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Local senator hosts Democratic Policy Committee hearing regarding veterans

Patti Gerhauser, who served in the U.S. Navy, isn’t a stereotypical version of a military veteran.

Neither is state Sen. Pam Iovino, D-Mt. Lebanon, who was on active duty for 23 years in the same branch.

Harry Funk / Harry Funk/The Almanac 

Patti Gerhauser provides testimony to members of the state Senate Democratic Policy Committee.

About 10% of today’s veteran population is female. And according to Gerhauser’s testimony at a Senate Democratic Policy Committee hearing hosted by Iovino, the transition back to civilian life generally is more difficult than that for a male.

“The military is a very hyper-masculine organization, and as women learning to fit into that, sometimes those habits are hard to break once you get back into the civilian sector,” she said during the July 24 event at Steamfitters Local 449 in Duquesne Heights. “And a lot of people are turned off by assertive women who speak their minds and aren’t afraid to tell you what they think, which is a necessity in the military.”

The hearing, held July 24 at Steamfitters Local 449 in Duquesne Heights, gathered information about how agencies can provide better service in a state that some 800,000 veterans call home, and to help address the needs of “the veteran who might be a little different than the stereotype,” according to Iovino.

As women veteran program coordinator for the Veterans Leadership Program of Western Pennsylvania, Gerhauser provided insight from what she has learned through her job.

“Women veterans experience higher rates of unemployment, lower median income and are more likely to live below the poverty threshold than their male counterparts,” she said, with childcare costs and lack of financial literacy as major contributing factors.

A result is that women represent the fastest-growing segment of homeless veterans.

“The number of women identified by the program as homeless or who accessed VA programs to end homelessness tripled, to 36,443, in a five-year period ending in 2015,” Gerhauser told the committee, citing a 2016 report by the National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans. “That figure, according to the center, is projected to rise by about 9%, to nearly 40,000, by 2025.”

Gerhauser said her organization has six housing units for women veterans and their children in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties, but there always is a waiting list.

Her work often takes her to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs location, and she told the committee she generally is impressed by the services offered, including those through women-specific centers.

“But when I go and talk to their women program coordinators, they’re having a heck of a time getting women in the door, even with all of those things in place,” Gerhauser told the committee. “It’s not so much an issue with the service providers. It’s an issue with the environment of the facility in general.”

Women often are susceptible to sexual harassment by male veterans who are waiting for services, she said.

“They are especially sensitive to this type of behavior, and it comes down to: Are you going to put yourself through that, sitting in a waiting room re-experiencing things when you’re there to see a provider because of that trauma. It’s very counter-intuitive,” she said. “And a lot of the tactics they’ve used to mitigate that are counter-intuitive in my opinion, as well.”

Some facilities have built private entrances for women or have waiting rooms that are for women only.

“They’re not the ones at fault for what’s happening,” Gerhauser said.

She provided several recommendations for addressing the problems faced by women veterans, including financial literacy education, workforce training and professional development, childcare support and programs to curtail gender discrimination and harassment.

Harry Funk / Harry Funk/The Almanac 

Harry Funk/The Almanac

JulieHera DeStefano speaks about “Journey to Normal: Women of War Come Home,” her documentary about women in the military.

Also with regard to women who serve in the military, West Deer Township filmmaker JulieHera DeStefano showed the committee the trailer for “Journey to Normal: Women of War Come Home,” her feature-length documentary that details the service and re-entry to civilian life of eight female subjects and their families.

DeStefano spent three-and-a-half months embedded with the U.S. military in Afghanistan, interviewing and filming more than 100 women. She later established the nonprofit Journey to Normal Inc., which among other facets offers training programs for veterans.

“All of our work is aimed at bridging the military-civilian cultural gap and understanding,” she said. “We must fundamentally change the conversation we have about veterans in this country. We must move toward a more comprehensive understanding and appreciation of their experiences, and support them in a way that recognizes and fosters their innate resiliency.”

Harry Funk / Harry Funk/The Almanac 

Harry Funk/The Almanac

State Sen. Lisa Boscola speaks during a state Senate Democratic Policy Committee meeting.

Lisa Boscola of Lehigh and Northampton counties chairs the Senate Democratic Policy Committee. She expressed enthusiasm about Iovino hosting the hearing.

“As one of the very few veterans serving in the Senate, her unique experience, perspective and advocacy for military personnel and veterans will be a profound impact on our legislative proposals and priorities in Harrisburg,” Boscola said.

