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2 award-winning 2017 efforts

Sunday, January 7, 2018

One person started a program in 2017 that had been stopped and dismissed a few years ago despite successfully serving hundreds of inner-city kids for almost two decades.

Another person signed up to volunteer for a new 2017 Youngstown event – only to find herself running it. Experts told her to wait a year. She said no.

These two folks are the fine winners of my third- annual Ralph Meacham Award.

You’ve not heard of the award. Ralph – the Mahoning County Auditor – is aware of it because he politely calls and says thanks for this quirky effort for which he has no vote or input.

I’m not sure the two previous honorees discuss it as I had no plaque, no ceremony or no exotic trip for them. In 2015, Austintown restaurant Barry Dyngles won it for upsetting the gambling industry with its Queen of Hearts event. In 2016, I awarded Derrick McDowell for his creation of Youngstown Flea against immense odds.

And of course Ralph kind of won it initially when he became the first Republican in forever to win a countywide office seat.

The Ralph Meacham Award honors such feats – honest and over-achieving accomplishments against bombogenesis forces.

In 2017, Becky Keck of Students Motivated by the Arts and Courtney Poullas of the Youngstown Marathon overcame such forces.

Becky’s professional life is SMARTS – back to when it was launched as part of Youngstown State University in 1997. Then, as now, SMARTS aims to fill a cultural gap in our Valley education system by providing young people access to music, art, theater, dance and writing. This past fall, it reached more than 800 students with more than 600 hours of instruction taught by more than 20 teachers.

And in 2013 – it was gone.

Severe budget issues at YSU caused cuts that year, and SMARTS was one.

“One day, there was SMARTS, and then the next, Becky learned it was done,” said Youngstown architect Ron Faniro, who was a SMARTS board member.

Ron said the group believed they had a good program. But more importantly, they knew they had Becky.

“She is the quintessential leader. She’s tireless. If she has to interact with high-level leaders, she has that. But if the floors need scrubbed, she’s doing it, too. What shows through is her diligence. These kids who go through the program show up later in life to thank her.”

In the ruins, Becky funded aspects of SMARTS from her own funds. A slow, patient rebuild was charted with a support group called the SMARTS Circle, and last spring, it reopened with a fund of $750,000 raised. Its new home is the majestic first floor of Ohio One in downtown Youngstown.

“After the shock and dismay, what you saw was a group of people who said ‘This cannot die,’” said friend Scott Schulick. “Becky went 24/7 and so did the circle of people around her. They got positive pretty quickly. They knew they would run out of time if they did not quickly regroup. I’m sure there were a few doubters. But there were many who said it could be done. It’s lemonade out of lemons.”

That same line could easily describe Courtney and the Youngstown Marathon.

It launched in 2017 and drew more than 1,000 runners and is on pace to do it again this June.

Its first winner was Tony Migliozzi of North Canton, who timed in just over two hours and 36 minutes. But the real winner was Courtney and the running community behind her.

The marathon was actually someone else’s idea.

Courtney only signed up as a volunteer. She had just started running in 2014 and had only a couple half-marathons under her belt.

The original marathon organizers dumped the project and handed it to Courtney. Only a date and a course had been outlined.

“When she came to us, nothing was in place,” said Steve Hixson, owner of Second Sole athletic footwear store on U.S. 224 in Boardman. And about that course she inherited, he said: “There was a crazy course that needed to be retooled.”

This was five months before its June start date.

Hixson – the running expert in business here since 1981 with locations elsewhere – told Courtney the marathon volunteer who now was its happenstance president:

“We strongly encouraged her to delay this till 2018.”

In our chat, Steve emphasized the word “strongly” like they would in a Hollywood script.

“It probably shouldn’t have happened,” he said, laughing. “Marathons are difficult to host. I’m not sure if one was ever tried here. I’m sure people thought about it. But when they look at it, it’s a daunting task.”

Meet Courtney – the undaunted.

She quit her job to make the marathon happen.

“She was determined. I give her a ton of credit. She put together a strong team,” said Steve, who became a core committee member. Before this event, he and Courtney were strangers.

“The best thing about working with Courtney is she was able to listen and adjust,” said Steve. “She knew what she was good at and did it, and let us do what we know how to do.”

He recalls about 10 people in their inner-core team meeting weekly to make Year 1 happen. Sponsors followed her leadership, and then eventually did the runners – half-marathoners, 5kers and a kids run, too.

And also came the marathoners – a couple hundred of them.

“A marathon puts you on a map in the running community,” said Steve. “You can run a 5K every weekend here in Youngstown. But to run a marathon, now you can do it here. It was a great launch. She kept us going.”

Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at tfranko@vindy.com. He blogs, too, on Vindy.com. Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.