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West Mifflin pupils plant petunias to pay it forward

Thursday, June 04, 2009

By Jennifer Goga

Eighth-grader Abbie Kulhanek, 14, of West Mifflin, digs a hole for a flower Sunday as students from West Mifflin middle and high school help plant flowers at a strip mall on Lebanon Road.

Kaylee Beckinger, 14, held a white petunia Sunday as she walked barefoot through a flower bed along Lebanon Road in West Mifflin. Selecting what she considered the perfect spot, she planted the flower in loose soil, telling friends nearby, "I just hate when dirt gets under my nails."

Kaylee, of West Mifflin, was taking part with several of her West Mifflin Middle School classmates at the Hot Metal Plaza in a community service project organized by Wendy Betten, owner of the Hot Metal Diner, and West Mifflin Middle School Principal Dave Deramo.

Ms. Betten's diner is one of three businesses in the plaza.

"We started with 11 piles of dirt and 80 flats of flowers and now we have a garden," Ms. Betten said, as she admired the scene. Nearly 30 volunteers with shovels, rakes and spades worked to plant hundreds of petunias in neat rows along the islands bordering the plaza parking lot.

Calling the planting effort "Pay it Forward Day," Ms. Betten hopes to encourage West Mifflin residents to begin offering good deeds to strangers with no expectation of repayment, except that recipients provide a similar good deed for another stranger.

The pay-it-forward concept was popularized by a 2000 movie of the same name that was based on the book written by Catherine Ryan Hyde.

Ms. Betten has always been an advocate of community service and is heavily involved with the West Mifflin School District, including an initiative called E.A.R, that promotes effort, attitude and respect among middle schoolers.

Mr. Deramo brought his two young daughters to the event and did his share of digging. He said the E.A.R. program is a unique way to reward students for attributes other than grades.

"We wanted a program to recognize a solid work ethic. No matter what you're going to do in your life, that's the secret to success," he said.

Mr. Deramo said Ms. Betten has provided gift certificates to the school as an incentive for students to remain focused on community service.

"We wanted to return the favor by planting some flowers," he said.

"Put me to work," Mike Kosko said to Mr. Deramo, as he carried a flat of flowers across the parking lot.

Mr. Kosko is a health teacher at West Mifflin Middle School and one of two coordinators of the school community service program.

"If these kids learn to give back, it'll make their community a better place," he said. He also believes it will help with the students' self-esteem.

The idea for the pay-it-forward event sprang from a 10-minute YouTube video created by an anonymous South Hills man. The video chronicles a weekend-long pay-it-forward trip of good deeds in Chicago.

The narrator uses the screen name of "friendinpittsburgh" and prefers to withhold his identity so the motive for his good intentions are not misunderstood.

Ms. Betten said his actions inspired her to launch a local branch of the initiative.

She ordered special bracelets, featured at the end of the YouTube video, for the participants.

The white rubber bracelets have "Pay It Forward" printed in black and came with a request that they be worn until a random act of kindness is completed for a stranger. When the wearer receives a thank you, they should then pass the bracelet along, encouraging the recipient to do the same for another stranger.

"I think they'll get the idea and carry it on," Ms. Betten said.

Maya Pirl, 14, and Jasmine Pirl, 13, sisters from West Mifflin, were among the volunteers.

"It's where you live and you want to be friendly and help out because you might need help someday," Maya said.

Ms. Betten's idea to beautify the plaza brought numerous local donations. Hot Metal Harley Davidson donated the soil, Oriental gardens donated the flowers, and Mayor John Andzelik has offered borough services to water the garden in coming months.

The students were joined by regular customers of the diner, including Joe and Donna Kosuda, of West Mifflin. They brought sons Nick, 8, and Jack, 4.

"We figured we'd help her out," Ms. Kosuda said. "It just seemed like a nice thing to do."

Everyone congregated in the Hot Metal Diner after the planting to eat hamburgers and hot dogs donated by Reinhart Food Service. Prosound DJs provided music for the three-hour gathering.

Ms. Beckinger stood back, admiring the newly planted garden.

"It was really plain before. I knew it would be fun to help make it prettier."

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