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(Above: Jason DeFelice, U.S. Air Force senior master sergeant (retired), and McKeesport Mayor Mike Cherepko. Tube City Almanac photo.)
Four people were honored this month by McKeesport Mayor Mike Cherepko and the McKeesport Message Committee for upholding the values of respect, dignity, hope and love.
A subgroup of the mayor's Select Committee on Crime and Violence, the committee accepts nominations from the public and makes the selections four times per year.
Citations were presented at the April 5 city council meeting to U.S. Air Force Senior Master Sgt. (retired) Jason DeFelice; Sharon Soles; Coach Gerald Grayson; and McKeesport Area High School senior Hannah Klingensmith.
In the heart of McKeesport Area High School, students are learning the basics of citizenship through a revived JROTC program.
U.S. Air Force Senior Master Sgt. (retired) Jason DeFelice, a McKeesport native who left the city in 1991 to join the Air Force, has returned to his alma mater to lead daily classes for the McKeesport Area High School Air Force Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps.
After 24 years of active duty, DeFelice knew it was time to retire and begin a new career. He was inspired by his grandfather, a decorated World War II Purple Heart veteran, to share with fellow McKeesport Area students the wealth of knowledge and experience he gained in the Air Force.
JROTC students follow Leadership Education 100 curriculum through topics including military uniforms, ethics, respect, study skills, health and nutrition, avoiding drugs and violence, stress management, and citizenship. DeFelice said he also takes time to address topics students want to pursue, such as job readiness and interview skills.
Since returning to McKeesport, DeFelice has promised to create the best program possible for local students. He wants them to become great citizens and community leaders who know their purpose in life.
“To earn respect, you have to give respect,” DeFelice said. “This program teaches our students how to respect people – how to respect adults, how to respect their peers, and how to respect themselves. I treat every cadet with respect, and that means a lot to them. I address each one of them as Sir and Ma’am, and they start to talk to others the same way.”
DeFelice said he’s already seen a change in his students, and he believes it’s maturity. Every day, he works on boosting students’ good habits and dissolving their bad ones.
“They’re learning leadership and discipline along with community service and life skills,” he said. “Every one of my students is becoming a better citizen, and that’s what McKeesport’s message is all about.”
(Tube City Almanac photo)
Sharon Soles is a native McKeesporter who does everything one woman can to make her hometown a better place.
“I’m a Downtown McKeesport girl --- born and raised,” she said. “As a young child, my family lived in the area of Water Street, Tube Works Alley, Strawberry Alley, Vic Street. I went to St. Peter's Catholic High School and CCAC when there was a McKeesport campus.”
As a young adult, Soles lived in the heart of McKeesport’s bustling downtown --- immersing herself in the shopping district’s high-class culture and nightlife. She went on to study business in Monroeville and city planning in Pittsburgh.
Soles has fond memories of McKeesport’s heyday.
“I remember the Palisades as it was back then, and my parents met there,” Soles said of her beloved John “Scrappy” Dobos and Nellie (Covallo) Dobos. “I still love the Palisades, and that’s why I’m so involved with it.”
Working with GTECH Strategies as a ReClaim McKeesport ambassador in 2015, Soles designed a butterfly garden to complement the existing landscape of the Palisades grounds and gateway into the Great Allegheny Passage via the Marina at McKees Point.
Soles is the president of the Kiwanis Club of McKeesport/White Oak and a board member of the McKeesport Trail Commission. She is active in the McKeesport Lions Club and on the McKeesport International Village Committee. She is a member of the McKeesport Regional History and Heritage Center’s board of directors and works on the Mon River Fleet Women of Achievement committee.
She accepts each of these roles with grace and dignity as she strives to keep McKeesport poised for growth on the grassroots level.
“Every person can make a difference,” Soles said. “McKeesport needs our help, and every one of us should take time to volunteer. We are trying to bring McKeesport back or turn it into something brand new.”
Soles is married to McKeesport Councilman Keith Soles. She has one daughter and four grandchildren.
(Tube City Almanac photo)
Gerald Grayson, known as "Puddin’" in his youth and "Coach" in his adult life, has been a household name in McKeesport sports for decades. But his impact on the players, rather than the game, is what has earned Grayson the affection of the McKeesport community.
A teacher by trade, Grayson has been coaching boys and girls basketball since 1972 --- spending time courtside in Duquesne and Elizabeth Forward in addition to his work in McKeesport Area schools.
“My role isn’t the coaching. We have a whole crew to do that,” Grayson said. “I’m out there to teach them what a real man is. I’m teaching respect. I’m teaching teenagers to be young adults.”
Grayson also mentors elementary-age boys twice a week at Twin Rivers Primary/Intermediate School, teaching good manners, positive language, kindness, respect and love.
“Kindness is a sign of strength, and many young people don’t know that,” Grayson said. “People have it all mixed up! They think the guy selling the drugs or the guy with the guns is the real man, and that’s just not true. We clear that right up. We show these boys that real men don’t give in to peer pressure.”
Grayson shares experiences about his own peers who made poor choices. He talks about friends who went to jail or saw their lives fall apart. Many of the boys he meets can relate to that.
“A lot of young boys don’t have men in their lives,” he said. “That’s me. I become a grand-pap to them.”
Grayson is proud to say his students want to start a “No Cuss Club,” that encourages children to talk to their peers with respect.
The most impact Grayson can have on McKeesport’s youth is to be a positive role model for future generations --- giving hope to the children he mentors and to the community he serves.
Grayson is a deacon at Bethlehem Baptist Church of McKeesport. He and his wife, Patricia Grayson, have three children and ten grandchildren.
(Tube City Almanac photo)
McKeesport Area High School senior Hannah Klingensmith wants to share her time and talents with local people who may be less fortunate than herself.
“My parents (William and Lynda Klingensmith) made me know I am,” she said. “I know it sounds cheesy, but they taught me how to look outside of our family, to pay close attention to other people’s experiences and situations.”
With local families in mind, Klingensmith started a toy drive around Christmastime. Through social media, she found families in McKeesport, Wilkinsburg and Penn Hills who needed assistance in finding gifts for their children. Klingensmith got classmates to sponsor individual children, and she received open donations from stores as well as monetary contributions from the community.
“My parents gave everything they could to me,” Klingensmith said. “They put themselves second. There are a lot of people out there trying to do the same, and if I can make it a little easier for them, I will do that. If I can bring toys and other gifts for the children, it takes some stress off the parents. They can put that money – that attention – toward something else.”
Klingensmith wants her next community service project to include a garden – either inviting others to take part in a public garden or growing food on her own to give to local families in need.
“I give my extra time to show people that if you can show people love, it makes the world a better place,” she said.
Klingensmith is the senior class president. She is active in the National Honor Society, Student Council, musicals and volleyball. She is a cheerleader with Miller’s Gym Stars and works part time at Fellini’s Pizzeria.
While she finishes high school, Klingensmith is dual enrolled at the Community College of Allegheny County. She has earned 21 college credits to date (including AP testing in her high school courses), and is set to finish a degree in Occupational Therapy at Clarion University in just three years.
“It’s a hands on career where I can help people every day,” Klingensmith said.
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 May 31, 2017.
Originally published April 25, 2017.