Community LIFE celebrates Black History Month

When you first enter the McKeesport location of Community LIFE, you can’t help but notice the beauty of the environment. The space is bright, spacious and immaculate, filled with light and soft colors. You are acknowledged right away, greeted warmly by staff members whose smiles seem to say, “Come in, we’ve been expecting you!” Immediately, you feel welcome and at ease. You have a sense of being among good people. You feel safe.

That feeling of being safe, comfortable and welcome matters a great deal. Some people call it inclusion; others have referred to it as belongingness. It’s so important to human well-being that it has been called one of the five most critical human needs. Everyone wants to belong, to be part of something, whether it’s a family, a work group or a group of friends. We want to be accepted and attached to others, and to interact with them in positive ways. Belonging makes us healthier and happier; it strengthens identity and boosts self-esteem. 

At Community LIFE McKeesport, belongingness has been elevated to an art form, and nowhere was this more evident than in the center’s celebration of Black History Month earlier this year. Originally conceived as a friendly competition among the various Community LIFE locations, the project became a mission at McKeesport, achieving far more than anyone had anticipated. In fact, to many of the staff, the experience was transformative, uniting them with synergy, renewed camaraderie, and a shared passion for their mission. The experience of the staff underscored the importance of belongingness, and the theme of Black History Month served as the perfect vehicle, with its messages of inclusion, mutual respect and unity within diversity. Staff members from Activities, Social Work, the Day Center and the Clinic have shared their personal thoughts about this remarkable group project that opened minds and hearts in unexpected ways.


According to Andy Rockenstein, CTRS, who coordinated the project at McKeesport with the Recreational Therapy team, there were challenges facing the staff at the start of the project: all that wide open space in the new facility was actually something of an obstacle. “We have this great new building and we’ve been gradually adapting to it. We’re a close team, and in this setting we’re spread out across a much bigger space,” Andy explained. “The challenge has been to maintain our cohesiveness, and Black History Month brought us back together, at exactly the right time.”

The project was kicked off on January 31 with a video presentation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. That provided inspiration and a general theme of open arms, embracing everyone. Individual departments were invited to participate, and they took the ball and ran with it, spotlighting various and often overlooked aspects of Black History. Further inspiration and local flavor came from the recently published book, Smoketown, Mark Whitaker’s brilliant treatise on the black renaissance that took place in the 1920’s through the 1950’s, largely in Pittsburgh. Smoketown spotlights Pittsburgh’s significant – and often underestimated – role in creating this renaissance in jazz, journalism, baseball, popular culture and community life. Andy and the recreational therapy team made materials available to every department so that they could create poster boards for display in the halls, featuring the elements of black history that they had chosen. “We gave the staff no specifics,” Andy says. “We gave them supplies only. They had the ideas. Their creativity and diversity were incredible.”

The medical staff decided to make their board about the women of NASA, as depicted in the award winning film, Hidden Figures. Traci Gergley, medical records, says that the medical suite is women-driven, and the film celebrated a remarkable achievement of black women mathematicians: “We all saw the movie and loved it. We did this together; we work like an ensemble in the medical suite. Each one brings something unique and we love being here at Community LIFE McKeesport.”

Social workers Elizabeth Zimmerman-Clayton, LSW and Chris Korey, MSW, did several poster boards. One presented African American women, including singer Nina Simone, who have had historical impact; another featured African American men who were pioneers in social work. They also did an all-Pittsburgh poster that focused on August Wilson. Elizabeth and Chris feel that the creativity of the Black History posters reflects the creativity of the staff: “We think outside the box to fulfill our mission of helping to keep people in their homes,” says Elizabeth. “It means that there are no silos here. We have roles but are not stuck in them; we support each other.”  Chris says that the poster boards, on display in the main halls for four weeks, made a strong statement about Community LIFE’s commitment to social justice and service to the community: “The boards sent a powerful message of support, inclusion and empowerment.”

Music is the universal language, and at Community LIFE McKeesport, it is spoken every day. Bonnie Shaner, MA, MT-BC, music therapist, took advantage of the opportunity of Black History Month to demonstrate how music can unite humanity. “We wanted to look at how far we have come as a country, and how we can inspire continuous change. We did a lot of different things with music; we made chants, called Chants for Change. We brought in musicians and a gospel choir to perform. We used African American hymnals and studied African American composers. We read poems and prayers. Music tells a story, and a song from an individual’s era or culture speaks to them. Our team is always cohesive and Black History Month pulled us forward, to more openness and learning. People shared more. There were many avenues to explore and many forms of expression.”

