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--- Issued Oct. 17, 2008

The Erie-Tmes News published a welcome introduction today to this evening's celebration of "The Future Heroes of Public Housing" at the Bayfront Convention Center. We believe the article is a big step forward in helping to abolish public housing stereotypes.

Called "Successful 7" and written by Erica Erwin, the article was published as follows:

Successful 7:

Former public-housing

residents honored for

their achievements

For Damian Bounds, living in public housing was a lesson in overcoming challenges and dreaming big.

For Claudia Mokwa, it fostered feelings of community and security.

For Shelley Pulliam, it meant a chance at college.

Onjanette Jackson sings during a
service at Victory Christian Center.
Jackson grew up in a house owned
by the Housing Authority.
(RYAN RANDOLPH/ Erie Times-News)

In ways large and small, the Erie Housing Authority has helped change the lives of thousands of people in the last 70 years, including seven people who will be honored tonight for their achievements since moving out of public housing.

The authority calls them future heroes.

These are their stories.

Claudia Mokwa
Home was Franklin Terrace, now called the John E. Horan Garden Apartments.

"I didn't realize how different it was until I started making friends on Woodlawn Avenue and Bird Drive, nice neighborhoods," said Claudia Mokwa, 34. "Everyone (in public housing) was in the same boat."

Everyone watched each other's children. Everyone shared groceries and cooked meals. Everyone looked out for one another, and that taught Mokwa the meaning and importance of community.

"We always had friends," said Mokwa, a counselor at Mercyhurst North East who works with students with special needs. "Now people have to arrange play dates."

Mokwa moved out of public housing after graduating from Gannon University in 1996 with a degree in early-childhood education. She went back to school, this time at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, graduating in 2000 with a master's degree in counseling and student personal services in higher education.

She's renting an apartment in North East now, saving to buy a home in a neighborhood where she can find that same sense of community the Housing Authority provided.

"Money isn't everything," Mokwa said. "When you don't have it, you learn to love other things. You have priorities."

Damian Bounds
His mother was always preaching at him, telling him to do the right thing, and he listened.

"It was a light bulb that went off in my head," Damian Bounds said. "I knew I had to get outside of my element."

For Bounds, who grew up in what was then Franklin Terrace, that meant surrounding himself with people who dreamed big -- and then acted on it.

"There's a lot of people who had aspirations, but they didn't dream big," he said. "They had the thought, but they didn't take the necessary steps to accomplish their dreams. You can dream, but if you don't surround yourself with people who can help you reach that dream, you're just a dreamer. You're not being proactive."

Now it's Bounds who preaches, spreading the message to the students he teaches at Druid Hills High School in Atlanta, where he lives with his wife.

In addition to teaching, Bounds, 33, is attending Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Ga., working on his certificate in educational leadership. He hopes to become a school principal.

"Success to me basically means you are able to give back," he said. "You are an honest, ethical citizen and you contribute to society in some way. That's success to me."

Melanie Dobbs Hilliard
Melanie Dobbs Hilliard had it good growing up.

Stable housing. A safe neighborhood. Kids to play with.

"I never really wanted for anything," Hilliard said.

The single-family home that the Housing Authority provided to her family also allowed Hilliard's mother to send her to Catholic school through high school, a priority for the family, instead of paying rent or a mortgage.

The authority placed her in summer jobs as she worked through college.

"I don't know if I would have been able to have that without public housing," said Hilliard, 34, an adoption and kinship caseworker at Family Services of Northwestern Pennsylvania.

Hilliard graduated from Edinboro University in 1996 with a bachelor's degree in social work. Today, she and her husband, Shantel, live with their 21-month old son in the home her husband grew up in.

Torry Mitchell
When Torry Mitchell looks at the faces he sees in his classroom at the R. Benjamin Wiley Community Charter School, he sees reflections of himself.

"Those are the people I come from," said Mitchell, discipline coordinator of the alternative classroom at the charter school. "I'm used to that environment. These kids coming up now don't differ too much from when I came up."

Mitchell, 25, grew up with his mother and brother in a three-bedroom home on East 21st Street. Their rent was subsidized by the Housing Authority through the federal Section 8 housing-assistance program.

Mitchell went on to letter in basketball at Mercyhurst College and Edinboro University, where he graduated in 2006 with a bachelor's degree in liberal studies. He's pursuing a master's degree in special education from Mercyhurst.

He wants to let students know what's possible in life. "There's so many negative things you can get caught up in," he said. "It's important for people like me to be around and say, 'You don't have to be that. You can be better.'"

