Category: Inspired Pittsburgh Mommies

Inspired Pittsburgh Mommy: Denise O’Connor and the Three Rivers Mothers’ Milk Bank

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Nadine Champsi

Nadine Champsi

I am a doctor turned write-at-home-mom who runs the Pittsburgh Mommy Blog and is editor of Kidsburgh. I have two wonderful young children and am happily married. My interests include cooking, green-living, gardening, being in the outdoors, listening to great music, checking out the city's cool art, coming up with creative things to do with my kids, and having as many adventures as I can!
Nadine Champsi

In my “Inspired Pittsburgh Mommy” series, I feature Pittsburgh mothers who have started unique grassroots-type projects within the city. These projects directly benefit the greater good of Pittsburgh and improve the lives of our children, families, and/or other mothers.  The series is my humble effort to create a positive, supportive environment among Pittsburgh mothers.  I hope that it will a) help make these projects a success b) motivate other mothers to help support these projects and c) inspire other mothers to make their own dreams a reality.  An introduction to the series can be found here.

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Inspired Pittsburgh Mommy, Denise O’Connor

As Thanksgiving approaches each year, I always get a little weepy. I look at my kids. I look at my husband. I look at my niece and nephew, my mom, my truest friends and I think…”God, how did I get so lucky?” I am blessed in so many ways–not least of all for taking a crazy leap of faith and starting this blog nearly two years ago.

Since doing so, I’ve been honored to meet brilliant women who have changed my life. Gisele Fetterman of Free Store 15104. Lynne Williams of Jeremiah’s Place. Tracy Certo of NEXTpittsburgh. These brave women are forging a new Pittsburgh for us–a place where an inspired idea can turn into something much more…true, important, beautiful change for Pittsburgh families.

I would like to introduce you to Denise O’Connor–a woman who recently joined the ranks of Pittsburgh mothers who are driving this sea change. Denise is the founder of the Three Rivers Mothers’ Milk Bank (TRMMB), Pennsylvania’s first human milk bank. Denise’s TRMMB will first benefit the tiniest of Pittsburgh’s citizens–the newborns in our city’s neonatal intensive care units. But when these sick infants grow up to be healthy productive adults, the benefits will be absolutely immeasurable.

NICU cutie. Photo courtesy of TRMMB
NICU cutie’s first yawn after extubation. Photo courtesy of TRMMB

Here’s my recent interview with my next Inspired Pittsburgh Mommy, Denise O’Connor:

What is the Three Rivers Mothers’ Milk Bank?

Three Rivers Mothers’ Milk Bank will be the first human milk bank in our state and will provide pasteurized milk from screened donors to the neonatal intensive care units (NICUs), hospitals and outpatients of both Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Why does Pittsburgh need a milk bank?

Exclusive feeding with human milk is the very best protection against a number of serious and sometimes fatal complications for babies within the NICU. For example, one of the most devastating conditions common to premature infants is necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), an inflammation of the GI tract that happens in 10% of babies born before 32 weeks. Up to 50% of babies who get NEC require surgery to remove a portion of their intestines and up to 25% of babies with NEC die. The use of donor milk can decrease the risk of NEC by a whopping 80%. Babies who receive donor milk also leave the NICU sooner and have higher rates of breastfeeding at discharge.

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Pumped human milk. Photo courtesy of TRMMB

How will the milk be distributed?

Donor milk is distributed by prescription only. While most of the donor milk from milk banks is used by babies within the NICU setting, it is sometimes also used for outpatients. Donor milk may be  prescribed for a variety of reasons including malabsorption issues, immunological disorders, allergies, post surgical nutrition and  prematurity.

Is using another woman’s breast milk safe?

Absolutely! Donor milk from Human Milk Banking Association of America (HMBANA) milk banks is typically used by medically fragile babies so safety is a number one concern. Donors are healthy lactating women who must pass a thorough screening process that includes an interview, a detailed medical history, a statement of health from the donor’s physician and a blood screening identical to that done by blood banks. Donated milk is also pasteurized which eliminates all bacteria and pathogens.

How can women donate milk?

A woman would simply call the milk bank and we would start the screening process. Once approved, she would pump milk in the comfort of her own home and store it in her freezer.  Once a significant amount is accumulated, she could drop it off at the milk bank or a nearby depot or even ship it to us for processing.

What stage are you in right now with this project?

I am really amazed with how much we have achieved in just one short year. After incorporating last fall, we became part of the Human Milk Banking Association of America (HMBANA), which sets guidelines for the screening of donors, the processing of milk and distribution. Next, we became an official 501 (c)(3) nonprofit.  Now we are turning our attention to fundraising. Our total fundraising goal is $500,000, which is all for start-up costs. We are pursuing a number of funding sources, including grants and corporate sponsors.

