(Above: Keith Murphy was one of four people honored at Monday night's special city council meeting for living the "McKeesport Message." Tube City Almanac photo: Jason Togyer)
Four city residents were presented with proclamations on Monday night for living the "McKeesport Message" of Respect, Dignity, Hope and Love.
McKeesport Mayor Mike Cherepko made the presentations before a special meeting of city council.
The recipients were nominated by the McKeesport Message Committee, a subgroup of the mayor's Select Committee on Crime and Violence.
Honored were Regis Mellinger for the value of "Respect," Keenon Mikell for "Dignity," Keith Murphy for "Hope" and Dee Connor for "Love." Biographies of the awardees are below.
Respect: Regis Mellinger
(Tube City Almanac photo: Jason Togyer)
Regis Mellinger moved into the city of McKeesport with community goals in mind. He’s native to the area and a 2007 McKeesport Area High School graduate, but he’s only lived within city limits for about a year.
Not too long ago, Mellinger approached McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko and City Council about starting a “Brand New McKeesport” initiative, which focused on the city’s image.
“There are so many nice things that go on in McKeesport and so many nice sights to be seen,” Mellinger said. “We are hounded by negativity, and I felt our city needed an outlet for the positive. Once people see there are good things happening in this city, it could bring a real turnaround. It can have exponential impacts. That’s why I wanted to get more involved.”
Mellinger’s personal vision fits well with Cherepko’s motto of “Working Together for a Better McKeesport.” The mayor encourages citizen engagement and grassroots efforts improve neighborhoods and build a sense of community.
Mellinger started a “Brand New McKeesport” group, encouraging followers on Facebook, and organizes regular neighborhood cleanups for trash removal.
“I want to show people that it doesn’t have to be this way,” Mellinger said, in reference to the trash and debris that often contributes to blight. “Small improvements can add up to great improvements. Every time a little paper plate is picked up or even a tire, it makes McKeesport just a little bit better. We all play a role in that. Future generations will have a city they can love, and it continues.”
Mellinger, his friends and a few strangers have been out about a dozen times, and they’ve made a noticeable impact. He has inspired others to follow suit, and they’re out there cleaning up their “little corner of the world.”
After graduating high school, Mellinger attended Penn State Greater Allegheny for two years and went on the Main Campus at University Park to earn a bachelor’s degree in economics and a minor in Chinese. He has a great love of and nature, and he envisions an economic change for McKeesport inspired by environmental improvements.
“We all want to make a difference in huge, abstract ways,” he said. “This is so simple, and that’s why I know I could make a difference in this way – the simplicity of it. A clean McKeesport will lead to a more viable McKeesport.”
In his spare time, Mellinger enjoys boating, gardening and other outdoor activities. He said every individual should apply his or her strengths and interests to improving their communities.
“We all need to work together to make things better,” he said. “Everybody has different gifts and talents. For these gifts to work together, respecting each other is very important.”
When people have issues – community or individual – that need resolved, Mellinger said it’s easy for anger and distress to set the tone. He believes it’s important for the notion of respect to prevail so that solutions can be reached.
“Having respect for our elected officials is what has enabled me to do things like cleaning up,” he said. “If I wouldn’t have come forth respectfully, I never would have been welcomed come back to share what we are doing. There’s a more positive strength in numbers, whether we are coming together to work or simply to talk.”
Dignity: Keenon Mikell
(Tube City Almanac photo: Jason Togyer)
Keenon Mikell isn’t proud of some of his life choices, but he is happy to be making a difference in the lives of others who have fallen down a similar path.
Today, Mikell is a case manager and life coach with First Step Recovery Homes. In his youth, he admitted, he sold drugs alongside the male role models in his life.
“I was a part of that culture, and when I learned that this wasn’t the norm, it was something I had to overcome,” he said. “I’m trying to reverse the damage I did.”
Mikell studied social work at the Community College of Allegheny County and earned an associate’s degree. He’s currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh.
“I participated in a practicum on drugs and alcohol, and as I was teaching, I was also learning,” he recalled. “I never used drugs, but I was selling them. When I saw what drug abuse does to people – their health, their families – it redirected my moral compass.”
Born and raised in New York City, Mikell was a frequent visitor to McKeesport, where he had friends and family. He’s lived here for 20 years, and said he’s happy to be involved in the community.
He gained valuable experience through an internship at the LaRosa Boys and Girls Club, and now facilitates support groups and other programs at First Step. His programs are designed to promote family reunification, employment, education, substance abuse recovery, and independent housing.
Mikell has success with these ventures because he’s speaking from his heart and from experience. He’s relatable to his clients because he’s been where they are. He has experienced a moral and social reprogramming that has made him the productive citizen he is today.
“There’s a stigma that comes with this,” Mikell said. “But I don’t come in here with any prejudgement. I try to put myself in their shoes.”
Mikell said he wants to reinvest in manhood and guide today’s young men, as well as older gentlemen who are trying to turn their lives around, through a process that will lead to success and a sense of dignity that will remain with them for a lifetime.
“In the African-American population, there’s a lack of structure in teaching how to be men,” he said. “When you throw substance abuse into the mix, you don’t only have misinformation, you have people who have been misguided.”
