Shenango Chamber Honors Gula and Weston at Annual Dinner

SHARON, Pa. — It was all about honoring community service and dueling pianos at the Shenango Valley Chamber of Commerce’s first ever virtual Annual Dinner & Live Dueling Piano Bar on Thursday.

The two-hour “At Home in the Shenango Valley” event was streamed over YouTube Nov. 5 and recognized two community leaders in the Shenango Valley who are retiring at the end of the year. Mickey Gula received the Shenango Valley Business Ambassador of the Year award, and the Community Food Warehouse of Mercer County, led by Lori Weston, was honored as the Shenango Valley Champion Organization.

The event was hosted by Caroline Collins, anchor and reporter with WFMJ-21 and Shenango Valley resident. Collins spoke about her experience with COVID-19 over the summer, being admitted to Sharon Regional Medical Center soon after her 27th birthday.

“I am so grateful for the care that I received at Sharon regional from the doctors and other medical professionals,” Collins said. “You did a fabulous job taking care of me. You are all rock stars.”

In September, Gula announced her retirement as executive director of the Buhl Regional Health Foundation, which she led since its inception in 2012. Under Gula’s leadership, Buhl Regional served more than 50 nonprofits, helping them to expand their programming, thereby assisting the community as well as workforce development. Some of those organizations include the Shenango Valley YMCA, Community Counseling Center of Mercer County, Butler County Community College, Adventures in Training with a Purpose and Zion Education Center.

Prior to heading the foundation, Gula ran the Women’s Center at Sharon Regional Health System and helped start the breast care center at the hospital.

“Most of my work career has always been at the beginning of things, it seems,” Gula said. “That’s where you get it off to a good start. Seeing moms, seeing new babies – it always was usually a positive thing.”

During the pandemic, Buhl Regional had to pivot its services to meet changing needs. Rather than have people put together a full grant proposal, it set funding aside to be distributed as need arose, she said.

“Back in March and early April, we were feeding people all across Mercer County,” Gula said. That included funds for other organizations that provided food and other basic needs to residents.

In September, the foundation’s board selected Jennifer Barborak as its new executive director.

“Always concerned for our community and always willing to listen, Mickey addressed the needs of the community with integrity, compassion and a sense of calm,” board chairwoman Angie Palumbo said in a release. “She was the perfect person to help bring the Buhl Regional Health Foundation to fruition.”

During an interview with Palumbo and chamber Executive Director Sherris Moreira, Gula recalled when she started with the foundation, one of the first conversations she had with its board was about the social determinants of health, she said. If anything has brought to light those social determinants and uncovered the needs in the Shenango Valley, she said, it is the coronavirus pandemic.

“This may pass, but it’s been very difficult because so many people are dying and struggling,” Gula said. “As a nurse, I want to do those protective kinds of things. That’s important. Prevention is extremely important if you can manage it.”

Palumbo commended Gula for getting people from transportation initiatives to communicate, which “is a big deal,” she said. As a result, routes were added to the courthouse so individuals could travel to and from their hearings. Typically, buses could only take people out but couldn’t bring them back home, Palumbo said.

“Those are little things people don’t realize are so important and so critical,” she said. “What a wonderful honor for the individual who I’ve known for a very long time. … If you wanted somebody that cared about you to listen to you, it would be Mickey.”

Mickey Gula and Lori Weston receive Pennsylvania House citations from state Rep. Mark Longietti, D-7.

Under the leadership of Executive Director Lori Weston, the team at the Community Food Warehouse of Mercer County was able to quickly adapt to the increased community needs during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The organization hosted eight large-scale drive-thru food giveaways throughout Mercer County, helping residents impacted by job loss, health issues and other community challenges.

During the event, Weston and her sister, Mimi Prada, the organization’s public relations manager, thanked the chamber for the recognition.

“We really didn’t know what we were doing at first. And I’m going to be honest about that because we’ve never been through anything like this before,” Weston said. “We were taking our lead and instructions from the CDC, from the governor, from Feeding America, Feeding Pennsylvania, Hunger-free PA – we were constantly on phone calls.”

Despite the uncertainty, Weston and Prada said they knew they couldn’t panic and had to “present a good front” to keep the community calm.

“We were essential workers and we did a lot behind the scenes, and I don’t know that everyone knew exactly what was going on here,” Weston said. “But that’s OK, because we were able to do what we needed to do.”

