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Longtime independent living advocate to retire

In the 1990s, many people with disabilities were dying in nursing homes. Roughly 4,000 names were on the waiting list for state-funded home health care, so Kathleen Kleinmann and some like-minded fellow activists made it their mission to get officials in Harrisburg to direct more funds for that purpose.

“They didn’t want to hear it at first, but we took over (Gov. Tom) Ridge’s office, and we camped out in front of the Capitol for two weeks, and a bunch of people got arrested,” Kleinmann said. But in the end, Ridge raised the appropriation in a single budget cycle enough to get everyone off the waiting list.

It’s one of a number of victories Kleinmann, 69, has scored in her decades-long career as an advocate for the rights of those with disabilities.

She’s also been part of the independent living movement, whose tenet that people living with disabilities has slowly moved from the fringes of public opinion closer to mainstream consensus in the last few decades.

Kleinmann is retiring as CEO of Transitional Paths to Independent Living (TRPIL), the nonprofit she founded in 1990, as she gets ready to move to Rockville, Md., where her daughter, Melanie, lives. A party will be held in her honor Sunday at the Hilton Garden Inn at Southpointe.

Kleinmann also has a son, Daniel. She’s expecting her third grandchild soon.

She said she thinks of leaving her current role as a “graduation.” She doesn’t have another job lined up, but she said she’s hoping to continue her involvement in politics in some way: “I’ve got a plan, but I haven’t let anybody down there know of my plan.”

Kleinmann has non-progressive muscular dystrophy, grew up in Wilmerding, a little borough in Allegheny County’s Turtle Creek Valley, in a family of 11 children. As a child she used crutches and braces, and schools at the time had no obligation to take children with disabilities.

She did get an education, starting with when the local school sent a teacher to work with her at home for an hour each day.

“Someone out there must have been going to bat for me from time to time, but I didn’t always know who it was,” she said.

That lasted three years before she was sent to a school for children with disabilities for another a few more years. She said it finally took a teacher who “threw a fit” and got himself fired so that she and several other students could be sent to the local public school when she was 12.

She described it as an early lesson that there were “pioneers” who were willing to stand up against others’ view of what was normal.

“I think that was the seeds” of her activism, she said.

She went on to be part of East Allegheny High School’s first graduating class, doing so well that she never had to pay tuition during her undergraduate studies at Penn State University and while pursuing master’s degrees from Florida State and the University of Pittsburgh.

The schooling fueled a career that took her from the New Jersey Medicaid program in 1979 and back to her home region, where she began working for the Three Rivers Center for Independent Living, a now-closed nonprofit service provider for people with disabilities, in 1982, while the Americans With Disabilities Act was still “just a pipe dream.”

“I didn’t realize that I was helping to lay the groundwork and that I was joining an army that would make that happen.”

During the ensuing career, she’d also be arrested 16 times during nonviolent protests, including during the one that helped get more money for home care. TRPIL was also part of the fight in the 1990s to get transportation for those with disabilities in rural areas.

The next big push is in the area of assistive technology – namely, getting insurers to cover more of it – she predicted.

“It’s been an exciting time to live and work,” Kleinmann said.

Kleinmann’s retirement event will be held at the Hilton Garden Inn from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. on Sunday. Those who wish to attend should call 724-223-5115.


Localnews
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TRIPL announces merger with Erie disabilities organization

Transitional Paths to Independent Living (TRPIL), the Washington-based social service agency, announced Thursday it will be merging with the Erie organization Voices for Independence.

Both agencies provide services to people with disabilities. It is anticipated the merger will become effective in January, and when that happens, TRPIL will shed its name and go under the moniker Voices for Independence.

Kathleen Kleinmann, the retiring chief executive officer of TRPIL, said the two organizations will have reduced overhead as a result of the merger.

“It will be more efficient and cost-effective,” she said. All told, the combined organization will serve 27 counties in the western part of the commonwealth.

The union will occur at about the same time the first phase of renovation is completed at the organization’s new facility at 42 W. Maiden St. in Washington. The 90-year-old, former YWCA building will be the local headquarters for Voices for Independence, while its main office will be in Erie. Shona Eakin, currently the CEO for Voices for Independence, will fulfill that role for the combined organization.

Eakin said the refurbished building has a “tremendous future.”

“The space will enable us to have all kinds of activities,” Eakin said. “There can be group activities and all those kinds of things.”

