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‘Food first’: Mt. Lebanon athletes receive tips about eating properly

The legendary hot dog consumption by Babe Ruth notwithstanding, athletes traditionally have had a fairly good idea of what they should and shouldn’t eat.

As the world of sports has grown in popularity, so have efforts to pinpoint the best dietary habits. And Mt. Lebanon High School athletic director John Grogan is bringing that type of information to his students.

Harry Funk / Harry Funk/The Almanac 

Harry Funk/The Almanac

Nolen Fetchko, left, and John Grogan speak at Mt. Lebanon High School.

“One of the things that we’re looking for in our athletic program is that we want to find different ways to help you understand better about sports nutrition,” he told fall athletes during Wednesday’s preseason gathering in the school auditorium. “This is another avenue that could give us an advantage on game days, not to mention the ability to develop good habits that you can take with you going forward.”

And so any adults who may have been in the audience also could benefit from the expertise provided by the evening’s guest speaker: Auburn Weisensale, director of nutrition for the University of Pittsburgh athletic department.

Her visit was arranged through a collaborative effort of Joe Beaman, the university’s director of dining services, and his counterpart at Mt. Lebanon, Nolen Fetchko, to let high school students in on what the college athletes are learning.

While Weisensale’s discussion of diet and hydration was aimed at young people who train and compete on a regular basis, much of the information she presented could apply to people of all ages who follow their doctors’ orders and exercise regularly.

Carbohydrates, for example, often are perceived as something to be avoided because of their propensity to help cause weight gain. But Weisensale spoke about their benefits, including the effects of eating foods that contain simple carbohydrates, such as white bread and white rice.

“They’re easy on your GI tract,” she said. “So if you’re someone who maybe gets an upset stomach before performing or training, your simple carbohydrates are the best source of energy because they digest within 15 to 30 minutes. They can get into your bloodstream and give you energy.”

Complex carbohydrates – contained in wheat bread, brown rice and the like – provide longer-lasting energy.

“It digests a little bit slower, so it will give you sustained fuel over a longer period of time,” Weisensale said. “So throughout the day, we recommend that you eat whole grains. You eat your complex carbohydrates. And then right before training or during training is when you’d have those simple carbs.”

For athletes, consuming protein always has been a prime consideration. Some misunderstand the reasons.

“They’ll think, let’s eat a big protein bar right before we go to practice,” Weisensale said. “But protein isn’t giving you that energy. It’s really just helping repair and rebuild our muscles.

“Protein also helps you feel full and helps you feel satisfied,” she continued. “So for someone who’s trying to lose weight, we recommend a high-protein diet. It will help you feel full so that you don’t feel like you have to keep going back for snacks.”

Many snacks, of course, contain high levels of fat. But as is the case with carbs, certain types of fats can be beneficial.

“As an athlete, you want to focus on unsaturated fat,” Weisensale told the students, recommending such food choices as avocado, walnuts, salmon and peanut butter. “This type of fat actually helps reduce inflammation and it aids in recovery. The more you exercise, the more inflamed your muscles get. We want to reduce that as much as possible, to help reduce soreness and get you guys back to feeling refreshed sooner.

“Your saturated fats, on the other hand, actually slow down the blood flow,” she added. “So the nutrients can’t get out to your muscles as efficiently. That actually makes you feel more sore and impairs your recovery.”

She also talked about a “post-workout window” with regard to nutrition.

“You have about 30 minutes after a training session or after a competition to really refuel your body in its optimal state,” she said. “Your heart is pumping fast. Your blood is pumping through your body. And when you eat food, it’s going to digest pretty quickly, and it’s going to get those nutrients out to your muscles to help repair them more efficiently than if you finish practice and then didn’t eat anything until two hours later.”

For student athletes who travel to compete, a postgame meal may be a long time coming. So Weisensale suggested they carry along snacks that contain carbohydrates and protein, such as chocolate milk, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or apple with peanut butter.

She also discussed nutritional supplements and how taking them can lead to problems.

“A lot of athletes are failing drug tests, and most of the time they’re failing it because they didn’t know a banned ingredient was in there,” she said.

Supplements labeled “NSF” have been tested by a third party, and according to Weisensale, “You’re about 99% safe from failing a drug test.”

But in other cases, buyer beware, such as the story she told about a young man whose father gave him a supplement to enhance his performance playing basketball.

“The kid got really dizzy after taking it and had to sit down. He wasn’t able to play in those summer league games,” she said. “They actually investigated the supplement and did some tests on it, and they found that there was meth in it.”

Those kinds of examples is why Weisensale and her colleagues espouse eating properly as the path to performance enhancement.

“Food first is kind of what we preach,” she said.


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Enoch Wright House covers two-plus centuries of Peters Township history

Although much of Peters Township has changed significantly during the past couple of decades, at least one feature has remained constant for the past couple of centuries.

