How Jenny Jo Mendak is making things better for Millvale youth through listening
This article first appeared at NEXTpittsburgh.com, a media partner of Kidsburgh. Sign up here for NEXTpittsburgh’s free newsletter filled with all the latest news about the people driving change in our city and the innovative and cool things happening here. Photo above courtesy of Jenny Jo Mendak.
Jenny Jo Mendak is a body piercer by trade, but her true calling is the mother of Millvale.
Tattooed from her head to the bottoms of her feet, the 36-year-old is literally and figuratively a colorful character who has taken dozens of teenagers under her inked wing.
“They confide in her and she confides in them,” says Tim Komoroski, Millvale’s chief of police. “She has convinced a few of them to think about their ways or apologize for things they have done. She is absolutely a blessing to our town.”
On his daily rounds, Komoroski stops by Hometown Tattoo, the shop Mendak opened in August at 223 Grant Ave. with her business partner Mark Patrick. It’s also the unofficial headquarters of Millvale Youth Dance and Events, also known as Millvale Youth, a group Mendak launched three years ago to offer free extracurricular activities to local children and teenagers.
After a successful string of events, ranging from parties and talent shows to field trips, Easter egg hunts and a haunted house, her organization is now part of the nonprofit Millvale Community Development Corporation.
Mendak’s work is supported by a small team of volunteers (who, like her, have their Pennsylvania Child Abuse History Clearances), grant funding and donations, but her heart and wallet are open around-the-clock to local teens in need, whom she refers to as “my kids.” That expression is becoming real since she currently is fostering a 14-year-old boy with an eye toward adoption.
“Millvale has many strong individuals that volunteer with each having different strengths in what they do,” says Mayor Brian Spoales. “Jenny, like many of us, knew we were lacking in areas for the local youth to enjoy. She began with a dance that was attended by most if not all of the youth in town and has not stopped pushing buttons to ensure that each child is involved in activities to help them build relationships, and create their own identity. I believe helping the youth create their own identities cannot be measured and that begins with Jenny’s love for Millvale and its youth.”
Like a lot of the people in the borough, Mendak had a rough-and-tumble upbringing. She spent her formative years in Burgettstown, where she was often bullied for being a free spirit.
At 18, she started getting tattooed, altering parts of her body that made her feel self-conscious. Now she’s her own work of art.
“She’s the most amazing person ever,” says Jacob Taylor, an 18-year-old Millvale resident. “I think seeing her being her own person helped me do it, too. She helps everyone in Millvale. It’s her mission.”
Taylor, who can often be seen walking proudly through town dressed in studded leather, fishnets and knee-high boots, attended the first Millvale Youth Dance, although he’d rather make music on his guitar than move to it.
To give him and others a different kind of social outlet, Mendak organized Millvale’s Got Talent, an annual event that allows kids to showcase their creativity, whether it’s through song, poetry, painting or sculpture. The 2022 contest will be held on March 27.
Mendak moved to Millvale when she was 19 and got a job at Three Rivers Tattoo at 524 Grant Ave. She met a lot of community members there and, thanks to her affable personality and infinite reserves of energy and ideas, quickly became immersed in neighborhood happenings. She earned the trust of young people by offering a listening ear and a safe space where they could go.
Borough residents appreciate her efforts, even declaring Sept. 27, 2019 to be Millvale Loves Jenny Day to show their gratitude. Buttons were sold for $1 each and the proceeds were donated to Millvale Youth.
In addition to the formal events held through Millvale Youth, Mendak spends a lot of her time talking one-on-one with kids who drop by her shop, organizing hikes through Girty’s Woods, hosting pizza parties, filling backpacks with food and art supplies, playing Secret Santa and helping folks earn their GED.
Her next passion project is helping the borough build a playground on a half-acre of land owned by the Millvale Community Development Corp.
“My kids’ biggest complaint is not having somewhere to go,” Mendak says.
Located off East Ohio Street behind Strange Roots Experimental Ales, the parcel is currently an eyesore, strewn with junked cars and debris.
Mendak believes having a tree-lined park there instead of a vacant lot will get more children playing outside and attract shoppers to Millvale’s business district, which includes newcomers such as Lemon Tree PGH, Slo Coast Taco Shop, Lucky Sign Spirits, Maude’s Paperwing Gallery and the soon-to-open Millvale Market.
For Earth Day on April 22, Millvale Community Development Corp. will host a community cleanup that will end with a fundraiser at the site. There will be vendors (who will donate a dollar of every sale to the cause), food, live music and renderings of the future playground. Guests, especially kids, will be able to provide written comments and suggestions.
Initial plans include a basketball court, jungle gym, swings, picnic tables, benches, hammocks and a parking lot. Sidewalks will be painted directing people to different shops and restaurants in town.
Mendak herself provides direction to a lot of teens who’ve lost their way. Even if they get in legal trouble, she accompanies them to court appearances, supervises their community service and encourages them to not only accept responsibility for what they’ve done, but do something positive to right the wrong.
She’s watching the kids mature, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally as well.
“I think my kids have grown a lot in three years,” Mendak says. “They’ve asked to form their own youth council and one of their members will come to our MCDC meetings as an ambassador and an advocate.
“They just want someone to listen to them and we should because they have fresh eyes on the world.”