Onjanette Jackson
People who live in public housing are not trying to improve their lives. They're getting over on the system. They're looking for a handout.

Onjanette Jackson hears the stereotypes even today.

"It's almost as if a person is looked down upon if they're in public housing," said Jackson, 33, who grew up in a single-family home owned by the Housing Authority.

The staff at the Housing Authority never made her feel that way, Jackson said. She worked in the authority's maintenance department in high school as part of the Greater Erie Community Action Committee's summer employment program. When she earned good grades at Strong Vincent High School, she was awarded a $1,000 Louis J. Tullio Memorial Scholarship from the authority.

The money helped her enroll at Mercyhurst College, where, in 1997, she earned a bachelor's degree in computer management information systems. She went on to earn a Master of Business Administration from Keller Graduate School of Management in 2007.

Today, Jackson rents an apartment and works as a customer-service representative at National City Bank. She's also the chief executive of her own business, JEI Consulting, which specializes in small-business consulting and business-plan development.

Being recognized by the Housing Authority is an honor, Jackson said.

"It helps people who have that negative mindset of people in public housing (realize) that it's not a bad thing to be in public housing," she said. "I don't want people in public housing, young or old, to feel that they can't accomplish what they want to accomplish."

Shelley Pulliam
The greatest challenge for Shelley Pulliam was the peer pressure.

"A lot of the friends I grew up with were doing things I didn't want to do," said Pulliam, who grew up in what was then Franklin Terrace. "My greatest thing was going the other direction. I was never one to do what everyone else was trying to do."

That's still true today.

After graduating from Thiel College in Greenville in 2000 with a degree in mathematics, Pulliam enlisted in the Navy, eventually becoming a cryptologic officer with the National Security Agency. He left his station at Fort Meade, Md., in August for an eight-month deployment to Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba.

Pulliam also earned an online bachelor's degree in computer engineering technology from Grantham University in Kansas City, Mo., and is currently pursuing a online master's degree in information systems.

Pulliam attributes much of his success to the guidance and help he received from the staff at the Housing Authority. A summer job, provided through the authority, helped him save money for college.

"It doesn't matter where you live at," Pulliam said. "As long as you apply yourself to do what you want to do, it can be done. All it takes is somebody showing you care about what you're doing, goes a long way."

Tammy Tate
Tammy Tate-Coleman grew up knowing the value of money.

Her mother held down several jobs, trying to save enough money to move out of Franklin Terrace and then a house owned by the Housing Authority.

Her father started bank accounts for her before she could count the dollars.

So when Tate-Coleman moved out of public housing in 1998, three years after graduating from Mercyhurst College, she did what came naturally-- she saved. She rented an apartment and worked two jobs with the goal of one day owning her own home.

"My father said, 'If you want something, you have to work for it and save,'" said Tate-Coleman, 35, a prevention specialist at the Trinity Center and a graduate student in Mercyhurst College's special-education department.

She closed on a house on Erie's east side in December 2002.

"It was a big sigh of relief. It was an awesome feeling," Tate-Coleman said. "It was joyful. My first words were, 'Thank you, Jesus.'"

Tears welled in Tate-Coleman's eyes as she remembered taking her father to see her house for the first time, in September 2003. Two days later he'd walk her down the wedding aisle, the last time she'd see him before he died that December.

"I put the key in the door and I remember my dad looking around, going, 'Nice, nice,'" she said. "He looked at me and said 'I'm proud of you.'"

ERICA ERWIN can be reached at 870-1846 or by e-mail at


- 70: Number of years the Erie Housing Authority has been in operation

- 70,000 people: Approximate number of people the authority has served

- 2,158: Number of housing units owned by the authority, including houses and apartments. The authority helps an additional 1,000 families through the federal Section 8 housing assistance program.

Tonight's Future Heroes of Public Housing event, in celebration of the Housing Authority's 70th anniversary, is sold out. Previous honorees in Heroes of Public Housing events held on the authority's 60th and 65th anniversaries include:

Col. Doris Tate Johnson, Carol Loll, Dorothy Smith, Cleo Woodward, Robert Crowner, Paul Mihalak, Charles Bowers Jr., Larry Meredith, Richard Loll, Thelma Grady, Billy Blanks, Stephen Galloway, Bobby Harrison, Dietrich Jells, Clifton Crosby, Veronica Gambill, Suzanne Prevost, Mathew DeForce, Fred Garnon Jr., Sharon Purdue, Art Martinucci, Sharon Thompson, Denis Tobin, Greg Myers, and former Gov. Tom Ridge.