We also have an Indiegogo campaign, which started on November 10th. Since some of our biggest supporters have been young families, we felt that a crowd-funding campaign would be the perfect way to maximize the impact of those who are the most excited about this project. Our month-long Indiegogo campaign is focused on funding the equipment needed for the milk bank. Our goal is to raise $50,000, but we would be thrilled if we exceeded it since every dollar gets us closer to opening.

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Donor milk. Photo courtesy of TRMMB
Next, we discussed her inspiration for starting the project:

 

How did your professional and personal experiences inspire you to launch this project?

I breastfed all three of my children- Andrew (18), Gavin (15), and Anna (12).  I had horrible latch issues with my first child and if it were not for Le Leche League and a very helpful lactation consultant,  I would have never made it through that period. After that experience, I decided to become a Le Leche League Leader. Ten years ago, I also became an IBCLC certified lactation consultant and have been in private practice ever since.

As a lactation consultant, I have long been aware of the health benefits of breast milk for vulnerable infants. I have been telling colleagues for ten years that I wanted to establish a milk bank in Pittsburgh, but felt that the medical community in our city wasn’t ready for it yet. Last July, I stumbled upon a story on KDKA about a local woman who donated her milk to the milk bank in Columbus. In the story, Dr. Nilima Karamchandani, director of West Penn’s NICU was interviewed. At one point, she said that she wished this service was available in Pittsburgh.  “Aha!” I thought, “It is time!”

I called Dr. Karamchandani and told her I would be willing to give it a go if there was interest at the other hospitals. I began cold-calling all of the NICUs in the area and their directors all wanted this service. When I reached out to HMBANA to see what would be involved I realized that it was all very doable. Now neonatalogists from every one of those NICUs are involved in this project–as members of our board of directors or on our medical advisory board.

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Denise and her family. Photo by Jennifer Stein Photography
Finally, we discussed her personal life/professional life balance:

 

How do you balance your work and personal life?

I believe that you can have it all, just not all at once.  I definitely stepped back and focused on my children during their early years and I have no regrets. When my parents got sick, I lightened my professional responsibilities so I could spend time with them. Now that both of my parents are gone and my children are teens, I have the time to devote to a large project like this. The timing is just perfect for me.

*****

While working on this article, I had one last conversation with Denise O’Connor. It was a few days after her Indiegogo campaign had launched. Although she was far from her $50,000 goal, the campaign had already raised over $6000.

She confessed, “People are asking me, ‘What if we don’t reach our goal?'”

Although I didn’t say it, the truth was that I wondered the same thing.

“But I don’t worry about it,” Denise said, “I have faith we’ll get there. This is finally the right time.”

Denise has an incredible aura of confidence, capability, self-sufficiency. Her words reassured me. I believed her.

I also thought the statement reflected one of Denise’s greatest strengths. Patience.

She waited TEN years for the medical establishment to catch up with her vision of creating a milk bank in Pittsburgh. She didn’t rush them. She didn’t rush herself. She spent time at home with her kids–enjoying their young years. She spent months caring for her dying parents–savoring her last moments with them.

“I don’t have any regrets,” she said.

I believed her.

And when the time was right, she recognized it and had the courage to forge ahead.

Pittsburgh, we should be very, very thankful that Denise is a part of our city. She is that one-in-a-million individual with an inspired idea and the skills to bring it to fruition to change our lives.

Denise–we BELIEVE in you and the Three Rivers Mothers’ Milk Bank and all the beautiful benefits it will have for our sweet, little babies. We are here to help you.

*****

 Want to stay connected with the Three Rivers Mothers’ Milk Bank? Please visit their website, Indiegogo campaign, Facebook page and Twitter handle @3RiversMilkBank.

Inspired Pittsburgh Mommy: Patricia Vince and Zachary’s Mission

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Nadine Champsi

Nadine Champsi

I am a doctor turned write-at-home-mom who runs the Pittsburgh Mommy Blog and is editor of Kidsburgh. I have two wonderful young children and am happily married. My interests include cooking, green-living, gardening, being in the outdoors, listening to great music, checking out the city's cool art, coming up with creative things to do with my kids, and having as many adventures as I can!
Nadine Champsi

In my “Inspired Pittsburgh Mommy” series, I feature Pittsburgh mothers who have started unique grassroots-type projects within the city. These projects directly benefit the greater good of Pittsburgh and improve the lives of our children, families, and/or other mothers. The series is my humble effort to create a positive, supportive environment among Pittsburgh mothers. I hope that it will a) help make these projects a success b) motivate other mothers to help support these projects and c) inspire other mothers to make their own dreams a reality. An introduction to the series can be found here.

