Officials smash a wall to celebrate start of nursing program renovations

March 9, 2019

A wall was ceremoniously torn down Friday to kick off the Somerset County Education Center’s renovations to accommodate Clarion University’s new nursing program.

Smiles, laughter and excitement permeated Room 30 in the education center along Glades Pike in Somerset Township, where dozens of well-wishers gathered in celebration. The group included legislators, educators, community officials and leaders, and the media.

While standing and chatting in revolving groups, the celebrants inevitably eyed a pile of white hard hats and a line of sledge hammers in front of a sign from the Somerset County Foundation for Higher Education welcoming Clarion University to the center.

Somerset County Commissioner Gerald Walker stood beside the sledge hammers and spoke, calling up several other project movers and shakers to offer comments.

Soon, each slapped on a hard hat, grabbed a sledge hammer and began taking swings at the wall.

Pieces of drywall flew, creating ragged-edged holes that allowed a view to the other side, where a crew from Darr Construction of Berlin had already begun working on the project.

One of the sledge hammers traveled almost completely through the wall and hung there. State Rep. Carl Walker Metzgar took credit.

He and state Sen. Pat Stefano, with the support of Gov. Tom Wolf, were instrumental in obtaining a $350,000-a-year line item in the state budget to fund the project. In February, Darr Construction was awarded a $284,000 contract for the renovation.

“The equipment is not included in that cost,” Walker said. He plans to work on the next grant fund drawdown this coming week for the equipment.

Several people in attendance were sad that deceased Commissioner John Vatavuk was not there. Vatavuk, who died in January, was a strong proponent of the education center.

Room 30 was the administration office when the campus first opened in 1989 as the Allegany College of Maryland Somerset Campus. ACM closed the campus in June 2017, citing declining enrollment and revenue losses.

“The wall that was put up there years ago is coming down as part of the renovations needed to house a quality, top-notch nursing program (for) the residents of Somerset County,” said Linda Fetterolf, co-chairwoman of the Somerset County Foundation for Higher Education. She was part of a group of citizens who brought higher education opportunities to Somerset County about 30 years ago and created a campus that now houses several educational entities.

Clarion University signed a five-year lease agreement with the county commissioners in September. The county owns the center. The associate of science in nursing degree program will be offered in partnership with Pennsylvania Highlands Community College, which offers general studies at the education center, and UPMC Somerset, which offers clinical work.

The nursing program will “make it even a better place to live in Somerset County,” Metzgar said.

The county has been without a nursing program since 2017 when ACM stopped offering classes.

“Unique partnerships have been the history of this campus,” Fetterolf said in a statement. “We are fortunate to have formed another between the foundation, the county, the Clarion University administration team and UPMC Somerset.”

Suzanne Funa, foundation executive director, once worked for ACM’s campus as its coordinator of community, foundation and workforce development.

“This is a great day for the Somerset County Foundation for Higher Education and Somerset County,” Funa said. “We are pleased to be part of this project that will provide education for quality living-wage jobs in Somerset County.”

Even though the program will not open until this fall with introductory classes, Funa said she has and continues to receive inquiries about the program. Applications are being accepted now through May 15, or until the 30-student class is filled.

Before James T. Yoder, now administrator of the Somerset County Area Agency on Aging, said a few words about the event, his contribution was noted by several of the foundation members.

Fetterolf pointed to Yoder’s contributions as commissioner in obtaining the nursing program. Funa spoke of the worthwhile hours and days spent to do so.

She said that Yoder came up with the name Somerset County Education Center.

“This has been an honor being here today,” Yoder said. “It has been — wow. It has been a ride. It has been a real ride.”

Clarion University Provost Pamela Gent told the crowd that “we are so excited you reached out to us” shortly before swinging a sledge hammer at the wall behind her.

It was Walker’s words, though, that seemed to be the most thrilling for the crowd.

“Clarion, welcome. Let’s break a wall.”