Murtha fellows

Murtha Fellows Mackenzie Caron, Emma Swihura, Callie Burgan and Mattie Updyke pose for a photo in The Tribune-Democrat's pressroom on Monday, July 12, 2021, in Johnstown.

Callie Burgan, MacKenzie Caron, Mattie Updyke and Emma Swihura all know the stigma about the Johnstown area – that to get a good education and job, to live an active and fun lifestyle and to be happy in general, a person needs to leave.

They are hoping to help change that perception.

In recent weeks, the four University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown students have been working as John P. Murtha Foundation Public Service Fellows, meeting with community leaders and developing a request for proposal that will be used in the process of awarding $10,000 in grant money to organizations that are improving the city and surrounding region.

“We’re really trying to revitalize and help young people realize that there are so many resources in the community and so many activities to get involved in, and you don’t necessarily have to leave in order to find those amenities,” Burgan said.

They have talked with representatives from the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies, Vision Together 2025, the Cambria Regional Chamber of Commerce, the John P. Murtha Foundation and other businesses and nonprofits to help develop their ideas for how to use the grant money.

“I think this is a really important opportunity here in the community ... to work with a lot of different people and organizations in order to identify needs and just create some momentum behind some positive changes that we would like to see,” Caron said. “As young people, I find that a lot of the things that get done in the community tend to be by a generation that is almost out of touch with needs of younger people here, and so for us to be a part of that is kind of leaving our mark and bringing a different and fresher perspective to these needs.”

Burgan, Caron, Updyke and Swihura are the first four Murtha Fellows, meaning there is no past template for how to go through the process. But they also have an opportunity to “set a precedent” for others who follow in the future, Caron said.

“It’s good that we can kind of be creative in the ways that we can do things,” Swihura said. “We do have a lot of free rein, I guess you could say.”

The fellowship was established to carry on the work of U.S. Rep. John Murtha, the longest-serving congressman in Pennsylvania history, who left an indelible mark on Johnstown.

“There are a couple components of this fellowship that kind of coincide with Murtha’s legacy,” Updyke said. “There’s an aspect of research. There’s an aspect of public service. There’s an aspect of community engagement and outreach.”

All four were selected for the seven-week program through an application process.

Burgan, a journalism major, and Updyke, who studies communications and creative writing, are both Johnstown residents and Bishop McCort Catholic High School graduates. Swihura, a Stoystown resident and North Star High School alumna, is majoring in early childhood and special education. Caron, a Richland High School graduate, has a double major in environmental studies and geography, along with a minor in political science.

“I think they come from a variety of backgrounds, a very diverse set of backgrounds, but all have one thing in common, which is they have a great deal of respect and love for this region,” Murtha Foundation Vice Chairman Ed Sheehan Jr. said. “And they’re very anxious to help. I think through their work in the fellows program, they’ll develop an even more keen interest in trying to make a difference.

“As Mr. Murtha used to always talk about, you were put on this earth to make a difference. I think, at the end of their program, they’ll want to make an even bigger impact. That’s good.”

Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5056. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Sutor.

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