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Inspired Pittsburgh Mommy: Patricia Vince

This time in my “Inspired Pittsburgh Mommy” series I am featuring a local mother named Patricia Vince. Patricia is the founder of Zachary’s Mission, a nonprofit organization helping families with critically ill children in Pittsburgh hospitals and other patient care facilities. I first found out about Patricia and her project from the well-known local blogger and recent Best of the Burgh winner, John Chamberlin of Ya Jagoff.

“She would be a perfect interview for you,” he said. “So much of what she is doing with Zachary’s Mission is influenced by her own experience as a mother.”

As is usually the case, Ya Jagoff was spot-on. I met with Patricia for a conversation at a local coffee shop recently. We laughed. We cried. We really hit it off. And I learned about Zachary, her gone-much-too-soon son, who died at 2 weeks of age from a rare congenital heart defect.

“When your child dies in your arms, it changes you completely,” Patricia told me. “What you choose to do with this experience will define the rest of your life.”

Over the past 4 years, Patricia has turned her own family’s tragedy into Zachary’s Mission, an organization that has brought hope to many, many Pittsburgh families in crisis. Here’s what I found out about Zachary’s Mission (in her own words):

 

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What is Zachary’s Mission?

Our general mission is to help families who have critically ill children in Pittsburgh-area hospitals and other acute care settings. After our experience with Zack, we have firsthand knowledge of the hardships that these families experience. We want to ease their burdens. We want to help them retain some quality of life. And we want these families to understand that others have been through a similar roller coaster and have come through, stronger than ever.

 

How do you specifically help these families?

Zachary’s Mission has several core components. The first is the distribution of Zack Packs. Zack Packs are custom-made backpacks filled with quality toiletry items, an insulated snack bag filled with goodies, and a beautiful journal. Since many families with sick kids never know where they are going to be (in both a physical and an emotional sense), it is incredibly helpful to have some nice creature comforts and snacks on hand to improve quality of life. Also, we discovered that writing in a journal can be a very therapeutic process when your child is ill or dying.

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Patricia and her husband with Zack Packs

Besides Zack Packs, we also provide a number of other important services. We make home-cooked meals for families. We provide them with gas cards, cafeteria vouchers, and parking passes. We pay their utility bills for them. As one mother told me the other day, “Most people don’t understand how much comes out of pocket when your child is in the hospital.” The financial assistance aspect of our organization is very helpful to many families.

We also run therapeutic scrapbooking and photo sessions to help families remember their little ones. We have even been known to offer some out-of-the-ordinary assistance like organizing birthday parties or doing Christmas shopping for families.

 

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Which families are eligible to receive assistance through Zachary’s Mission? 

We have helped families whose children have a huge range of illnesses from extreme prematurity to rare genetic problems to serious heart defects and everything in between. We don’t limit our services based on any particular factor. However, we do work with social workers and staff to identify families with the greatest need. Any family is potentially eligible if their child is receiving care at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, The Children’s Home and Lemieux Family Center, West Penn NICU, and the Children’s Institute.

 

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How can members of the community become involved in Zachary’s Mission?

We have had a recent request to dramatically increase the number of Zack Packs that we distribute at local hospitals. In response, we are going to need some community help! We always need people to run toiletry drives, stuff Zack Packs and volunteer at our events. Email us at contact@zacharysmission.org to get in touch about volunteering. Also, you can follow our Facebook page or Twitter account to find new opportunities to get involved. We also invite community members to attend the Zachary’s Mission Gala on November 15 at Longue Vue Club. Finally, you can do something right now! Toyota of Greensburg has generously offered to donate $5000 to the top 4 organizations that receive the most votes on their Facebook page. Go here to vote.

*****

 

After learning about Zachary’s Mission, I talked with Patricia about Zachary and her experience with a dying child:

 

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Can you tell me a little bit about Zachary?

Zachary was diagnosed in utero with a serious congenital heart defect called a hypoplastic right heart with myocardial sinusoids. We saw a pediatric cardiologist throughout the pregnancy and determined that we had two choices after Zack was born: 1)  if he qualified, he could be placed on the heart transplant list or 2) we could provide comfort care only. He was born on June 13, 2008 and initially showed great potential to survive. As a result, he was placed on the list. Unfortunately, everything that we tried to do for him over the next two weeks backfired and he just kept getting sicker and sicker. Eventually, we made the decision to withdraw care. Although I don’t remember the time or the dates very well, I do remember that moment with perfect clarity. Afterwards, we got a chance to hold our little Zack for the first time ever. I’ll never forget his eyes. They were so bright and beautiful. It didn’t take very long and then he was gone…

 

How did you first become inspired to start Zachary’s Mission?

