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Mothers Making More (M3) Program Celebrates Graduates

Four single moms in our Mothers Making More (M3) program recently made a huge life change and celebrated their graduation from local colleges and universities. M3 is a program launched by the United Way of Westmoreland County in 2010 in partnership with Westmoreland Community Action, Westmoreland-Fayette Workforce Investment Board, Westmoreland County Community College, Seton Hill University and Excela Health in 2010 as a strategy to increase opportunities for single mothers, working and learning with a goal of earning family-sustaining income and improve their quality of life.

                                                                     

Top Left: Chareese Davis, Culinary Arts, Associate Degree and Diploma, Westmoreland County Community College, May 2017

Top Middle: Satannia Hayden, Registered Nurse Graduate, Community College of Allegheny County, December 2016

Top Right: Erica Stouffer, Business/Human Resources, Bachelor’s Degree, Seton Hill University, M3 Scholarship, May 2017

Bottom: Stacy Blazowich, Registered Nurse Graduate, Westmoreland County Community College, May 2017


Accounting Students (and Alumni) Help Local Community Members File 1,000+ Tax Returns in 2017
Seton Hill Accounting Majors Certified by IRS Through Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program

May 8, 2017

(From setonhill.edu/news)

In 2017, Seton Hill students and alumni helped individuals from Westmoreland County – and around the world – file more than 1,000 returns, for an estimated $2 million in refunds. These current and former accounting and business majors participated in the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, an initiative of the IRS that is coordinated in this area through Westmoreland Community Action.

“At the VITA program, we prepare individual income tax returns for those who make less than $54,000 per year,” says senior accounting major Mara Willette. “This demographic frequently includes senior citizens and low-income families, as well as other individuals who benefit from free tax preparation services. It is an incredibly rewarding experience to be able to use the skills that we have learned at Seton Hill, honed through training at the VITA program, to be able to help the Greensburg community.”

Working Interest

Seton Hill’s Accounting Program requires students to participate in two internships.  While the program doesn’t endorse the VITA Program over any other experiential learning opportunity, Assistant Professor of Business Gary Hypes thinks it’s so worthwhile he has all of the students in his Principles of Taxation course go through the VITA certification process with the IRS.

Once certified, students can elect to participate in a local VITA program, like the one offered through Westmoreland Community Action. In addition to supporting the Seton Hill tradition of community outreach and support, Professor Hypes likes that accounting majors who participate in VITA get a much broader and comprehensive experience than that of traditional accounting internships by “dealing firsthand with clients.”

“Face to face,” agrees VITA Program Coordinator Robin Hypes, “whether the clients are happy, mad or sad.”

Students aren’t daunted by the challenges. In fact, once they get involved in VITA as an intern they often come back as a volunteer in later years.

“This is actually my second year,” says senior accounting major Emily DePalma.  “In my junior year I participated in VITA at Westmoreland Community Action as my accounting internship. During that year I was certified in the Advance and Foreign Student levels… This year I actually got the opportunity to be in charge of running the International Student VITA program on campus. We ended up successfully helping several students from varying countries prepare and file their federal, state, and local tax returns.”

Program Coordinator Robin Hypes, herself a student in Seton Hill’s Hospitality and Tourism Program, oversees all four county service sites for VITA. During the 2016 tax season, she says, all but two of the volunteers and interns that worked for her had Seton Hill connections.

Added Value

In addition to 120 hours devoted to helping clients, the students who are completing Accounting Program internships with VITA are also required to complete academic projects associated with the internships. This year, one student intern worked on a video featuring a VITA client; another intern is analyzing data for reporting purposes.

“Employers know the value of this experience,” says Professor Hypes. “They say ‘I’m glad to see VITA on your resume.’ ”

“Before I started preparing taxes for VITA in January I felt like tax was the weakest part of my accounting knowledge,” says senior accounting major Pam Oswald. “The amount of taxes that I prepared every time I was at VITA provided more experience then I could have gained anywhere else. I can’t even count how many clients were whole heartedly grateful for the service that VITA provides to people that would otherwise have to pay for their taxes.”