“We often saw the worst brought out the best in people,” Prada added. “And you could truly see that.”

In 2010, the organization moved to a larger location, doubling its size and staff, and increased its fleet of food delivery trucks and other initiatives, such as its backpack programs, Senior Box Program, Charitable Milk Program and others.

Weston will be retiring at the end of the year, and she will be missed “a lot,” said state Rep. Mark Longietti, D-7.

“They really stepped up,” he said. “In a time of challenge, they ran to the challenge, the whole team. Through COVID, they just found other ways to reach people.”

Earlier in the day, Gula and Weston received House citations from Longietti and were presented with Senate citations on behalf of state Sen. Michele Brooks, R-50 Greenville, who said they were a “shining light and beacon of hope to so many.”

In a special salute to Shenango Valley, area businesses and business owners who made efforts to support businesses and the community during the coronavirus pandemic received special recognition. They included Joseph Altenor, owner of Haitian Sensation in Sharon; Lindy Phillips, owner of Lindy’s at the Beach in Hermitage; musician Steve Vuich; Anna Marie Mindicino, CEO of Do Good. Period.; Let’s Make Masks in Greenville; Dr. George Garrow, chief medical officer of Primary Health Network in Sharon; Farrell Police Officer Ryan Polichena; Brian Kepple of Sharon Beautification; Jamie Perrine, a registered nurse at Sharon Regional Medical Center; Jennifer Chiodo Lopez and Jessica Minich, Shenango Valley Take Out; Gia Kokor and her daughter Gillian Hart-O’Brien, Shenago Valley Retail; mask-maker Peggy Katona.

Also recognized were the volunteers of the Salvation Army Sharon and the residential support professionals of Whole Life Services and other area agencies.

Outgoing board president Shane Nugent commented on the year, touching on the effects of the pandemic, including lives impacted, business closed then reopened with restrictions and some students learning from home. What some refer to the “new normal,” Nugent believes is a phase, “a challenge that our country will endure and be victorious in the end.”

Challenges present opportunities, he said, praising the chamber’s efforts in pivoting to a new way of doing things. The change actually started last year, he said, with the Rising Rust Belt summit, when the chamber collaborated with the Lawrence County Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber to host the event.

Since then, the collaboration has been extended and is pivotal in helping the region move forward during the pandemic, Nugent said.

“Many of the things that we’ve had to do were unforeseen prior to the pandemic,” he said. “We became a primary source for people as far as the PPP grants, getting that information out, and also for people to know where to get the personal protective gear. Many people had no idea that the grant opportunities were there or where to get this, and that was one area where the Chamber strove and did a fantastic job letting the community know.”

In addition, the chamber, with the Community Foundation of Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio as fiscal agent, founded the Shenango Valley Chamber Charitable Fund to support community efforts throughout the area.

Nugent praised the chamber’s board members and the efforts of its staff, including Executive Director Moreira, for efforts during the pandemic. In 2021, David Grande will assume the role of board president.

Grande thanked Nugent for getting the chamber moving “down the right path” in thinking more broadly about initiatives, some “outside of the box,” that will benefit the community, he said.

“I want to commend Shane on the work he has done. I’m very appreciative of the leadership he has provided to us,” he said. “I look forward to hopefully following in his footsteps next year and keeping some of these initiatives going.”

In 2021, some of Grande’s goals include expanding the Leadership Shenango program into spring and fall sessions, and possibly extending outside of the Shenango Valley, he said. Grande also looks to expand the new Valley Fab Lab to individuals and startups “that can utilize the facility and the equipment for their benefit without having to incur a huge amount of cost to utilize or buy their own equipment,” he said.

Finally, he wants to expand the collaborative efforts with Penn-Northwest Development Corp. and the other chambers in the region.

“We believe collaboration, locally and regionally, will ultimately make our community a better place,” he said.

Pictured at top: Retired executive director of the Buhl Regional Health Foundation Mickey Gula and Lori Weston, outgoing executive director of the Community Food Warehouse of Mercer County, receive plaques from State Rep. Mark Longietti, D-7, outgoing Shenango Valley Chamber of Commerce President Shane Nugent and Diane Helbig, district director for state Sen. Michele Brooks, R-50 Greenville.

Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.