Drive along Venetia Road near the township’s southeastern corner, and you’ll see plenty of reminders of Peters’ past: the red brick of Wrights United Methodist Church and the former Venetia Elementary School next door, plus the houses of the old mining village of Hackett, established in 1835.

Harry Funk / Harry Funk/The Almanac 

Harry Funk/The Almanac

The Enoch Wright House had been standing for nearly two decades by the time the village of Hackett was established in Peters Township.

Twenty years before that, the son of a Western Pennsylvania pioneer named Enoch Wright started work on a two-family residence that he finished the following year, using bricks that were baked on his property.

Today, the Peters Creek Historical Society owns and maintains the Enoch Wright House as a showplace for what life once was like, serving as what the organization calls the Museum of Westward Expansion.

During a recent open house, Len Marraccini of Finleyville, the society’s vice president, and his wife, Donna, conducted tours of the property and told a few of the 200-plus years’ worth of related stories.

Some are grim. For example, both Enoch Wright’s father, Joshua, and uncle James, who settled in the area about 1772, died at the hands of American Indians.

Harry Funk / Harry Funk/The Almanac 

Harry Funk/The Almanac

Enoch Wright’s top hat has been returned home.

Others are much more pleasant, such as Len’s story about an open house last year:

“There was a knock on the front door, and a lady says, ‘I have something that needs to come back to this house.’ She has this beaver-skin felt top hat that was originally owned by Enoch Wright, the builder of the house.”

It turned out that her parents bought the hat at an auction that some of his descendants had conducted.

“The lady was cleaning out her parents’ house, getting ready to sell it,” Marraccini explained. “She came across the hat. She knew all about the story, and she said, ‘It needs to come back home.’”

The Wright House is full of memorabilia that traces the history of the family and the area where they lived from the Colonial era through the 19th century. Some once belonged to the Wrights, themselves, including the bed of Enoch’s granddaughter Charity and her husband, Dr. David Anderson.

Marraccini lifted the thin, straw-filled mattress to reveal what holds it aloft:

“It’s just a rope, and you tighten the rope to get it firmer.”

Harry Funk / Harry Funk/The Almanac 

Harry Funk/The Almanac

The Civil War uniform and medical bag of Dr. David Anderson, who married Enoch Wright’s granddaughter Charity.

Next to the bed is one of the Civil War uniforms of Anderson, along with the medical bag he used in the war and when he returned home.

The house also features a mining room, with many of the items on display courtesy of the family of the late William “Bits” Jenkins of Gastonville, who donated his collection of memorabilia and dioramas he created to illustrate the antiquated roof-and-pillar mining method.

“The Wrights mined coal and burned it in the fireplace in winter,” Marraccini said. “So you can probably say that would have been one of the earlier mining activities here.”

When visitors reach the mining room, Marraccini often is the historical society member who provides an overview.

“Sometimes we have schoolchildren come through,” he said, “and on a couple of occasions they’ll say, ‘Hey, Mister. What’s the black rock?’ Young kids today have no idea what coal is.”

Nor do they have an idea about what they’re looking at when they see a sample of ‘red dog,’ the mining waste product that once paved many a Western Pennsylvania road.

Harry Funk / Harry Funk/The Almanac 

Len Marraccini holds a piece of the mining waste known as "red dog."

“I have scars on my legs from when I was young and learned how to ride a bicycle on the ‘red dog’ alley behind my parents’ house,” Marraccini reported.

Behind the Wright House is a log house built in West Finley Township in the late 18th century. In 2002, the owner of the property donated the structure to the historical society, but it had to be removed.

And so members disassembled it, labeled all the pieces, moved everything across Washington County and rebuilt the house. Inside is a plaque dedicated to the late Fred Braun, an officer of the historical society and one of the main organizers of the mission.

From the vantage point of the log house, two doors are visible on the far end of each side of the house. Inside are steps leading to small rooms above.

Harry Funk / Harry Funk/The Almanac 

Harry Funk/The Almanac

The 18th-century log house on the Wright House property was moved from West Finley Township in 2003.

“You cannot get into the rooms from inside the house,” Marracini explained. “One of the theories that historians have is the house was used as part of the Underground Railroad, and they hid people escaping the South coming north.”

Of course, no one kept records of such activities, so they’re impossible to verify. But the Wrights had a track record of taking an abolitionist stance.

Whatever the case, the house in which they lived continues to serve as a place to learn about the past, and the Peters Creek Historical Society, which has owned the property since 1976, always is seeking new members to help maintain the community asset far into the future.

The next open house is scheduled for 1 to 3 p.m. Aug. 25. For more information about the Enoch Wright House, visit peterscreekhistoricalsociety.org.