Iovino, who served in President George W. Bush’s administration as assistant secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs and later as director of veterans services for Allegheny County, spoke about what civilians can do to help members of the military make the transition away from the service.

“Before taking on the task of trying to understand where they are, simply invite them to where you are: to your neighborhood, to your book club, to your children’s play group,” she said. “Help in that reintegration back, without putting the responsibility on the veteran to help you understand.”

Camp Invention provides summer learning opportunity in Bethel Park

For a first-time Camp Invention teacher, Theresa Vescovi brought a boatload of energy, enthusiasm and encouragement, plus a sense of down-home humor.

“You made some simple, quick inventions to see if we can launch it up here,” she told the youngsters in her charge, pointing to a poster on the wall of some cows at auction. “If your invention is successful, if you have engineered the right thing, what do you get? Moo-lah. You get some moolah for your farm.”

Harry Funk / Harry Funk/The Almanac 

Harry Funk/The Almanac

Teacher Theresa Vescovi explains how students will “milk” udder-like gloves to simulate what occurs with cows.

Perhaps not all of the soon-to-be second-graders working on the project are all that familiar with the concept of a pun, but the adults in the classroom at the time had a good laugh.

And Vicki Flotta, director of public relations for Bethel Park School District, came up with one of her own.

“Ya know, this is udderly fun,” she said.

Vescovi was instructing Farm Tech, one of four modules, themed areas of study, offered during the weeklong session of Camp Invention at Bethel Park’s Neil Armstrong Middle School. One of the exercises was for students to develop catapult-like objects to launch toy bales of hay at the poster, earning play money toward running play farms.

“This has been a great week, because really, it’s showing them that farming is not like it used to be. They don’t even get dirty,” said Vescovi, a Benjamin Franklin Elementary School teacher. “We talked about in Japan, there are enormous, thousand-acre farms that are completely automated. Every tractor drives itself.”

Bethel Park School District has hosted Camp Invention, a summer enrichment program of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, for the past four years. Using hands-on activities, the camp promotes STEM learning – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – plus leadership, problem-solving and entrepreneurial skills.

Harry Funk / Harry Funk/The Almanac 

Harry Funk/The Almanac

Sydney Miller, left, and Samantha Metzler watch as Kate Watt-Little gets ready to launch their DIY Orbot for a “Bot-casso” exercise.

Special education teacher Laura Huth, who worked at William Penn Elementary and is moving to Neil Armstrong for the new school year, has served as camp director since the beginning. During that time, the number of campers has increased from 74 to 146.

“When we started the camp, we had smaller numbers at the higher end of the age group and higher numbers at the primary end, and we had very few girls in fourth, fifth and sixth grades,” Huth said. “Now, the incoming fifth-graders is our largest group this year, and it’s loaded with girls.

“Research shows that you have to get interested early,” she continued. “Almost by middle school, they’re finding, it’s too late, that your stereotypes have already been ingrained, in that science and math is more for boys. So you really have to start younger.”

Camp Invention is open to children who are entering kindergarten through sixth grade. High school students serve as leadership interns for the program, and students in seventh through ninth grades are leadership interns in training.

“What we’re finding this year is that they’re stronger leaders, because they’re actually stronger leaders, because they’ve been through the camp already, but they’re on the other side now,” Huth said. “And so they know what to anticipate.”

Harry Funk / Harry Funk/The Almanac 

Harry Funk/The Almanac

A DIY Orbot plays “Bot-casso.”

This year’s Camp Invention, held July 15-19 at Neil Armstrong, features three other modules in its national curriculum: Deep Sea Mystery, Innovation Force and DIY Orbot.

If you unscramble the last-named, it’s “robot,” and youngsters had the opportunity to program and customize the small hexagonal objects. An example was an activity called “Bot-casso,” named after a certain famous Spanish painter and sculptor.

“Today, what they’re doing is using it to create artwork. They had to come up with that they could put a marker on and be able to easily adjust it, take it off, put it on and put the cap on,” Bethel Park High School technology education teacher Brad Kszastowski said. “Problem-solving is the biggest thing that they learn, because everything is build, test, observe, fix, improve it and make it better.”

Deep Sea Mystery, instructed by West Jefferson Hills School District teacher Dan Owen, included numerous activities related to the oceans.