When I was pregnant with Zack, I got a very beautiful book called “Christmas Jars” by Jason Wright. This book describes the fictional phenomonen of “Christmas Jars,” glass jars filled with coins and bills distributed anonymously to people in need. The only expectation:  the recipient will “pay it forward.” One year later, I didn’t have my little boy. But, I did have two glass jars full of small change. We used that money to buy Christmas presents for a family whose child had received a heart-lung transplant. At that moment, Zachary’s Mission was born.  We developed the project over the next two years and it officially started in 2010. At this point, we have helped thousands of families.

 *****

Finally, I spoke with Patricia about her family and her professional/personal life balance:

 

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Patricia and her family

How many children do you have?

We have three children, although only two are still with us. My son is 7 and my daughter is 4. Zachary would have been 6.

 

Are your children a part of Zachary’s Mission?

Yes! Both of my children are involved with Zachary’s Mission. They always tells me that they love to “help sick babies.” One beautiful part of this project for my family:  Zachary and his memory have become an even bigger part of our lives since starting it. Every time we bring comfort to a family that is really suffering, I can’t help but think, “This is Zachary’s legacy.”

 

How do you maintain personal/professional life balance?

Balance? Mmmmm… Hard question. I remind myself on a daily basis to have patience with myself and the whole process. After all, it is a marathon and not a sprint. I sometimes think that Zachary’s Mission could be even further along if I was out networking in the evenings and weekends; however, I have to remind myself that I have two young kids at home, they need their mom, and that is a good thing!

*****
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Getting the chance to meet Patricia

Patricia’s story really struck a personal chord with me. On my very first day of my first clinical rotation in medical school, I sat with a family as their young son was diagnosed with a very rare form of leukemia. I will never forget that boy’s mother. Within a few moments of hearing her son’s poor prognosis, she threw herself onto the table in front of her, arms and hair splayed out, sobbing.

“No! No! No” she wailed, as her entire body shook uncontrollably.

I wasn’t a mom then. But, I am now. And I can not imagine what that nightmare must have felt like for her.

As a medical student, I only spent two weeks with that family. But it was long enough to realize that when a serious illness strikes your child, it turns your world upside down. Huddled together in a hospital room, the family dealt with emotional, financial, and spiritual crises day after day.

Patricia also only had two weeks with her little boy. I imagine they must have been equally as turbulent. She delivered by C-section and he was almost instantly whisked away to Children’s Hospital. She didn’t see him for days. She didn’t even get to hold him until the moment she said good-bye. But, she pumped breast milk the entire time, hoping that one day he would be able to nurse. After he was gone, I can not imagine how she went on…

But somehow, Patricia found the strength to ensure that her little boy’s legacy would live forever. Zachary’s Mission is a testament to her enormous courage and a beautiful tribute to her son.

In the words of another Pittsburgh mom:

“I received one of the Zack Packs at Children’s Hospital. I am a mom of triplet girls and they have never been home. My life is the hospital. I want to thank you for doing this awesome work on behalf of your son. It is people like YOU who make people like ME smile and have hope and comfort. God bless you.”

Thank you, Patricia, for being a beacon of hope to Pittsburgh families who have been devastated by their child’s severe illness. And I am so, SO sorry that you lost your little boy….

 

“How very quietly you tiptoed into our world. Only a moment you stayed. But what an imprint your footprints have left upon our hearts.”

-Unknown

Inspired Pittsburgh Mommy: Dr. Lynne Williams and Jeremiah’s Place

Nadine Champsi

Nadine Champsi

I am a doctor turned write-at-home-mom who runs the Pittsburgh Mommy Blog and is editor of Kidsburgh. I have two wonderful young children and am happily married. My interests include cooking, green-living, gardening, being in the outdoors, listening to great music, checking out the city's cool art, coming up with creative things to do with my kids, and having as many adventures as I can!
Nadine Champsi

In my “Inspired Pittsburgh Mommy” series, I feature Pittsburgh mothers who have started unique grassroots-type projects within the city. These projects directly benefit the greater good of Pittsburgh and improve the lives of our children, families, and/or other mothers.  The series is my humble effort to create a positive, supportive environment among Pittsburgh mothers.  I hope that it will a) help make these projects a success b) motivate other mothers to help support these projects and c) inspire other mothers to make their own dreams a reality.  An introduction to the series can be found here.

