Youngsters may have gotten used to covering their faces to safeguard against COVID-19, but that doesn’t mean they have to enjoy it.
“I think mask wearing is drudgery if it’s not something that you want to do,” said Penelope Butler, a Peters Township mother of two. “If you can find something that’s attractive, matches their outfit and kind of shows their personality, I think that makes it a lot easier.”
With her local school district’s announcement students would be able to return in person five days a week for the start of the academic year, Butler considered the impact of the accompanying mandate for face coverings.
“I thought, well, I’ll just whip up some for the local school,” she said about Pleasant Valley Elementary, which her children had attended. “When I found out the need was probably going to be greater than what I was able to do on my own, I put out a Facebook post asking the other moms if they were interested in helping.”
The project, dubbed “PT Hearts, Cool Masks,” resulted in nearly 1,000 face coverings being produced. Most were made by hand, with the intent of providing something that’s aesthetically pleasing for youngsters in the midst of trying to cope with a variety of unprecedented circumstances.
Recognizing early on such an undertaking would require help at a high level, Butler enlisted her friend Nicole Kretz, who has four children in Peters Township schools.
“And Nicole, of course, was right on board, because she has a heart of gold,” Butler said. “She says that about me, but it’s also true about her.”
Along with a strong sense of community spirit, the two moms share plenty of other common ground. Both grew up within a short distance of each another on Long Island, even though they didn’t realize it until they met in Peters, where each of their families moved about three years ago.
And both served in the U.S. Air Force: Kretz for six years and Butler for 22, currently as a reservist in the new Space Force branch.
They drew from their military experience in leading the “PT Hearts, Cool Masks” effort, no matter how substantial the scope turned out to be.
“Nicole and I weren’t scared of this. We just jumped in. We knew that this was something we could do,” Butler said. “We were often communicating in groups, so you wanted to make sure that everyone understood what their role was. And Nicole did a really good job communicating with the groups.”
Team production accounted for about 60% of the masks, and individuals sewed some 30% on their own. The rest of the coverings were purchased using monetary contributions on behalf of the project.
“It was a great idea, and it was a really nice way for a lot of moms of the community to connect,” Kretz said.
“PT Hearts, Cool Masks” began in mid-July and wrapped up prior to the start of school Aug. 24.
“I would say it went better than expected. The teams all worked really well together, and wherever we had a need, it seemed that somebody else was stepping up,” Butler said. “We asked for donations of fabric, and the community gave us so many choices.”
In fact, more than 130 varieties were donated, with quite the assortment of patterns and colors emerging for the students to select.
“If you can find something that’s attractive, matches their outfit and kind of shows their personality, I think that makes it a lot easier,” Butler said. “At the end, we had to sort through it all and pick out who got what in which school. Nicole definitely had a good eye for recognizing maturity levels and who might want what.”
Both women gave further credit for the project’s success to parent Cindy Peterson, who handled the financial aspects of “PT Hearts, Cool Masks.”
Mt. Lebanon commissioners have given the green light to a yearlong effort toward ensuring the municipality is a welcoming place.
During the commission’s discussion session Tuesday, unanimous consensus was reached on forming a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Ad Hoc Committee within the Mt. Lebanon Community Relations Board.
Commissioners Leeann Foster and Mindy Ranney have been working on drafting guidelines for the committee since the national unrest caused in May when George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer began.
Foster and Ranney’s efforts represent an extension of a commission goal toward inclusiveness.
The municipality now seeks residents who are interested in serving on the committee, which has four working groups:
“I, for one, feel very overwhelmed by the project, and I think it’s outside of the scope of what a lot of us do,” Foster said.
“But it is not outside of the scope of what a lot of our residents do, and there are a lot of people who are anxious to step up and help us with this work.”
The committee initially is set up for members to serve on it for one year.
“At the end of that year, we’re looking for updates, suggestions and recommendations that the commission and municipality can implement moving forward,” Ranney said.
With regard to the police working group, she said Chief Aaron Lauth is seeking “direct input from residents, especially residents with diverse backgrounds.”
“It’s very much in collaboration with the Mt. Lebanon Police Department,” she said. “It’s absolutely their desire to hear from residents directly.”
