Sharon, Farrell leaders ask for residents’ help

By Jeanne Starmack

People need to be involved with their kids and in their neighborhoods, community leaders say.

SHARON, Pa. — When Riley Smoot was a kid, he would sling a snow shovel across his shoulder and set out to make a few bucks after a big snow.

His parents would push him to do it. Now, said Smoot, the Southwest Regional Police Department chief, kids walk in the streets after school because sidewalks aren’t shoveled, and people complain about that.

“So shovel sidewalks,” said Smoot, who was part of a panel at a town meeting Tuesday for residents of Sharon and Farrell.

“We had parents and people pushing when I was a kid. We don’t have that anymore,” he said.

With that statement, Smoot nailed a theme that emerged from the meeting, called by the Sharon and Farrell area Weed and Seed: Parents and neighbors don’t get involved in kids’ lives or in their neighborhoods, and that contributes to crime and vandalism.

Once a neighborhood runs down, blight takes over and scares away development, pointed out Mark Yerskey, Farrell’s code officer, and there was the meeting’s other major theme. A builder won’t build a house next to one that’s abandoned, boarded up and full of rats, he said. The cities need residents to get involved, he said: “Especially in these times.”

Forty-one people attended the meeting for presentations by Smoot, Yerskey and other government and schools representatives.

How can a community get involved and make changes, one of those people asked after presentations were over and the panel took questions.

“Come forward and stand up for what they believe in,” said Sharon Councilman Victor Heutsche, an attorney.

“Charges get dismissed because people don’t want to testify, and that has to stop,” he said. “People have to take responsibility for their community.”

“We have a problem with graffiti and litter,” said Michael Menster, Sharon’s police chief. "Cigarette butts, bottles and cans in the streets. When people see kids doing it and ignore it, then it becomes a part of life. Kids realize they can get away with it and it grows.”

Don’t let that sort of blight become the norm, Menster told the audience, even if it means calling someone’s parents.

Lynne Powell, the Farrell schools’ community outreach specialist, said anyone who is interested in tutoring or mentoring can call the outreach office.

“We need more tutors — people with patience,” said Farrell Mayor Olive McKeithan.

“Do students feel they can do it, and is it important to mom and dad,” said Gary McElfresh, supervisor of student services in Sharon schools. He “can’t say enough” about Edline, an online program that lets parents keep track of their children’s progress in school.

Mentoring through the Urban League, said Heutsche, who’s done it, can help young people shake the sense of despair over a lack of opportunities.

Officials also talked about how many blighted houses are set right now for demolition — 50 in Farrell and 60 in Sharon.

And they talked about what they would like to see happen for their communities.

Menster said he’d like a return to community policing, when there were funds available to station officers in high-crime neighborhoods 24 hours a day. They’d walk the streets and play basketball with the kids, he said.

Smoot said he’d like to see an atmosphere in which a family isn’t afraid to sit on its front porch.

Adrienne Gordon, a community planner with Community Action Partnership of Mercer County, administers the Weed and Seed program. The program’s goal is to weed out crime in the cities and seed them with resources, money, volunteers and opportunities, she said.

She said input from the meeting will be used to develop the program’s revitalization plan for 2009-10. The program will disburse $200,000, with half of it mandated for law enforcement, she said.

Activities for youths and clearing out blight seemed to be the clear list toppers of community concerns, she said.

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