Harry Funk / Harry Funk/The Almanac 

Harry Funk/The Almanac

Christian Kail tries the fishing device he made during a Deep Sea Mystery activity.

For example, students pretended they had been stranded on an island, and they constructed devices for fishing using recyclable materials they had brought from home. Then they tried to see if the devices actually worked, a small wading pool substituting for the deep sea and toy marine life for the real thing.

“Now, remember what the rule is: behind the tape, on the towel. This is like being at Kennywood. Don’t move in too far. Don’t fall in with the fish,” Owen told the students. “If it doesn’t work very well, you can try to make changes. That’s part of the engineering design process.”

As for the Innovation Force, the premise has campers teaming up with National Inventors Hall of Fame inductees as superheroes “to battle the evil Plagiarizer, a supervillain who is out to steal the world’s greatest ideas. As children create a device to retrieve the stolen ideas, they learn about the importance of intellectual property and the U.S. patent system.”

Harry Funk / Harry Funk/The Almanac 

Harry Funk/The Almanac

Maya Kashlan checks out her design for an “Innovation Force” logo.

“We introduce a new inventor each day and then talk about their superpowers,” said instructor Kent Wallisch, a Bethel Park High School art teacher. He gave the example of George Alcorn, the NASA physicist who invented an imaging X-ray spectrometer and devised an improved method of fabrication using laser drilling.

The students also created their own superhero costumes and learned about the process of patenting a product, including coming up with an effective logo.

“We’re thinking about all the important things: color, design, balance, recognizable symbols without words that will represent their character, and originality,” Wallisch said.

Along with the increase in campers, the number of teachers participating in Camp Invention has grown along, and Huth appreciates their involvement.

“The team is enthusiastic. They’re flexible, and they’re just great to work with,” she said.

Harry Funk / Harry Funk/The Almanac 

Aubrey Kuhn is pleased that the fishing device she made did the trick.

Peters Township prepares for winter with new policy

Coming off the hottest stretch of the summer, Peters Township Council prepared for the cold.

Council members voted unanimously to approve a resolution Monday adopting a new winter storm road maintenance policy, which municipal staff members developed as part of a review process of all township policies.

“The snow removal policy was actually our oldest policy,” assistant township manager Ryan Jeroski said. “It was adopted in February of 1991.”

The new version takes into account “changes in snow removal equipment, techniques and materials, as well as intergovernmental agreements and current township practices,” according to the resolution.

Among the topics addressed is the clearing of sidewalks, which is not mentioned specifically in the 1991 policy, although a township ordinance requires “abutting property owners to perform snow removal services on sidewalks within 24 hours of the advent of winter weather conditions.”

The 2019 policy contains a reminder of the ordinance and further states all township-maintained sidewalks are to be cleared within the allotted time, as well. The document also strengthens language regarding winter maintenance on private roads, for which property owners are responsible.

“The lone exception for this shall be emergency situations that directly threaten the life, health or property of a resident along a private road,” the policy states.

According to the guidelines, clearing a private road does not constitute adverse possession, or having it revert to township ownership, nor does the public works department’s “one-time response to the emergency situation create an expectation for residents along a private road for such responses in the future.”

For new residential developments in which the streets eventually will be part of the Peters’ road system, snow removal services could be provided for a fee established as double the rate in the township’s agreement with the state Department of Transportation for services on Bebout Road, which for 2019-20 is $1,251.28 per mile.

The contract calls for the township maintaining 38.72 miles of state roads for a fee of $50,550. In total, the public works department provides maintenance for more than 136 miles of local and state roads.

In other business Monday:

  • Council voted to apply for a $2 million state Multimodal Transportation Fund grant toward construction of the second phase of the road to be built through the former Rolling Hills Country Club property.

The municipality and Peters Township School District, each of which owns half the property, were unsuccessful in securing a grant for the first phase of Rolling Hills Drive, which will extend southeast from Center Church Road.

“We’re in a better position for phase two,” Jeroski told council. “We’re further along in design and permitting, and we have buy-in from all the impacted property owners.”

The second phase will include realigning East McMurray Road to create a “hammer” configuration allowing residents better access to their homes. The cost is projected at $3.2 million, and if the grant is awarded, the district and township will pay $600,000 apiece.

  • With renovations taking place in council chambers at the municipal building, it was announced the Aug. 12 meeting will be held in the community room at the rear of the police station. The township planning commission’s Aug. 8 meeting also is scheduled for the alternate location.