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Inspired Pittsburgh Mommy, Lynne Williams
Inspired Pittsburgh Mommy, Lynne Williams

Recently, I received an email from Heather Hopson, a personal friend and founder of Diary of a First Time Mom. In it, she shared a link to a new Pittsburgh nonprofit called Jeremiah’s Place.

“Your readers will want to know about this,” she said.

Wow–was she right!

I’ve spent the last week learning about Jeremiah’s Place, opening TODAY as Pittsburgh’s first “crisis nursery.”  I’ve toured the facility.  I’ve interviewed Lynne Williams, one of its founders.  And, last night, I looked my husband in the eye and made him promise me that we could make a personal investment in it.  Whether we volunteer there, or donate to it, or use the nursery ourselves–I want to help Jeremiah’s Place become a permanent fixture in the parenting culture of Pittsburgh. I hope you’ll feel the same way after you’re done reading this article!

I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Lynne Williams, one of the cofounders of Jeremiah’s Place, a local mother, and a physician.  Here’s what she had to say about it:

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Jeremiah's Place

What is Jeremiah’s Place?

Jeremiah’s Place (JP) is a relief nursery, also known as a crisis nursery.  We provide free, temporary short-term childcare for young children when their families need to address a crisis or emergency.  Since we know that children’s brains can be permanently altered after experiencing significant stressors, the mission of our relief nursery is to protect children “in the moment” of potential injury, to connect families to local resources, and to be a transformative voice in the community advocating for the health and safety of young children.

 

What does it mean for a family to be “in crisis?”

A “crisis” is defined by the family as any situation that makes it difficult for them to find safe child care for their young children.  It might be a family involved in an accident who needs a safe place for their young children until grandparents can drive in from out of state.  It might be a woman in a homeless shelter who needs some time away from her children to make it to her job interview.  Or it might simply be a mother who lacks childcare options and feels like she’s going to lose her mind if she doesn’t get a nap!  We suspect that the needs and the stories will be endless.  Bottom line:  EVERY SINGLE FAMILY who needs a temporary, safe option for childcare can use Jeremiah’s Place.  Upon arrival at Jeremiah’s Place, we will also provide a social worker to meet with the families and determine what other resources might be helpful to them.

 

The staff of Jeremiah's Place at its ribbon-cutting ceremony last week
The team and board of Jeremiah’s Place at its ribbon-cutting ceremony last week

Where is it located?

Jeremiah’s Place is located within The Kingsley Center at the corner of Frankstown Ave and East Liberty Blvd at the cross-section of East Liberty, Homewood, Lincoln-Leminton, and Larrimer. We picked this location as it is within a community center that has a wonderful reputation and has a Family Support Center on the second floor.  It is also easily accessible by public transportation.

 

How long can children stay at Jeremiah’s Place

Jeremiah’s Place is a 24/7 facility with childcare professionals staffing it every hour of the day. Children ages 6 and younger can stay for a few hours to up to 3 days depending on the unique needs of the family.

 

Lynne Williams and LouAnn Ross, Executive Director of Jeremiah's Place
Lynne Williams and LouAnn Ross, Executive Director of Jeremiah’s Place

What will a typical day look like for a child at Jeremiah’s Place? 

The wonderful thing about Jeremiah’s Place is that it will model a typical day at home for a child.  From waking up in their own bed or crib, having breakfast in the eating nook, playing in the toy area, jumping and running in the gymnasium, cuddling up with a good book in the cozy corner, eating a healthy home-cooked dinner, taking a bath in our tub, to settling down to sleep again, we hope that the routine and living space of Jeremiah’s Place feels like home to these children.  Each child will also get a backpack, book, blanket, handmade teddy bear, pair of pajamas, and a toothbrush to help them get settled in.

 

How can members of the community become involved in Jeremiah’s Place?

Jeremiah’s Place was started by a group of passionate volunteers and will remain viable only through the continued help of caring individuals. We need individuals who are committed to donating financially on a monthly or one-time basis.  We also appreciate material donations.  We even have a baby registry online at Target!  We would also love to actively engage more volunteers from the community.  Volunteers can commit to a weekly shift in caring for the children or less time-consuming activities such as hosting a baby shower, stuffing back packs to give to the children, or joining us on Sunday afternoons to prepare meals for the kids.

