LIBERTY – When she lived in Maryland, Aundrea Cika Heschmeyer told her children about growing up in a melting pot of cultures and food flavors of the Mahoning Valley.
“When I returned (10 years ago), my children said to me, ‘I thought it was Polish here.’ Things weren’t active,” Cika Heschmeyer said.
A lot had changed during her nearly decade absence. Some of the Polish halls were closed. St. Casimir was only a small parish.
The Liberty resident decided she had to restore some of the ethnic cultural experience she had in her childhood. It became the motivation to found Polish Youngstown Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to invigorating the local Polish-American community.
In October, Cika Heschmeyer received the Heritage Award from the Polonia Foundation of Ohio for that and other works. She said she sees the fruits of her hard work come into bloom with a change in attitude of the Polish culture from the punchline of jokes to discovering the richness of their homeland to younger people attending her events which gives her hope for the continuation of Polish Youngstown and honoring their heritage into the next generations.
She said she had help.
“I was lucky. A woman who had taught the Polish Dance Group was also moving back. She had been in the dance group behind me. It was my activity in high school.
“I said, ‘Look, both of us have young families. We can’t do it alone.’ But together we started creating the dance group,” said Cika Heschmeyer.
She suggested a Polish picnic, which would offer food and entertainment as a fundraiser for the dance group.
“I thought we were going to have to cancel,” said Cika Heschmeyer. A Southern hurricane threatened residual rain. The pastor of St. Casimir in Youngstown offered the church basement as an alternate site.
Cika Heschmeyer said her thought was, “Perhaps we would have maybe 100 people with the weather and last-minute relocation.”
It was standing room only.
“It was full of middle-age moms, their children and their moms,” she said.
After the event, she learned that the grandmothers attending had remembered the days of rich Polish cultural events in the area and wanted their grandchildren to experience it. Also attendees weren’t just from the Polish churches, but from throughout the Valley.
“I gathered people together representing different aspects of Polish culture-polka, church, dance club, the arts club and said to them, ‘The arts club does beautiful stuff but no one knows about it.’ My background was in PR. The woman from North Carolina was a graphic artist. Another guy was an accountant by training, so we had the finance,” she said.
So in 2008, Polish Youngstown was created.
She recommended Polish Happy Hour as the next event because they had a similar successful gathering in the Washington, D.D., area.
“We had our first Polish Happy Hour at Imbibe downtown with Polish jazz,” Cika Heschmeyer said. “It was learning about Poland in a new way. It’s not all polkas and pierogis.”
In the last 10 years, she also helped initiate Simply Slavic, promoted Ballet Western Reserve and is the regional director of the Autism Society. In short, she enjoys community involvement.
Ken Shirilla, chair of Polish Happy Hour and director of Simply Slavic, has worked with Cika Heschmeyer since the early days of Polish Youngstown.
“Aundrea’s biggest strength is that she is an idea person and she figures out how to bring the idea to life. She is also very organized,” Shirilla said.
“She knows how to throw a party and what people like to do,” he said. “She is the catalyst for all Polish Youngstown activities. Without her, it would not go on.”
Typically, food is included in each of the Polish Youngstown get-togethers.
“I do all of her catering,” Jack Kravitz of Liberty’s Kravitz Deli said.
“Aundrea and I work really well together. She is concerned with the aesthetics, and my specialty is food,” Kravitz said. “I don’t really care what things look like, and she does. I care about the taste.”
Polish Youngstown events are inclusive for people of all ages and interests in Polish culture, Cika Heschmeyer said.
“We’re really proud of the fact that we try to reach you where you are. So if you don’t like pierogi, how about Chopin? If you don’t like classical music, how about polkas?”
She has visited the land of her maternal ethnic background as a child one summer in the early 1970s during Communism when her father’s job sent him there and as an adult to reconnect with relatives. Her knowledge of the culture has expanded as a result of her travel experience. She is seen as a local expert on Polish customs.
“We did a Polish wedding a couple of years ago. One of their first dates was our Polish Day, our big festival in August. They called me and said, ‘We want our wedding to be really Polish.’ The dancers came in. Everyone who attended got a Polish doll,” Cika Heschmeyer said.
Cika Heschmeyer’s leadership style is viewed as another reason for the success of Polish Youngstown.
“Aundrea is such a great leader as evidenced by how much she can get people to volunteer of their time and talents. If she asks for help with a project, assume that she has already given 10 times as many hours,” said Angela Messenger, vice president of Polish Youngstown.
Messenger said that seeing Cika Heschmeyer’s desire to honor the immigrant population before her by continuing and learning their traditions lit a fire.
“I hadn’t realized I had such a passion for my Polish heritage and creating community programming until Aundrea’s infectious drive prompted my interest,” she said.