Mikell’s generous heart extends beyond his line of work. He has volunteered with several agencies, including the Samaria Project, which guides children through mental health issues. He also helped transport 5,000 gallons of clean water to Flint, Michigan, during a contamination crisis.
“Every time I see a social issue I can get my hands in, I step up and try to volunteer,” he said.
Hope: Keith Murphy
(Tube City Almanac photo: Jason Togyer)
Keith Murphy believes today’s McKeesporters are responsible for building a community that will bring hope to future generations.
Murphy is a McKeesport native who returned to his hometown as an adult after stints in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, to work with inner city youth across the Greater Pittsburgh region through the Bethany House Academy.
In McKeesport, he created the Healthy Village Institute, drawing from the African proverb that, “It takes a village to raise a child.” If the village is not healthy, Murphy asked himself, can we truly raise healthy children? In response, he adopted the motto, “It takes a healthy village to raise a healthy child.”
Murphy recalls the McKeesport of his youth, when a sense of community was valued.
“The relationships were decades long, and they’ve always been filled with respect and engagement for the benefit of the community,” Murphy said. “This (concept) supersedes anything related to politics, religion, and even race. We must ask ourselves, ‘How do we create a McKeesport that is respectful, honorable, and inclusive?’”
Murphy sees the Healthy Village Institute as a safe haven for youth who want to see a bigger picture.
“I’m providing a venue so the excuse is missing,” he said. “We are making sure everyone has a place to do and something to do.”
Murphy works with youth ages 5 to 21. He recruits participants from McKeesport Area schools, churches, social service agencies, and neighborhood families. Healthy Village programming includes STREAM (Science, Technology, Research, Engineering, Arts, and Math) education initiatives.
“We want to prepare kids to be college ready,” he said, focusing on a student’s ability to gather primary, secondary and tertiary resources for their assignments. “Everybody is learning a new method of research from somebody else.”
Murphy is confident that his contribution will help the McKeesport community achieve its goals, but he noted that everyone must be focused on the same basic ideas of providing safety to our youth while instilling a sense of non-violence and respect.
Murphy said societies are judged on how they treat their youngest and oldest citizens, and he believes children who learn to respect their elders have a better understanding of their own responsibilities now and in the future. That’s why he and a team of respected elders guide students through various character-building programs.
“Hope isn’t going to happen by crossing your fingers,” Murphy said. “If you hope to graduate high school or you hope to live past 21, you need to make the right choices. You can make the future you hope for a reality, but if you are making the wrong choices, hope is not going to help you.”
Love: Dee Connor
(Tube City Almanac photo: Jason Togyer)
Most people think of retirement as a time of leisure, but Dee Connor is known for spending her free time helping her hometown.
Connor returned to McKeesport in 1980 – leaving her home in Mt. Lebanon to care for her mother, who had suffered a heart attack. She left the business world, having worked for Liberty Mutual insurance and as assistant to the president of the Better Business Bureau, for a job at John J. Kane Regional Center of McKeesport.
Today, Connor lives in the Upper Seventh Ward home where she was born and raised. Her volunteer work began in 2003, when she retired from Kane.
Connor is the vice chair of the Redevelopment Authority of the City of McKeesport, a member of the city’s Zoning Hearing Board, and a board member for the Renzie Seniors social group that meets in Renziehausen Park.
Connor’s most notable role is with the city’s neighborhood organizations. She serves as vice chair of the McKeesport Joint Task Force, bringing in speakers to teach members about government, public safety, and strategies to improve their neighborhoods.
“We get together and meet so we can talk about what’s happening in McKeesport,” Connor said. “If we are having problems in our neighborhoods, we try to find a solution together. To this day, after about 14 years, we still have almost 20 people who come together every month for this city.”
Connor is chairwoman of Hill Task Force, which covers the Upper Seventh Ward. This organization traditionally reaches out to neighborhood children and local schools. She and a few friends fill candy bags for Halloween at the LaRosa Boys & Girls Club. They’ve also provided pizza lunches for hundreds of students at Twin Rivers Primary/Intermediate School – a tradition they started at George Washington Elementary, a former neighborhood school in the Seventh Ward.
“I wanted to do something for the children,” Connor said. “I want them to know that we care and that we want them to grow up in a safe environment.”
Connor is a member of the Mon River Fleet Lions Club and the McKeesport Healthier Community PartnerSHIP (State Health Improvement Plan), for which she leads the Crime & Safety and Religious logic models.
Through the SHIP, Connor helped to start McKeesport’s Light-Up Night in Kennedy Park. The event, known as “City of Our Little Angels,” includes an outdoor craft and snack for children. A large evergreen is decorated with angels made at local schools and daycare centers.
With the recent closure of a daycare facility at UPMC McKeesport, Connor was entrusted with the task to relocate playground equipment from the site. She is working with city officials to improve an existing play space with this additional equipment.
Connor serves as Vice Chair of the McKeesport Democratic Committee. She is a member of the First Christian Church of McKeesport and previously was involved in the McKeesport Area Ministerium.
“If we all would give, this would be a beautiful place to live,” she said. “You have to give back to your community. You can’t keep taking without giving something back.”
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 August 31, 2017.
Editor's Note: This story was submitted by the mayor's office.
Originally published August 08, 2017.