When Michael McQueen started taking ceramics classes through the Hope Center for Arts and Technology in Sharon, “I didn’t really see it becoming much,” the Farrell man said.
“It was just something to do after class,” said McQueen, who was a high school freshman at the time.
McQueen was someone who “didn’t really do much,” he said.
“I didn’t talk to anyone. I kind of stayed home and played video games.”
After only a couple of weeks, “I started to get out more,” McQueen said Thursday at the Hope Center’s ribbon-cutting ceremony and open house. “I started to do more.”
After the first year, he didn’t think much of his ceramic work, but other people did.
“The second celebration — 10th grade, I want to say — feel like I started to get a little better,” McQueen said. “Felt like I could start selling some of my pieces. It gave me confidence. I still play games, but just not as much. I found people to talk to. Found places you can go.”
One of those places is college – McQueen is a freshman at Penn State-Shenango in Sharon.
It’s still early in McQueen’s life, but his story epitomizes what the Hope Center – nicknamed HopeCAT – wants to do.
The Hope Center, which has been six years in the making, is modeled after the Manchester Bidwell Corp. center in Pittsburgh. Created by William E. Strickland Jr., the Steel City center seeks to serve the underprivileged with arts offerings to teens and in-demand occupational training for adults.
“This is the answer,” said Paul O’Brien, the Brookfield man whose family donated the building that was once Sacred Heart School and Brookfield Elementary School for HopeCAT.
Referring to Strickland’s speech, O’Brien said, “You have to get these kids to have self-respect, faith in themselves, pride in themselves and not think that they’re destined to be (on) welfare. They can make something of themselves. All they have to do is work at it.”
“We’re in the business of reclaiming the human spirit,” Strickland told a rapt audience. “I’m here to recruit all of you. We can’t have people dying of hunger in our state, and we can’t have people dying because they have no hope.”
Although the initial student involvement was in Mercer County, HopeCAT is a regional organization, said Executive Director Tom Roberts.
“We should easily be able to hit five counties here, and we need the support of the entire region to do that,” he said.
Roberts said he hopes to have Brookfield students at the center in the spring. He’s already given a tour of the building to some Brookfield students who were skateboarding in the HopeCAT parking lot.
“They thought I was going to yell at them,” Roberts said. “I walked outside and I said, ‘Guys, come here. I need you to help me take care of the place.’ They looked at me. I said, ‘Do you know what this is?’ They said, ‘no.’ I said, ‘Well, here’s what it is,’ and, ‘Here’s what we’re doing.’”
During the tour, “They were like, ‘Can we come here?’ I said, ‘Absolutely. We just gotta do some paperwork stuff. As soon as we do the paperwork, you guys will be here.’ They’re already excited, and they were going back to tell their teachers about it.”
For adults, the center is planning to offer a medical assistant training certificate program as soon as the state of Pennsylvania approves a license. The program will include nine months of classroom lessons and a one-month externship.
Graduates should be poised to find work right away at a good wage and with benefits, Roberts said.
“If you do a quick search on medical assisting as a job category in like a 30-mile radius, dozens of jobs available,” he said. “It’s the most in-demand career, which is why we selected it.”
Story and photos by Joe Pinchot/News On the Green.