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Next, I talked with Lynne about her personal and professional background and how she was inspired to start Jeremiah’s Place:

Cofounders of Jeremiah's Place (right to left)
Cofounders of Jeremiah’s Place (left to right: Tammy Murdock, Lynne, Eileen Sharbaugh)

How did you become inspired to start Jeremiah’s Place

My inspiration came from both a personal and professional perspective.  I have been a foster parent since 2005.  The mother of our first foster son “lost him to the system” due to drug use.  She continually battled her addiction in order to be reunited with her son. Unfortunately, she relapsed each time that she got him back because of the stress of care-taking without social supports.  If there had been a Jeremiah’s Place available then, I wonder if she would still have her son with her…

Professionally, I am an internal medicine-pediatric physician who provides care to underserved populations.  I frequently hear stories from patients (usually fellow mothers) who neglect to seek medical care for themselves because they have no one to care for their young children.  I don’t think parents should have to make that choice! About 4 years ago, I met with a medical student who had completed a project on crisis nurseries (I had never heard of the idea before).  I knew in an instant that it was the project of my dreams! But it didn’t start coming together until I met my incredible co-founders, Dr. Tammy Murdock and Eileen Sharbaugh.

 

Why do you think there is so much of a need for JP?

I think there is a lack of immediate, concrete, nonjudgmental support of families with young children.  In addition, many parents are raising their children without the support of extended family close by.  There is also a loss of interconnectivity within neighborhoods as our lives have become “so busy.”  Finally, there is the notion that parents should be able to handle this tough job on their own.  At Jeremiah’s Place, we believe that asking for help is a sign of strength!  We all dream that Jeremiah’s Place will become a “movement” that will inspire our society to start paying attention to the needs of families with young children.  None of us can do it alone!!

 *****

Finally, we talked about Lynne’s home situation and how she manages to balance her professional and personal lives:

Lynne Williams and her family
Lynne Williams and her family

Can you tell me about your unusual family situation?

I live with my sister in a big old Victorian house.  We dreamed of filling it with the pitter-patter of little feet (or the elephant stomp of growing boys!). We took the required classes to become foster parents and a couple days after we were certified, the first kids arrived.  One cute little boy led to another….and another….and another….and now our house is filled with five boisterous boys in a five-year age span!  There is never a dull moment….for any of us!  Since then, we have officially adopted each of them!

 

How do you balance the demands of raising these children and being a part of Jeremiah’s Place? 

Balancing the demands of raising our children, working parttime, and my many hours of working on Jeremiah’s Place is sometimes challenging.  But, for me, Jeremiah’s Place is a way to give back and help others in the community.  I want my boys to see my work with JP as a model for finding your love and never giving up when there is the chance to do good in the lives of others!

*****

Even before I got out of my car to visit Jeremiah’s Place and to meet Dr. Williams, I knew I would love it.  This mural welcomed me on a warehouse wall across from it:

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It made me smile…

I was greeted enthusiastically at the front door by Lynne and LouAnn Ross, the Executive Director of Jeremiah’s Place.  They smiled warmly, bubbling over with excitement about their opening day this week.  As they proudly showed me around JP, they reminded me of expectant mothers who were eagerly awaiting the arrival of their first children.

I spent the rest of my time at Jeremiah’s Place smiling, too.

I smiled as I looked at this Fred Rogers quotation in the cozy reading nook:

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I smiled as I peeked into the bathroom and saw this row of toothbrushes:

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I smiled as I looked into the storage closet and saw these handmade teddy bears, ready to be loved by local children:

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It was obviously…undeniably…a happy, welcoming place…staffed by some of the city’s most beautiful souls.  In fact, there is no doubt that I would bring my own children there if the need ever arises!

And yet…  I cried on my way home.

“Why?” you ask.

Because I couldn’t stop thinking about this rocking chair in one of the bedrooms:

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It waited patiently for the children who will come to Jeremiah’s Place soon and who will need it.

Thank you to Lynne Williams, and to all the other inspiring women who have helped create Jeremiah’s Place.  Thank you for being the ones who will rock our babies to sleep when we have nobody else to turn to….

*****

Want to connect with Jeremiah’s Place?  Here are links to its website, Facebook page, and Twitter account.  Also, Dr. Lynne Williams has a personal blog about foster parenting, adopting, and mothering the 5 boys in her household called Middle of the Madness.