Harry Funk / Harry Funk/The Almanac 

Harry Funk/The Almanac

There is conjecture but no evidence that the rooms accessed by doors on either end of the Enoch Wright House once served the purpose of the Underground Railroad.


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Bethel Park native spreads Beverly’s Birthdays message to national audience

Fans of “The Honeymooners” will recall the episode in which Ralph appears on television as the Chef of the Future and promptly is dumbstruck.

Megs Yunn’s recent “Good Morning America” appearance pretty much was the opposite.

“It was cool,” the Bethel Park native said. “I was a speech major in college, so there’s a level of me that likes public speaking.”

Megs Yunn

And so a national audience learned about Beverly’s Birthdays, the nonprofit she founded in 2012 to provide parties for children who otherwise would not have the opportunity to blow out candles on a cake.

“They found me,” she said about staff members for “Good Morning America,” which averages more than 4 million viewers per episode. “They knew they were going to be in Pittsburgh, and they wanted some possible charities that could benefit. Thankfully, Beverly’s Birthdays has had a lot of positive press, and so when they researched us, they were happy with what they saw.”

So happy, in fact, the show presented Yunn with a $10,000 check on the air.

The donation adds to fundraising that has brought in $3.3 million toward providing birthday celebrations for more than 25,000 Southwestern Pennsylvania youngsters each year. Her organization now has a staff of 10, works with 68 social service agencies and 88 schools, and provides programs to all five regional Allegheny County Children, Youth and Families Partnership offices.

This month, Beverly’s Birthdays launched the Birthday Boutique, a “mobile fashion truck” that travels to parties.

“We met a girl named Kayla who was 16 and shared with us that she had never even owned a dress before,” Yunn said. “For me, that is tragic, and we decided that we were going to get her the dresses that she needed for her birthday.”

Because of abuse, the teen was in a residential treatment facility at the time. A few months later, Yunn received a card from staff members who were working with the teen.

“It’s not lost on us that from the day she got those dresses, something inside of her shifted,” Yunn said the card read. “You gave her hope.”

And so the Beverly’s Birthdays folks are calling the Birthday Boutique “hope on a hanger,” providing needed clothing and something more.

“We work with a large portion of kids who are in the foster care system, and unfortunately, there still is that: your stuff gets thrown in a trash bag,” Yunn said. “We’re removing you from your home, and all your stuff is thrown in a trash bag. What does that make you think of your own self?”

The Birthday Boutique provides a brand-new duffel bag containing three or four outfits, pajamas, socks and underwear.

“It’s enhancing the already really fun birthday party experience by helping them with some basic needs, but also allowing them to feel important,” Yunn said.

A 2002 graduate of Bethel Park High School, her sense of altruism extends as far back as she can remember.

“I’ve always had the heart for service. I was very involved in high school with student council and volunteering, and I then I was an AmeriCorps volunteer,” she said about the federally funded civil society program. “That was my first foray into really doing service full-time.”

The Beverly’s Birthdays foray started when she met the girl for whom the organization is named.

“When Beverly shared with me that she had never had a birthday party or her own slice of birthday cake, not only did it shock me, but in that moment I was really embarrassed that I had never even thought that a child might not have a birthday,” Yunn said. “It was just very much an ‘a-ha!’ moment that I said, I’m going to do something about this. And I did.”

In June 2011, she submitted her idea to the national “BE BIG in Your Community Contest” and was selected as a first-place winner from among more than 1,000 entries across the United States. She received a $2,500 award that helped her start Beverly’s Birthdays.

“It was after that first party that I turned to my husband and I said, ‘I love this. I think I want to quit my full-time job,’” she said.

Her husband, Mike, agreed.

“He has been my rock through all of this,” she said. “He really loves what I do and he’s proud of me, and so for me, this is a family organization helping families. He believed in me from day one.”

The result has been thousands of celebrations in the past seven years.

“Really, the heart of what we’re doing has never deviated. We are providing birthdays for families in need,” Yunn said. “And it’s not about the stuff, even though that’s a portion of it. We’re giving presents, but it’s about validating to these children and these families that we see you and that you matter.

“That is a very powerful sentiment,” she continued, “especially if you’re anyone dealing with something that’s difficult. And if that can give you a little bit of bright and a little bit of light to get you through to the next day, then that’s a gift that will keep on giving.”

Now a resident of North Huntingdon Township, Yunn encourages others to follow her lead in helping others.

“I think anyone can have a Beverly moment,” she said. “If you hear something or you see something that really kind of strikes you, and you think you can do something to have a positive influence on changing that, then do it.”

For more information, visit www.beverlysbirthdays.org.

Megs Yunn receives a donation on behalf of Beverly’s Birthdays during her June 25 appearance on ABC-TV’s “Good Morning America.”