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Mt. Lebanon Partnership helps local businesses throughout COVID-19 pandemic
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Electric guitar in hand, Joe Ravita gets ready to give a lesson.

“I’m going to show you just a basic rundown of the first rock song that everyone learns when they come through here,” he said, “the easy-to-play ‘Smoke On the Water.’”

The demonstration of the Deep Purple classic by the owner of Empire Music in Mt. Lebanon serves as the focal point of an episode in the Love Lebo Learning Series of videos featuring local businesses.

In turn, the series is one of numerous initiatives by the volunteers of the Mt. Lebanon Partnership, a nonprofit community development organization, to help businesses navigate through the COVID-19 pandemic.

As part of Tuesday’s Mt. Lebanon Commission discussion session, two of the volunteers provided details about their efforts.

“When COVID hit, that really brought a sense of urgency to our work and really underscored the fact that the businesses in our business districts are good, strong businesses until they’ve been disrupted by government mandates and closures and capacity restrictions,” Betsy Benson, president of the Partnership’s executive committee, said.

Harold Behar, who chairs the group’s promotional activities, explained how he and fellow partnership board member Tim Steinouer were instrumental in developing “Love Lebo” as an overarching theme, complete with an appealing logo.

“We wanted to be ready to have something that could be almost placed strategically on everything, to show there’s a common thread through our campaigns,” Behar said.

An early campaign focused on providing amenities for diners.

“We were very sensitive to the fact that our restaurants were not able to have inside dining,” Benson said. “Since restaurants, of course, are one of the most thriving and community-drawing elements of our business districts, we helped kind of brand and theme three separate areas.”

Tables and chairs were set up in strategic places along Washington Road, and she said the partnership “made sure that people understood that they were being invited to get takeout and come and enjoy their business district, even though they weren’t able to eat inside the restaurants.”

Along similar lines was a Love Lebo Takeout Bingo promotion, in which patrons who ordered from a certain number of eateries were rewarded with Love Lebo T-shirts.

To help accommodate motorists who stopped to pick up food, the partnership worked with municipal and Mt. Lebanon Parking Authority officials to have spaces set aside as “free 10-minute grab-and-go spots,” Behar said. “They’re still up there. They’re still in use.

On more of an emotional support level, the partnership also started a Pay It Forward yard sign campaign.

“With COVID, there were a lot of people struggling in isolation, struggling with things they’d never encountered before, and this was an effort to remind everyone that we live in a community, a strong community, where we rely on each other,” Benson said. “So whether it was a random act of kindness or someone who was just doing incredible work in the community, we encouraged community residents to pick up a sign at a couple of different locations and present it to someone who had done something special.”

As the holiday season approached, the partnership came up with a family-oriented scavenger hunt of sorts, with 105 placards bearing images of elves placed in storefronts in the business districts along Washington and Beverly roads.

“We pretended these elves were lost, and we had to find them,” Behar said. “The kids really, really embraced it, and that led to our other adventure that was also holiday-related.”

With volunteers putting in plenty of hours, a seasonal diorama was assembled in an empty Washington Road storefront, creating another destination point for the Uptown district.

“You could really look into it and through it, and see dozens of vignettes,” Benson said, particularly crediting Steinouer and board member Chris Reiderbaugh for their work on the project.

The Mt. Lebanon Partnership is the host organization for the local Main Street America program, as accredited by the National Main Street Center, a subsidiary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Recently, visiting officials conducted an assessment of the Main Street activities.

“I think it’s not an overstatement to say that they were blown away by the amount of things that we were not only able to organize, but execute and execute well,” commercial districts manager Eric Milliron said. “They were so enthusiastic that we’re going to presenting this at the state conference this September. So it’s work that is being recognized outside of our six square miles.”

Mindy Ranney, Mt. Lebanon Commission president, acknowledged all of the efforts on behalf of businesses during a difficult year for everyone.

“They still found time to go above and beyond what the Partnership typically does to provide direct support to our community and our businesses,” she said. “And I just couldn’t be more grateful for that hard work.”

Nonprofit raises awareness about nonalcoholic liver disease
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In 2014, Scott Township resident Anthony Villiotti learned that he had cirrhosis of the liver.

“We were shocked, because my husband is a nondrinker. Like most people, we thought that only happens to people who abuse alcohol,” Betsy Villiotti recalled. “He thought, how did I not know this? Then we realized most people don’t know it.”

He received a transplant in March 2018, and later that year he decided to honor his donor and help create awareness about liver disease by founding NASH kNOWledge, a nonprofit with the name based on a condition called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis.

With Gina Madison, the Villiottis’ daughter, on board as executive director, the organization continues its mission of encouraging healthy lifestyles to protect the human body’s largest solid organ.

Nine years before his diagnosis of cirrhosis, excessive scarring of the liver, Anthony was told he had nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, a condition that today affects some 100 million Americans, primarily because of less-than-optimal diet and lack of exercise.

But he was unaware the condition could evolve to the point where he would need a new liver to perform vital functions such as removing toxins, maintaining healthy blood sugar levels and regulating blood clotting. So he wants to make sure others are in the know.

