SHENANGO TOWNSHIP — It is not just about planting flowers, or about being a really good teacher.
The Shenango Valley Chamber of Commerce’s 2018 honorees represent the power of volunteerism and the nurturing of the region’s future, said Executive Director Sherris Moreira.
The chamber held its annual dinner Thursday night at Park Inn by Radisson.
On the program for the evening were not only a celebration of the chamber’s accomplishments over the past year and its vision for the future, but also a chance to honor the Shenango Valley Business Ambassador, Lisa Evans of eAcademy@LindenPointe in Hermitage, and the Shenango Valley Champion Organization, the Sharon Beautification Commission.
Moreira told a sold-out crowd that the Sharon Beautification Commission did not just add hanging baskets or clean up downtown Sharon.
Its volunteers planted hope, she said.
“In the case of the Sharon Beautification Commission, a spark of an idea is exactly how it all began,” she said.
The commission started more than 13 years ago, as the brainchild of Jennifer Barborak.
In a video tribute, Barborak described the group’s inception and how it has been sustained by volunteers.
The area around the sculpture in downtown Sharon was one of the first projects.
“We planted about 2,000 bulbs,” Barborak said.
In addition to the cleanups of the city’s common areas, the commission, under the guidance of volunteer Sally Giordano, spearheaded the hanging basket project that today puts pots of flowers downtown.
City Manager Bob Fiscus said the Sharon Beautification Commission sparked the city’s downtown renaissance.
“That’s what started the energy,” he said.
Chamber board member Jim Landino, who presented the award to the commission, said the group is an example of what happens when people decide to get up and do something.
“People either choose to go in search of the wizard or they become the wizard,” he said. “These guys have chosen to be the commander of the ship.”
Landino said the group’s efforts have motivated him as a downtown investor.
“You have taken someone like me (who wonders) every day if it is worth it and made me realize it is,” he said.
Volunteer Brian Kepple, who has been instrumental in the group’s expansion into the cleanup of the city’s neighborhoods, accepted the award.
Kepple said many businesses and individuals have made the commission’s work possible, but that volunteers are the backbone of the changes that residents have seen around the city.
When a cleanup is scheduled, 75-100 people show up, Kepple said.
“We have a lot of hope for our community,” he said. “Look at the progress we have made in Sharon. Now, we have a lot of work to do in our neighborhoods.”
He said the commission is not finished with its mission.
“There’s more to come,” Kepple said. “We have big, big plans.”
Volunteer Laura Ackley, who also spoke on behalf of the commission, said the most important fact to know about the organization is that it is entirely supported by the community. Recent projects like the lights on the downtown bridge are funded through fundraisers and donations from citizens and businesses, not tax dollars.
“In a lot of municipalities, the city, they do the decorating, put up the hanging baskets,” she said. “In Sharon, that is all done by volunteers.”
During Thursday’s event, the chamber also honored Lisa Evans of the eAcademy@LindenPointe, a program that introduces local high school students to entrepreneurism.
Hermitage Assistant City Manager Gary Gulla, who helped bring the program to Mercer County, said its goal is to encourage young people to pursue their education locally and to keep their skills at home.
Gulla said 11 local school districts participate in the program, which allows the seniors to spend half a day in an entrepreneurial curriculum and to pursue their own startup business.
He added that 95 percent of the students who have gone throgh the program stay in the area.
“There really is some dynamic talent here,” he said.
And guiding that talent is Evans.
In addition to a video tribute from her students, Gulla also included another thank you — from Evans’ husband.
Evans is a gifted and inspirational teacher who treats her students with respect, shows a tireless dedication to their interests and their education and who has a heart that welcomes anyone, Scott Evans wrote.
Evans said she and the students have tried new curriculum and projects, keeping some ideas and jettisoning others.
She said she wanted not just to teach business skills, but to encourage the more intangible qualities that make a good employee — effective communication, independence and resourcefulness.
And with the students’ help, she said, the program became a place to learn and to thrive.
“We celebrated each other’s successes,” she said. “We built this program together.”
Evans said what was supposed to be just a job has become a calling.
“Every once in a while an opportunity comes along where you can break all the rules and have a lot of fun and not get into trouble,” she said.
In addition to her students, Evans also acknowledged her family and the many people, including Gulla, who made the program possible.
And Evans said what she has learned and watched the students achieve have made her even more confident in not only the program, but in the next generation.
“I place great hope in our power to build our future together,” she said.
In addition to recognizing the evening’s honorees, the chamber also feted outgoing board president, Don Owrey, of UPMC Horizon.
Chamber vice president Shane Nugent and Moreira credited Owrey with “getting the chamber’s house in order.”
“He has always kept us on track,” Nugent said.
Owrey said the chamber members, board and staff as well as other community partners are the reason for the strides that have been made.
“I have worked with a lot of people who really care about what we are doing in the region,” he said.
Now that the framework is in place, Owrey said the chamber and the Shenango Valley are poised to attract even more development and investment.
“I feel like we are in a really good position,” he said. “If we are strong together and we work together, we can accomplish a lot.”
State Rep. Mark Longetti, D-7, Hermitage, and a representative from Sen. Michele Brooks’ office also presented proclamations honoring the Sharon Beautification Commission and Evans.