The merged organizations will maintain or expand existing staffing levels, and increase programming options and services. Planning for the merger has been happening for about two years. Eakin also said it’s harder for small, independent nonprofits to sustain themselves in the current health care environment.

TRPIL and Voices for Independence will be “much stronger” when they combine, Eakin said.

Kleinmann will take on a consulting role during the merger of TRIPL and Voices for Independence. Both organizations are dedicated to helping individuals with disabilities receive assistance and training in independent living, help them find a place in the workforce and also assist in areas like home modifications.


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Residents discuss proposed recovery home in South Strabane Township

About 70 residents of East Washington Borough and South Strabane Township gathered at Citizens Library Thursday to discuss pushing back against a proposal by Gaudenzia Foundation Inc. to open a long-term rehabilitation home on Wilmont Avenue for pregnant women and mothers recovering from drug and alcohol addiction.

Gaudenzia plans to purchase a home at 100 Wilmont Ave. for its residential program, which will provide services for up to 16 women and as many as two children each.

Many of the residents who packed the library’s community meeting room had attended a contentious meeting hosted Wednesday by Gaudenzia, where representatives outlined plans for the home.

Susan Key, an attorney who lives near the property Gaudenzia is seeking to buy, is a member of an informal sub-committee formed to lead residents’ opposition to the rehab home.

“We all believe it’s a good program and believe that Gaudenzia is doing good work, but we don’t believe they should be operating in an R-1 area,” said Key.

Last week, Gaudenzia, a Norristown-based non-profit that operates more than 90 transitional and about 155 permanent housing facilities throughout Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland, submitted a formal request with South Strabane Township for an amendment to the zoning code that would permit the company to operate in an R-1 area.

The purchase of the more than 8,000-square-foot home on nearly seven acres, which is owned by John and Kerrin McIlvaine, is contingent upon approval of the zoning amendment, according to the sub-committee.

It was listed at $649,000.

Gaudenzia director of operations David Slenger said Wednesday the size and good condition of the home, along with its proximity to the city of Washington and services, made it ideal for a residential home for women as they heal and learn life and parenting skills.

Residents will have already gone through drug and alcohol treatment.

Slenger said Gaudenzia doesn’t plan to expand or build on the property, but neighbors are concerned the company will.

Key encouraged residents to attend the South Strabane Township zoning commission meeting Nov. 7 at 7 p.m. and the South Strabane Township supervisors meeting Oct. 22 at 7 p.m. to voice their opposition.

Residents say they support the mission of the residential rehabilitation program, but they urged Gaudenzia to find another location that would be a better fit.

“It’s imperative we do everything we can and have a grassroots effort to stop it at the local zoning level,” said Key.

A needs assessment conducted by Washington Drug and Alcohol Commission revealed a need for programs to treat pregnant women and women with children battling addiction.

In 2018, Gaudenzia helped provide treatment to 17,750 individuals, including 1,037 pregnant and parenting mothers in residential care, along with their children.

Gaudenzia reported its total revenue from July 2017 through June 30, 2018, was $82.1 million, while expenses were $76.5 million.


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Gov. Wolf visits downtown Monongahela

MONONGAHELA – Gov. Tom Wolf went door-to-door Thursday in historic downtown Monongahela, chatting with small business owners as part of his efforts to draw attention to vibrant towns across the state.

The governor had been invited to the small city as part of its 250th birthday celebration this year, and he believed it’s a “good example of a Main Street that seems to be going strong,” said his spokesman, J.J. Abbott.

“It’s really neat. It’s a great city,” said Wolf, who walked about four blocks to the restored Noble J. Dick Aquatorium stage alongside the Monongahela River.

His entourage had lunch at Two and a Fry on West Main Street before heading to City Hall to begin the walking tour.

Wolf first stopped at DeVore Hardware where he was given a screwdriver and wooden yardstick.

“I think it’s pretty cool just because we’re a small little town and he came out to explore it,” said Tina Porter, after shaking hands with the governor at the door to her soap store, The Bubblery Pittsburgh.

“This is awesome, added Dorothea Pemberton, executive director of Monongahela Area Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s such an honor. It gives us a boost of energy.

A Pittsburgh-style wedding cookie table awaited Wolf at the aquatorium. It was a nod to Monongahela Area Historical Society which established a Guinness World Record this summer for creating the largest wedding cookie table as part of the 250th celebration.

Wolf said Monongahela struck him as being a place where people are dedicated to their hometown.

“It comes down to one thing; making this an attractive place where people want to invest,” he said.