 

Inspired Pittsburgh Mommy: Gisele Fetterman and Free Store 15104

Inspired Pittsburgh Mommy: Gisele Fetterman
Nadine Champsi

Nadine Champsi

I am a doctor turned write-at-home-mom who runs the Pittsburgh Mommy Blog and is editor of Kidsburgh. I have two wonderful young children and am happily married. My interests include cooking, green-living, gardening, being in the outdoors, listening to great music, checking out the city's cool art, coming up with creative things to do with my kids, and having as many adventures as I can!
Nadine Champsi

In my “Inspired Pittsburgh Mommy” series, I feature Pittsburgh mothers who have started unique grassroots-type projects within the city. These projects directly benefit the greater good of Pittsburgh and improve the lives of our children, families, and/or other mothers.  The series is my humble effort to create a positive, supportive environment among Pittsburgh mothers.  I hope that it will a) help make these projects a success b) motivate other mothers to help support these projects and c) inspire other mothers to make their own dreams a reality.  An introduction to the series can be found here.

Inspired Pittsburgh Mommy: Gisele Fetterman
Inspired Pittsburgh Mommy: Gisele Fetterman Photo credit: Matthew Hodgman MN

This time in my “Inspired Pittsburgh Mommy” series I am featuring a Pittsburgh mother named Gisele Fetterman.  I first learned about her project, Free Store 15104, from a friend, who asked:

Hey, have you heard of this free store in Braddock?  Everything in the store is completely FREE.  And it’s in a shipping container that’s painted all these crazy colors.

No,” I admitted.  But I was intrigued.  I knew I needed to find out more…

Turns out that Free Store 15104 was founded by a local mother, Gisele Fetterman.  Turns out that she’s the wife of Braddock’s mayor, John Fetterman.  Turns out she’s an amazing, inspiring woman making profound changes in the impoverished borough of Braddock.

I had the honor of interviewing Gisele Fetterman this week and here’s what I found out about her and Free Store 15104 (in her own words):

 

Free Store 15104
Free Store 15104

What is Free Store 15104?

Free Store 15104 is in the business of FREEtail, not retail :).  We operate out of a brightly-painted shipping container in Braddock, PA.  It is a warm and loving place where surplus and donated goods (and food) are redistributed into the hands of those who need them most, at absolutely NO cost.  We aim to eradicate food and clothing insecurity for our most vulnerable neighbors and to help make their lives just a little bit easier.  We believe that wonderful things can happen when we create a space where no currency is exchanged and where we are all equal.

 

freestore5

What specific items are available at Free Store 15104?

The Free Store offers clothing for all ages and sizes, shoes, books, bookbags, delicious gourmet food, toys and smaller kitchen items.  We also can direct shoppers to resources for larger items that may not necessarily fit into our space (mattresses, appliances, furniture).  What distinguishes Braddock Free Store from other resale stores is that it is an entirely FREE store, run entirely by volunteers.  And we are funded 100% by honoraria that my husband, John, makes in his professional position as the mayor of Braddock.

 

Where is Free Store 15104 located? What are its hours?

The shipping container is located at 420 Braddock Ave, Braddock PA 15104.  The shop is open from 1-2:30 on Tuesdays and Thursday and by appointment.  We are also open many Saturday mornings, but it can vary based on the volunteer working that morning.

 

freestore3Who is welcome to use the Free Store? 

Everyone is welcome to come to the shop.  We serve anyone from Braddock residents to residents of Mckees Rocks, Clairton, and City of Pittsburgh.  Our only rules are:

1. Be kind
2. Take only what you need

3. Pay it forward

And, so far, we haven’t had anyone abuse the system.

 

How can people make donations to Free Store 15104? 

To make a donation to the Free Store you can drop your items off during open hours or put them in our drop-off box at any time.  Also, we can always use volunteers. Currently, I’m sorting through 385 boxes of clothes that Gymboree & Crazy 8 sent us!  I’ve never seen so many clothes!  Projects like that would be awesome for larger volunteer groups.

*****

Next, I learned about Gisele’s inspiration for starting Free Store 15104:

 

Why were you inspired to start Free Store 15104?

I remember being in my early teens in NYC, watching bulk garbage days.  Perfectly functioning furniture items would sit on the curb awaiting their destruction.  The garbage truck would come and crush them beyond recognition. The destruction and waste upset me and I’ve long looked to be a small part of a better solution.

 

How did you go about starting Free Store?

I was running unofficial, “pop-up” Freestore events at different locations for several years. However, I longed to make it a permanent project with a permanent location. Taking over an existing building required zoning and permits and water and a slew of other expenses.  On the other hand, a shipping container offered a sustainable, affordable option that we could park in a vacant lot and begin operating the next day.  And we did just that!

 

freestore4

What has been the MOST fulfilling part of Free Store 15104 for you?