“I really believe in things happening for a reason and timing is meant to be,” Madison, a Chartiers Valley High School graduate said. “The timing of my dad’s transplant and going through his journey was a time when NASH and fatty liver disease were really starting to be talked about more in the medical community.”

As such, the Villiottis’ efforts coincided with those of other organizations, such as the American Liver Foundation and Community Liver Alliance, with which they were able to make strong connections.

NASH kNOWledge has produced a documentary that aired on PBS in Pittsburgh and Maryland, along with an animated video geared toward youngsters.

“We did infographs for adults and children,” Betsy said. “We also realized that if you’re Hispanic, you even have a higher risk for this. So most of our information is in Spanish, as well.”

Thanks primarily to Madison’s efforts, the organization has a strong social media presence, and the family members have visited many health fairs to provide information about liver diseases.

“We found that when we’re talking about this with people, even though 100 million Americans have a fatty liver, they always gloss over the nonalcoholic piece of it,” Madison said.

“You start talking to them about nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and the first thing they say is, ‘Oh, I don’t drink alcohol,’ and they kind of walk away.”

But drawing their attention more thoroughly is the message an estimated six million Americans ages 14 and younger already are experiencing fatty livers.

“When you focus on that aspect, you’re taking that piece with the alcohol out of it. You are also hitting the whole family, because nutrition and food choices really start in the home,” Madison said. “The overall disease is a growing public health crisis, but the kid aspect in particular – as a parent, myself – it scares me.”

Further NASH kNOWledge activities include a twice-a-month virtual support group started by Betsy.

“If you have a liver disease that progressed as far as cirrhosis, whether it was from alcohol or anything else, you’re welcome to join our meetings,” she said. “We were going to meet in person. Now, I have people from 13 different states.”

Last month, the organization conducted a Thanksgiving in June awareness campaign promoting healthy lifestyles, partially in response to weight gains reported by many Americans during the pandemic.

As far as diet, Madison said the medical professionals on NASH kNOWledge’s board have recommendations such as avoiding processed foods, particularly sugars, and limiting carbohydrate and sodium intake.

“We’ve moved so far away from eating fresh,” she said. “There’s so much added sugar in our food that we don’t even know about, and sugar affects your liver just like alcohol does.”

Liver problems, she noted, generally take a while to evolve into more serious conditions.

“During that time frame, you can either continue to do that damage or you can have the opportunity to rectify and change your eating habits, change what you’re drinking, change your physical activity, and reverse that damage to your liver.”

For more information, visit www.nash-now.org.

Street interconnection policy gains approval in Peters Township
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A new Peters Township policy codifies procedures for attempting to ensure adequate access to residential developments.

Township council voted 5-2 Monday in favor of the Roadway Interconnection Policy, with Monica Merrell and Gary Stiegel Jr. opposing.

Ryan Jeroski, assistant township manager, said the document is based on what is contained in the municipal subdivision and land development ordinance, along with the current comprehensive plan, which outlines the merits of interconnecting streets.

“That’s how the township staff has adopted our procedure in terms of how we deal with residential developers coming forward,” he said.

A major consideration is public safety, including response times for emergency personnel and snow removal by the public works department.

“Where deemed possible by the township engineer, all preliminary plans for residential developments shall, at a minimum, provide for two means of vehicular ingress and egress,” the new policy states.

Township planning director Ed Zuk addressed another aspect.

“It’s for overall traffic circulation,” he said. “As we continue to grow, the more these neighborhoods connect, the less congestion we’ll have.”

The policy calls for existing cul-de-sacs to be extended when possible, although residents of those types of streets often object to that eventuality.

“I understand the public safety aspect of it, but people buy these lots. They know going into it that it’s a cul-de-sac. They should be well aware that there’s only one way in, one way out,” Stiegel said. “I’m not sure why we’re pushing it so much.”

Jeroski said residents maintain “an expectation of public service, even on those streets.”

And as these connections are not made,” he added, “it becomes a less and less realistic expectation that we can meet.”

Although the policy calls for at least a pair of access points to residential plans, in some cases the connections depend on what occurs on neighboring land in the future.

Merrell said both means of ingress and egress be established at the onset.

“They should do it then, not rely on eventually something developing behind it, beside it, above it,” she said.

Among other items listed in the policy are:

  • The township planning department is to seek input from the police department, fire department, public works department, ambulance service and Peters Township School District when considering the potential interconnection of streets in proposed plans;
  • The configuration of proposed residential plans should accommodate the elimination of dead-end streets, particularly those exceeding 600 feet;
  • Dead-end streets are permitted only in situations where there are no driveways from homes connected to the proposed street, for which snow removal will not be provided.

The policy also calls for the township to “strive to provide notice to current and prospective property owners” about the possibility of future street extensions, such placing notes on preliminary and final plans, posting signs at the end of temporary cul-de-sacs and including the information in lien letters.

“At the end of the day, if we put it in front of them, at least we tried to help them understand,” Merrell said.