GO Laurel Highlands honors scholarship winners, Champions of Tourism at annual dinner

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Travel and tourism partners from Fayette, Somerset and Westmoreland counties came together on Tuesday night to honor present and future leaders at the GO Laurel Highlands Annual Dinner at Bella Terra Vineyards.

“How lucky we are to work in an industry where we provide the exceptional experiences for profound moments and memories to millions of visitors each year,” said Ann Nemanic, executive director of GO Laurel Highlands. “Our annual dinner brings our exuberant partners, supporters and stakeholders together for one night to celebrate — to celebrate each other, applaud the accomplishments of our Champions of Tourism and acknowledge our scholarship recipients. The Laurel Highlands is a nationally recognized destination because we have a foundation of proud business owners and unmatched regional tourism assets.”

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Winners of $2,500 GO Laurel Highlands scholarships are:

Matthew Heinbaugh, Penn State-Fayette

A native of South Huntingdon Township, Heinbaugh is studying business with a focus in management marketing at Penn State’s Fayette campus in Connellsville.

He enjoys economics and said he might like to own his own business, which he can market and manage. His education will play a key role in making that a reality, and the GO Laurel Highlands scholarship makes it a bit easier to pay for his education.

“Everything’s really expensive nowadays,” Heinbaugh said. “Obviously, it pays for my tuition first, but it enables me to pay for gas, pay for food, college supplies.”

Like so many others, Heinbaugh loves the outdoor opportunities available in the Laurel Highlands. He enjoys fishing, hiking and biking.

“I’d like to thank GO Laurel Highlands,” he said. “This scholarship means a lot to me and I really enjoy being in the Laurel Highlands.”

Ryan Morrison, Westmoreland County Community College

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A Latrobe native who graduated high school in 2010, Morris didn’t initially expect to find his recipe for success in the culinary program at Westmoreland Community College. He dreamed of a professional motocross career, but injuries dashed those hopes. That’s when he found his true calling.

“I started falling in love with cooking,” he said. “My pap used to make some awesome stuff at Grandma’s house. … I loved how everyone sat down — they were happy and everyone had a smile on their face. It just felt great. I want that feeling. When I create a dish and see the smiles on their faces, nothing makes me happier than that.”

Now a Youngwood resident, Morrison works as a sous chef at El Diablo in Greensburg, which is owned by Ray and Rachel Flowers. They have given him the opportunity to create his own menus, and he has flourished, with ramen dishes as his specialty.

“I heard about the Laurel Highlands scholarships through my chefs here at Three Cs,” Morrison said. “I really appreciate this scholarship. I want to thank everyone behind it. I really appreciate the opportunity. I’m so very grateful. I couldn’t be happier.”

Jessica Palko, Seton Hill

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A sophomore from Derry, Palko is studying communications. A music lover, Palko hopes to tie her two passions together in a career that would allow her to use her communication skills in the music world.

Palko enjoys getting out and enjoying all that our region has to offer.

“I like exploring,” she said. “I like going to different nature places throughout the Laurel Highlands. I also like shopping local — going to different stores in Latrobe, Greensburg and throughout the Laurel Highlands.”

She is appreciative of the scholarship and how it will help her at Seton Hill.

“I just want to thank everyone who made the Laurel Highlands scholarship possible,” Palko said. “It has helped me out tremendously and this has been such a great experience.”

GO Laurel Highlands Award Winners

Trailblazer of the Year

Ashley and Steve Smolenski, The Grayson House (Uniontown) and JoltBike (Waltersburg)

This husband and wife combination forms and incredible tag-team of entrepreneurship that gives a boost to tourism in the Laurel Highlands. The Grayson House, Ashley’s wedding venue on a hillside in Fayette County, is the kind of beautiful location that has helped make the Laurel Highlands a wedding destination.

Steve’s JoltBike has captured the attention of thousands, and his e-bikes are a common sight across the Laurel Highlands, enabling visitors with slight mobility issues to experience the region’s trail systems.

“He’s ahead of the game in innovation and there will be an exciting new venture he will launch in 2023,” Nemanic said. “These two never stop, and that’s a good thing for all of us here in the Laurel Highlands.”

Pathfinder of the Year

Carol Love, Love Receptive Services (Youngwood)

Love has made an indelible impact on the Laurel Highlands during the past 42 years — a career that began when her youngest child started school in 1980.

Her church work led her to organize tours for members of her congregation. From there, she formed Carol Love’s Tours. In 2007, she started what she enjoys most — planning and providing guide service and tour-planning under the umbrella of Love Receptive Services.

She has created pathways through itineraries for motorcoach riders to find local restaurants, attractions, hotels and much more. She estimates that she has planned or escorted more than 1,500 tours during her career. Her travels have taken her all over the U.S. and Canada, but she proudly says that “we have the best people right here in our own backyard.”

Employee of the Year

Trisha Cusick, Family Festivals Association (Greensburg)

For the past 17 years, Cusick has dedicated her talents to Family Festivals Association. Alongside Dave Stoner, she works with vendors and artisans to create major multi-day events in the Laurel Highlands. She helps guide vendors, and visitors to local hotels, restaurants and attractions during their visits. She has become the face of Family Festivals, where she has been interviewed by a variety of media outlets.

Stoner said that Cusick is an employee who takes her job to heart and speaks her mind for the good of all, as evidenced by a frank talk that she had with him.

“At one of our events, I was having a particularly discouraging day and apparently it was obvious to those around me,” he recalled. “Trisha came to me and said ‘You are our leader … we need you to lead.’”

Special recognition

Tom Guiher, of Living Treasures, and Ken Bisbee, Ohiopyle State Park, who are outgoing members of the GO Laurel Highlands Board of Directors, were recognized for their efforts to promote the region’s tourism industry.