this year in his development of the Spirit of Praise gospel jubilee. Partnering with the McKeesport Area Ministerium and bringing together church groups of various denominations, Arlen sought to open Renziehausen Park to the sights and sounds of creative displays of faith. Spirit of Praise featured choral groups, soloists, praise dancers and mime troupes together to share in their faith.
The message of Ephesians, Arlen said, is important in today’s society because it is about peace and hope: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
Arlen is a 2012 McKeesport Area High School graduate who is studying criminal justice administration and cyber crimes at the University of Phoenix. He is a local constable in McKeesport.
Originally published October 14, 2016.