Sha’Ron Cash said he had been getting into a lot of trouble. But then he found the Boys & Girls Club Career Center in McKeesport.
“It changed my life around,” he said.
KaNya Pitts, like Sha’Ron, had been coming to the center for the past year or so. “I feel safe here with the other kids. I appreciate my relationship with the adults here,” she said, noting she’s had the chance to go to a Steelers game, Frick Park and more places, too.
The Boys & Girls Club of Western Pennsylvania wants to reach more teens such as Sha’Ron and KaNya, and to do so this week it officially opened its new Club Teen Center at 1305 Fifth Ave. in McKeesport. It’s a relocation and expansion of its previous Career Works Mon Valley location, at McKeesport’s Tube City Center for Business and Innovation in the former Daily News building on Walnut Street, which opened in 2019.
The new site was established in partnership with UPMC McKeesport and UPMC Health Plan. Program funding comes in part from a $1.5 million grant sponsored by Sen. Bob Casey to deliver the organization’s Teen Outreach Program to 12 locations across Allegheny, Somerset, Westmoreland and Fayette counties. Additional support comes from Allegheny County and the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, now chaired by former Club Kid and McKeesport native Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. Austin Davis.
Christopher Watts, president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania, led off the ceremony and ribbon cutting on Wednesday, stating that the organization is recommitting to teens in McKeesport and the Mon Valley, and the new center represents “what you expect to see from the Boys & Girls Club.”
He noted the nonprofit organization’s long history with McKeesport dates back 75 years. In November 2020, it closed its LaRosa Clubhouse in the city when it faced financial challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic and other long-term funding trends, according to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article. Then it shifted its activities to Duquesne to two sites there and offered scholarships and free transportation to children in McKeesport to attend programs there while keeping the Teen Career Center open and operating.
At the time, elected officials asked the Boys & Girls Club to donate the clubhouse on Ravine Street, which Sam LaRosa, its longtime director, had founded in 1945, so programs for at-risk youth could continue. It remains open as the LaRosa Youth Club and, according to its website, provides “socialization, growth and learning opportunities in an out-of-school time setting, with an emphasis on leadership, citizenship, education, recreation, community service and healthy life skills.”
Watts explained in his remarks that with opening the new Boys & Girls Club center, the nonprofit acknowledges the past and wants to work in collaboration with McKeesport officials and organizations to help city teens. “We’re here to support and collaborate as a community resource,” he said, noting it takes more than revenue to maintain services and programming for teens as well as provide new experiences and resources.
He emphasized in his remarks that the new space is over four times larger than the previous Career Works location, with the capacity to serve up to 45 teens daily and programming that will serve more than 150 teens each year. Teens will have the opportunity to participate in programs that include workforce development, college and career preparation, job training, academic support, financial literacy, mentoring, health and fitness, and mental health counseling, according to the news release. These programs are available at no cost to the teens, with donors providing them a stipend for participation.
Watts recognized the assistance of UPMC McKeesport and the UPMC Health Plan, as well as the nonprofit’s board members experienced in real estate development, to find the space and prepare it for the opening. “Within two months they had this space figured out,” he said.
Mark O’Hern, president of UPMC McKeesport, spoke at the event and said he was grateful to the Boys & Girls Club for “allowing this space to come back alive.” The center is just a few blocks away from the hospital.
“We’re excited about the opportunities we can do together with the club to do the right thing for the community and provide services that don’t exist,” he said.
The teen center opening coincides with the reopening of the Ninth Street Clinic in the same building. The free health care clinic had been housed in McKeesport’s former YWCA building, which was destroyed by an explosion and fire in August 2022. It has been in temporary quarters in the hospital’s Painter Building since then.
Marquise Wheeler, the teen center’s program director, acknowledged in his remarks the work that had to happen to prepare for this week’s official opening. He’s said all that was worth it.
He’s been in his position for over a year now and said, “The best part of my job is to come here and appreciate my relationship with these teens.
“Our vision is to make sure our kids are here every day, learning something and having fun.”
That is not lost on Sha’Ron. “Marquise is like a dad to me,” he said, noting that Wheeler and the staff have “taught me so much.”
And the place provides him with a safe haven. “My friends here help out with my own stuff,” Sha’Ron said. “It’s great to be here in this community. It’s good to be here.”