Photo above: (left to right) Mara Willette, Robin Hypes, Emily DePalma and Assistant Professor Gary Hypes.


Westmoreland Community Action Represented on the NCAF Board

Tay Waltenbaugh, CEO of Westmoreland Community Action, was elected to join the National Community Action Foundation (NCAF) Board of Directors as its first at-large board member. The NCAF was founded in 1981 with the purpose of representing Community Action Agencies and their state and regional associations in Washington, D.C. Current Executive Director David Bradley, with the mentorship of Sargent Shriver, co-founded the organization in an effort to ensure that the federal government continued to support the Community Action Program.


Westmoreland Notables: Head of county’s drug overdose task force knows struggles of addiction firsthand

Rich Cholodofsky, Tribune Review, April 9

As head of Westmoreland County’s Drug Overdose Task Force, Tim Phillips routinely talks to addicts and tells them recovery is possible.  

And Phillips should know. At 58, he’s a recovering addict who has been drug-free for nearly 29 years but still struggles with the pull of drugs and alcohol, even as memories linger about how he nearly died as a result of his habit.

In the early 1980s, he was driving home from a party high on drugs when he rammed into an abutment along Route 30.

“I was taken to Jeannette Hospital and a priest came in and gave me last rites,” Phillips said. “I still continued to use another six to eight years. I thought I could control my using.”

It’s a common thread among addicts, the thought that they can control their drug use. And Phillips, who worked in various businesses at the time, was no different. Not until he took a friend to a rehab clinic on Pittsburgh’s North Side did he even consider getting help for his own addiction.

It was Nov. 28, 1988. Phillips has been sober ever since, after spending years using cocaine, alcohol, painkillers and any other drug he could get his hands on.

“I had a realization. I was tired of my family being disappointed with me,” he said. “When I picked him up after 30 days, he had this transformation. I thought, ‘This is the kind of place I could go to teach me how to behave responsibly.’ I never intended to stay clean, but I went there and I got clean.”

Nearly three decades later, the Hempfield resident is a pre-eminent voice in the effort to slow the ever-growing drug epidemic that has gripped Westmoreland County, the region and country.

He was hired early last year to the new position of executive director of Westmoreland County’s Drug Overdose Task Force after years of serving as drug rehabilitation and recovery specialist for Westmoreland Community Action.

Phillips has been at the forefront of the county’s efforts to curb the addiction problem, which reached new heights in 2016 as 174 people died from overdoses in Westmoreland County. It’s a trend that hasn’t slowed, with each new year setting a record high for drug-related deaths.

Officials have said 2017 is on pace to shatter last year’s record.

Phillips uses his own story of struggle and recovery to show addicts they too can overcome their dependency on drugs.

“If I keep it all to me, what good is it? I try to give them hope. If I can do it, they can do it too. Nobody can help an addict better than another addict,” Phillips said.

After his successful stint in rehabilitation, Phillips took jobs as a drug addiction counselor with Adelphoi Village helping juveniles and then with other agencies throughout the county. Until recently, he led a weekly group session for recovering addicts and continues to attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings twice a week.

He is on pace to graduate this month from the FBI Citizens Academy as part of its Heroin Outreach Prevention and Education initiative, created to help curb heroin addiction in Western Pennsylvania.

Westmoreland County Detective Tony Marcocci, a former undercover investigator who focused on drug crimes, has worked with Phillips for more than 15 years trying to slow the addiction rate.

“Tim has been an inspiration to me. I was used to arresting people and putting them in jail. He showed me there is so much good in people and that jail is not the only alternative,” Marcocci said. “He’s proof that we can’t arrest our way out of this problem. He’s walked the walk and talked the talk, and because of it he’s respected by everybody in the field.”

There is still much work to do. Phillips knows overdose deaths continue to rise, so he preaches to anyone who will listen that recovery is possible for everyone who struggles with addiction.

