McKeesport Mayor Mike Cherepko this month honored four people for living the "McKeesport Message" of Respect, Dignity, Hope and Love.
At April's city council meeting, proclamations were presented by Cherepko to McKeesport Area High School junior Maniya Mitchell for living the value of "Respect"; state Rep. Austin Davis for "Hope"; Mary Pat Soltis for "Love"; and Cindi Higdon for "Dignity."
Nominees were selected by the McKeesport Message Committee, part of Cherepko’s Select Committee on Crime and Violence. Nominations for the next round of awards must be received by May 4.
Biographies of the latest winners follow.
Respect: Maniya Mitchell
McKeesport Area High School junior Maniya Mitchell is a well-rounded student who is trying her best to find the perfect balance of teenage life.
“Teenagers should be responsible – not necessarily be grown up, but have their priorities set in life,” Maniya said. “You can go out with your friends and have fun, but still know what you want to be in life and what you have to do to get there.”
Maniya truly is a typical teen, who is making good choices. She is an honor student, who excels in algebra. When she’s not working at the local Giant Eagle or babysitting her young niece or cousin, she likes going to the mall or out to dinner with friends. She describes herself as a “perfectionist,” who enjoys challenging herself, especially when helping others.
Maniya has volunteered with the McKeesport Area High School Interact Club and recently began helping a friend’s mother in the football boosters program. Fellow volunteers praised her for her determination and enthusiasm. Often times, at Tigers football games, her role was to sell raffle tickets, and she would storm through the stands, stir the crowd, and encourage attendees to spend their money with the boosters.
“I would just run around the stadium and scream,” she laughed. “That’s not me at all. I’m not a loud person, so it was kind of weird but definitely exciting. It felt so good to be helping people, especially my friend’s mom, who does so much for me.”
Maniya said helping others is a great part of life, and you’re never too young to start helping, whether it’s at home, in school, or in the community. She’s set on living life to the fullest and helping as many people as she can along the way. After high school, she wants to go to school to become an ultrasound technician.
Dignity: Cindi Higdon
Cindi Higdon has been through what no parent wants to experience – the loss of a child.
On March 6, 2014, 14-year-old Alyson Higdon died after being struck by a truck minutes after leaving Founders Hall Middle School. While dealing with this tragic loss, Higdon was overwhelmed with support from her friends, neighbors, and the entire McKeesport community. And in the years since Alyson’s passing, Higdon has shown her gratitude by sharing her wisdom with McKeesport Area students and parents.
Higdon, her 13-year-old triplets Caleb, Haylie, and Jonah, and their extended family developed a system called Aly’s Rules – “Always look, Listen, and Yield” – to share Alyson’s memory and keep future generations safe.
A short six months after Alyson’s death, Higdon partnered with local police departments to make sure every McKeesport Area student could follow Aly’s Rules. At each grade level, teachers created age-appropriate lesson plans about pedestrian safety, and Higdon would speak briefly with students and distributes Aly’s Rules coloring books.
Higdon still conducts annual assemblies in McKeesport Area schools, and this year she is partnering with Alyson’s classmates in the Class of 2018 to bring larger events to the community. In March, high school students reached out to elementary kids. On May 8, they will take part in a health and safety exposition at Founders Hall Middle School.
Not only is it important for Higdon to keep her daughter’s memory alive, but she wants her tragedy to inspire awareness among others.
“Sometimes you take for granted that your kids know what to do, but they may not,” she said. “If they continue to be reminded, hopefully they will stop and think.”
Higdon has distributed bracelets, reflectors, and other reminder tools for pedestrian safety.
Her family is working with the McKeesport police and public works departments to place Aly’s Rules signs at local school bus stops. Anyone interested in sponsoring a sign can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hope: Austin Davis
Austin Davis is the newly elected representative in Pennsylvania’s 35th Legislative District.
At an early age, Davis made the decision to dedicate his life and career to public service – getting his first taste of local government and politics while still attending McKeesport Area High School. At that time, he founded and chaired the Youth Advisory Council for then-Mayor James R. Brewster, now a state Senator. Upon graduating in 2008, Davis moved on to the University of Pittsburgh for a degree in political science.
During college, Davis served as a legislative intern in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. After college, Davis worked alongside Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald as his executive assistant.
In this capacity, Davis spearheaded the county executive's vision/transition teams in the early days of the administration. He served as the liaison between municipal officials and the county executive's office, and he was responsible for constituent services. He also represented the county executive on various boards.
Davis is vice chairman to both the Allegheny County Housing Authority Board of Commissioners and the Allegheny County Democratic Committee. He is on the board of directors for the YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh, the Consortium for Public Education, Communities in Schools of Pittsburgh, and Auberle.
In 2015, Davis served as U.S. Delegate to the One Young World Summit in Thailand. He was a member of the Rules and By-Laws Committee during the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
Whether it's within the community or abroad, his commitment to bettering the lives of those in distressed communities is unwavering, and he plans to continue his career in public service by representing constituents in his district to the best of his ability.
“We’re united here in the Mon Valley,” Davis announced during his election victory speech in McKeesport. “We’re united, and we’re going to move this valley forward. We’re going to deliver results to the people in this district.”
Love: Mary Pat Soltis
While she doesn’t reside within city limits, McKeesport will always feel, in part, like home for Mary Pat Soltis. Her involvement in McKeesport’s many charities has left a lasting impact on Soltis’ life, and her kindness has greatly impacted the heart of the McKeesport community.
Today, she serves on the Mon Yough Chamber Foundation and the UPMC McKeesport-East joint board of directors. But her work in the community has extended far and wide to organizations including Penn State McKeesport, the YMCA, Auberle, Allegheny County Airport Authority, and the Allegheny County Library Association.
In the mid-1990s, Soltis got her first taste of politics when she was asked by then-Allegheny County Commissioner Pete Flaherty to serve on the up-and-coming Allegheny Regional Asset District Board, which was to distribute a 1 percent sales tax allotment to cultural assets across the county.
“I firmly believe President Kennedy’s statement that without art in our society, we are lacking the true heart and value of our generation,” Soltis said. “The symphony, the opera, the ballet – these are all assets that enrich us.”
When Soltis reviewed the assets, she noticed there was nothing from McKeesport in the mix. She wanted Renziehausen Park – a recreational hub for communities throughout the Mon Valley – to get the same attention as official Allegheny County parks.
“I wasn’t from McKeesport, but I knew the value of it,” she said. “What stood out about Renzie Park was how it was utilized by everyone – the garden club, children at the playground, people out walking to get their exercise. My sons-in-law had fished in the pond as children. Their families went there for picnics and to watch fireworks.”
Soltis shared her own concern as well as that of then-Mayor Joe Bendel when she informed the board she couldn’t move forward on a budget that didn’t give something to McKeesport. Because of her persistence and commitment to McKeesport, Renziehausen Park remains a contractual asset for the Allegheny Regional Asset District.
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 email@example.com. The deadline for the next round of nominations is May 4, 2018.
Originally published April 11, 2018.