For Al Freeman, Day Center program assistant and home health aide, Black History Month was a pleasant surprise. “I thought I knew black history, but I learned a lot of new things. We all did. A lot of research and a lot of work went into this project. I give credit to Andy and his crew, mostly, but everyone was involved. The best part was seeing how much people responded to it; staff members, participants, family members and visitors all stopped to browse through and read the posters. We covered everything: Martin Luther King Jr., the Tuskeegee airmen, Beyonce – every subject was presented very well. Being chosen as the winner was an honor, but then it’s an honor just to work here.  I’ve been here 12 years and it gives me joy and satisfaction to do this work, with these people.”

Dondi Thomas, activities assistant and a brand new father, has only been with Community LIFE McKeesport for a few months, but he has previous experience working with older adults in healthcare.  “I love it here, learning about the participants and engaging them with activities like bingo, aerobics and Loving Hearts. For Black History Month, we made boards that had biographies of successful African Americans. We also had folklore stories and music with African drums. We got positive responses; everyone really listened to the stories and enjoyed them.” His co-worker, Kathlene Goodman, also a new activities assistant, echoes Dondi’s thoughts. “I enjoyed helping to plan the activities. The boards were very popular, and everyone pulled together and had fun making them. I did one with Martin Luther King Jr. quotations and people loved the quotes.” 

Ashley Ellick, an activities assistant for two years, is in charge of the monthly calendar, so she is an expert at planning activities. She made a poster board with quotes and bios for Maya Angelou, Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, Frederic Douglas and others. “The quotes were popular; it was a learning experience for everyone about black history. For the staff it was something new, and it gave back to us in a lot of ways. Our department is growing, so we have new people, and this project united us. Everyone wanted to be part of it.” For Courtney Hampton, also an activities assistant, winning the top prize in the competition was just the icing on the cake. The greatest rewards came from simply participating in the project, she says. “We first showed a video about how important it is to explore black history, and especially local black history; it’s important for everyone, and we have to know it in order to pass this knowledge to future generations. The challenge was to incorporate the theme into all the activities, but we did it. My ideas were August Wilson and local black musicians. The project was collaborative, but then at McKeesport everything is collaborative.”

Terri Humphries, lead program assistant, has worked at Community LIFE for 17 years. She is responsible for coordinating the operations of the day center, making sure participants get their needs met and get to the right destinations at the right time.  Terri made a poster board focused on the LBGQT community. “There was a lot of information and it was all very educational. Everyone was invested and open to learning new things.”

Kirsten Crowe, director of operations for Community LIFE, says that the Black History Month project was an “all hands on deck” experience that was ultimately about inclusion. “Black History Month is important to the staff and to participants. We hoped it would promote the feeling of community, and it did that. We saw a lot of interdisciplinary collaboration and it all came together as a whole. Everyone became invested in it, and their interest was heartfelt. The creativity was amazing; people used music, food, photography and quotations to express various aspects. Every center did a great job.”

Kevin Truscott, activities assistant, is also the greeter who mans the front desk and welcomes visitors. During Black History Month, he directed visitors to the display of poster boards, encouraging them to view them all. “People lingered over the boards. Some were surprised by them, by all the information and diversity. They didn’t know about the richness and importance of black American history. It educated them, and it also educated us. It was a great experience and it changed our culture, bringing us even closer.” Nicknamed the Mayor of Community LIFE, Kevin creates the first impression for new visitors to the Center, and it’s a strongly positive one. He believes that greetings can make or break a person’s day. When people come and go at the Center, he acknowledges them, and that small gesture sends a powerful message of inclusion and belonging. Kevin says that these values are shared by every staff member and that they come directly from Center director Hailey Juliano. “We all help and support each other, and that comes from the example Hailey sets in how she treats people.”

Hailey Juliano has nothing but praise and admiration for the staff and their achievement, citing it as a great demonstration of their dedication, creativity and compassion. “Black History Month often focuses on the same, well known people, but we were able to show that there is so much more,” she says. “I hoped for some of everything, and the staff delivered. Everyone brought something new, and it became a way to change what people know about black history. When you think you know it all, you’ve shut yourself down. You have to stay open to new things, to be open minded. I think Black History Month enhanced our community and teamwork, and teamwork is important here; we need each other in order to care well for our participants.”

Hailey says that Black History Month gave the McKeesport team a way to work in the new space, where there is more physical separation than before. “We were able to celebrate it differently because of our new environment; before, we had limited space for activities and projects. It did bring the staff together again. The Black History Month project became a transformational experience; it brought pride and empowerment to the staff and participants.”

 Juanita Sweeney, a four-year participant from Monroeville and the Participant Council representative, describes Community LIFE as life changing, and says that for her, the events of Black History Month were educational and motivating. “All the events and the boards for Black History Month sent the message that we are all the same and we have to love each other. It was wonderful to see people walking the halls, reading the boards and looking at everything. The true meaning of Black History Month is that we are one family and one country. It’s just like Community LIFE; we are all different and unique here, but we are a large family.”

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