Foster said Lauth also has been looking into ways of ensuring diversity among those who apply for department positions.
The ad hoc committee has a similar objective for the municipality at large, and numerous procedures already are in place, especially with regard to hiring employees. An area of focus will be the composition of the municipal volunteer advisory boards.
“Are there ways that we can make the process of filling board positions more deliberate around diversity, equity and inclusion?” Foster said.
She elaborated on one of the goals of the working group that addresses planning.
“When an event comes up like Juneteenth of Pride Month, we’re kind of scrambling around. What are we going to say about that? What are we going to do about that, as a commission, as a community?” she said. “What we’d like people to do is work together to develop a calendar for us to be able to recognize different constituents within our community and have a protocol in place if we do have a diversity, equity or inclusion event that occurs.”
Another consideration involves responses to situations by municipal officials, with Foster reporting residents made many inquiries following Floyd’s death.
“We were trying to make decisions about what it is that we should do, because people definitely wanted to make a statement,” she said. “But there are a lot of us who don’t know what kind of language we should be thinking about, those types of things, and we need to have more of a protocol.”
Following the commission’s decisions to move ahead with the ad hoc committee, municipal officials are developing an application process for residents.
“I think this is a really sensitive and important group,” Foster said, “and I think it’s important that we sit down with people who are interested in this and have a real conversation about what it is that we’re trying to accomplish, what could they bring to the table.”
The other three Mt. Lebanon commissioners – Craig Grella, president, along with Steve Silverman and Andrew Flynn – gave ringing endorsements for the committee.
“As I look at what you’ve put together, I feel like you’ve struck an ideal balance on this process, in terms of both being thoughtful about what is the role that the government plays in the community, but also how do we bring people in the community together to move forward,” Flynn told Ranney and Foster. “I look forward to participating as much as I can.”
Following a delay primarily attributable to COVID-19, Mt. Lebanon officials are resuming efforts to help keep residents better informed, and vice versa.
In 2019, the Mt. Lebanon Commission identified enhancements to municipal communications as a priority project, resulting in the hiring of a consultant to develop recommendations, in part through a community survey distributed toward the end of the year.
“Then COVID hit, and this whole process got put on hold,” assistant municipal manager Ian McMeans said.
Means and public information officer Laura Lilley provided an update on the communications plan during the commission’s discussion session Tuesday, focusing in part on some items for immediate implementation.
Among them is hiring an employee to fill a part-time content creator’s position in the public information office.
“We’ve had this position vacant for a while, but because of the pandemic, we had a hiring freeze in the municipality,” McMeans said. “It was previously part of the office when the study was happening. It was intended to be part of the office ongoing. The funding is included in the budget currently, so there’s no additional funding needed.”
Lilley said the position is capped at 29.5 hours per week and has communications-related duties that include “every manner of writing, multimedia, filming, editing. It’s basically a utility position.”
She and McMeans told commissioners a full complement to her office, which is responsible for publishing the 10-issues-annually Mt. Lebanon Magazine, would help with implementing steps toward enhancing communication with residents.
“We need to be timely with everything we do,” Lilley said. “We shouldn’t be finding out things from the community, because that kills any effort to be proactive. It’s gone at that point.”
Keeping current with various platforms available for communication should be another priority.
“We need to be on top of new trends and finding out where people want to hear about things before everybody else in the world is using them,” Lilley said.
Regarding what probably is the most commonly used platform, the municipal website is going through a redesign in an effort toward better navigation, and plans call for a consistent social-media branding for everything related to the municipality.
Also being taken into consideration is the ability for Mt. Lebanon residents to express their concerns, opinions and observations to municipal officials.
“We’re supposed to be having two-way conversations now,” Lilley said. “The days of pushing information out are over, and we are supposed to be customer service experts. Our customers are our residents. We don’t turn them away.”
Commissioners praised her office for exemplary navigation of the COVID-19 crisis, despite being short-staffed.
“We’ve basically been in crisis communication mode since March, so we’ve learned a lot of things during that time,” McMeans said. “But also, just looking around the community, we’ve been able to get the message out fairly steadily on what we need to communicate to our residents.”