“If we weren’t doing what we are doing, the numbers would be double. My gosh, I would hate to think that,” he said. “No one has to die from this disease. It’s the most treatable disease.”

His life is an example of that.

“Before, the drugs and alcohol controlled me. Now I’m free to live. I can make choices, and the drugs aren’t calling the shots,” he said. “I would have been a statistic if I didn’t get clean.”

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.


Pistols and Purses Bash a Success!

Everyone had a blast at the sold out Pistols and Purses Bash held Saturday, April 8th at the Youngwood Fire Hall. There were plenty of winners and delicious food catered by Bubba’s in Greensburg. Keep your eyes open for WCA’s next event.


Mt. Pleasant Borough begins to gather ideas for mural that juvenile offenders will help paint

Tribune Review, March 5, 2017

A nondescript Mt. Pleasant Borough building with white siding will be the canvas for a mural designed and painted by community members and juvenile offenders.

Ideas about how the mural should look gleaned from public meetings — the first is Wednesday — will be combined into a design created by lead artist Bernie Wilke.

“It’s a challenging job,” said Wilke, an art history professor at Westmoreland County Community College. “We’re looking for general themes from people and even sort of general images to use. We believe that there’s going to be a fair amount of unity among the comments.”

The project is the first local “restorative justice” initiative based on a similar program in Philadelphia in which former inmates are given temporary jobs producing murals. The City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program helps eliminate blight and reintegrates former prisoners into the community.

Area officials attended a presentation about Philadelphia’s program at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg in February 2016. Tim Holler, assistant professor of criminal justice at the college, is moving ahead with replicating the idea here as project director of the Community Arts & Reintegration Project for Westmoreland County.

The first community meeting will include a discussion of concepts to include in the mural’s design. The session will be held at American Architectural Salvage in Mt. Pleasant, which will be the site of the mural.

Westmoreland Community Action CEO Tay Waltenbaugh said the organization — it operates American Architectural Salvage — had been contemplating a mural on the side of the building that faces the Coal & Coke Trail.

“I’m excited to get that up and running,” he said.

Addie Beighley, director of the county’s juvenile probation department, is excited about the possibilities, too. Juvenile offenders can connect with community members and earn their support while using time spent on the mural project as what Beighley called “meaningful” credits toward their community service requirements.

“I think it’s a really great opportunity,” she said. “We want them to, when they leave our system, be a law-abiding citizen.”

Wilke has completed 72 similar community murals, mainly in Indiana and Philadelphia, working with various local groups.

“The process is kind of similar with whichever group I’m working with,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for people to make a mark on the community.”

Once a design is finalized, community members will be joined by juvenile offenders to paint small squares of the mural that will be pieced together and hung on the side of American Architectural Salvage.

“It’s all paint-by-numbers style,” Holler said.

He hopes that adults on probation and inmates being released from the Westmoreland County Prison can join community members to create murals in other communities as well.

“This was kind of to be a reintegration project,” Holler said. “We’re starting this with juveniles with hopes that the community starts to loosen up.”

Initial funding came from the Community Foundation of Westmoreland County. Holler said organizers will have to raise funds to cover other costs.

Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-837-5374 or rsignorini@tribweb.com.

Update: A community design meeting was held on March 8 at 6:00 pm at WCA’s social enterprise American Architectural Salvage. The meeting was lead by Dr. Timothy Holler, with assistance from Bernie Wilke and Kris Demnovich, Probation Supervisor. A collaborative drawing/brainstorming session was conducted to help generate ideas for the mural.

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Chamber BASH at American Architectural Salvage

We hosted a wonderful Westmoreland County Chamber of Commerce BASH at our social enterprise American Architectural Salvage in Mt. Pleasant. There were demonstrations, a scavenger hunt, and delicious food and drink. If you haven’t checked out this amazing store yet, what are you waiting for? Its mission is to reduce landfill waste and promote the resale and reuse of goods, while financially supporting Westmoreland Community Action initiatives that help those in need.

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