In general, seeing the decline in food and clothing insecurity in my community.  Watching a group of children at the playground, fully clothed in Free Store attire.  In particular, this winter when we were very worried about our youth keeping warm.  We received a large hat, glove, and scarf donation from Osh Kosh B’Gosh.  I left a bag filled with these items with each of our crossing guards to distribute every day.   It was amazing to see the kids walking home warm in their new winter gear.

 

Positive parking sign initiative in Braddock
Positive parking sign initiative in Braddock

Are you working on other projects in Braddock, too?

I try to always have a few things in the works to keep me busy!  Shortly after opening, we partnered with Brian Sink (previously of FreeRide Pittsburgh) and created the Red Lantern Bike Shop.  We receive used and/or broken bikes that Brian refurbishes and redistributes to our local youth.  We hope to continue to grow and expand into other salvage/ save/ recycle opportunities that will further improve quality of life.  I’m also working to expand my positive parking sign initiative through the side streets in Braddock. Longer term projects: I’m working on a blight-weed tea brewing project, disposable diaper recycling, a Braddock Breastfeeds initiative project and some abandoned tire furniture projects as well!

*****

Finally, I learned a little about Gisele’s personal/professional life balance:

 

How old are your children?

I have a 5 year old son named Karl, a 2 1/2 year old daughter named Grace, and I’m 39 weeks pregnant with my third!

 

How do you manage the balance between your professional and personal lives? 

Our children are involved and included in all the work that we do.  When my husband has overlapping commitments during Free Store hours, you’ll often find the children working with me at the store.  Karl loves hanging clothes and bagging clothes for shoppers.  Grace loves pulling all the shoes off the shelf, ahhhh!  John is incredibly supportive and makes at least three trips a week to COSTCO to personally pick up all the donated food to be distributed at the store.

*****

The Braddock Youth Garden
The Braddock Youth Garden

Earlier this week, I drove to Braddock to spend the afternoon with Gisele. I could feel her presence even before I reached Free Store. I felt it as I passed Braddock Farms, an organic community farm that she and her husband created with the help of Grow Pittsburgh.  I felt it as I passed quirky street signs that reminded me, “Believe in Yourself.” I felt it as I passed colorful murals, public art installations, new commercial construction, brand new housing developments.  I felt hope.  And I just knew she’d had a hand in it all…

And then I met her.  Smiling, warm, busy, capable…. VERY pregnant.

I think I’m having contractions,” she told me matter-of-factly, as she scurried around Free Store.  Her contractions didn’t stop her.  I don’t think anything could…

gisele12

I spent some time observing a typical afternoon at Free Store 15104.  Fun music played loudly from a stereo in a car parked nearby. Racks of beautiful, clean, children’s clothing were set up in the space outside of Free Store. They were sifted through carefully by local mothers and grandmothers.  Free snacks were passed out to all the kids.  Karl, Gisele’s son, played with donated toys splayed out near the entrance. People came and went, smiling, laughing, talking eagerly to Gisele and her troupe of volunteers.  There was so much love.  A shared sense of purpose. An openness.  Generosity.

I know that Braddock is considered one of the poorest communities in Western PA.  And yet, at Free Store 15104 it just didn’t feel that way….

Meeting Gisele Fetterman and visiting Free Store 15104 was definitely one of my personal highlights since starting this blog.  I think she is one of the most amazing people that I have ever met.  I have no doubt that her influence will be felt in Braddock, the rest of Pittsburgh, and much further for a very long time….

Thank you, Gisele, for all of the work you are doing to help local families!

*****

Want to connect with Free Store 15104?  Here are links to its website and Facebook page.  And here’s its email address: freestore15104@gmail.com

Also, here are links to previous media coverage of the Free Store in:

Pop City Media

Post Gazette

WPXI

Inspired Pittsburgh Mommy: Rebecca Covert and Firefly Arts

Rebecca Covert, the inspired Pittsburgh mommy who started Firefly Arts
Nadine Champsi

Nadine Champsi

I am a doctor turned write-at-home-mom who runs the Pittsburgh Mommy Blog and is editor of Kidsburgh. I have two wonderful young children and am happily married. My interests include cooking, green-living, gardening, being in the outdoors, listening to great music, checking out the city's cool art, coming up with creative things to do with my kids, and having as many adventures as I can!
Nadine Champsi

In my “Inspired Pittsburgh Mommy” series, I feature different Pittsburgh mothers who have started unique grassroots-type projects within the city. These projects directly benefit the greater good of Pittsburgh and improve the lives of our children, families, and/or other mothers.  The series is my humble effort to create a positive, supportive environment among Pittsburgh mothers.  I hope that it will a) help make these projects a success b) motivate other mothers to help support these projects and c) inspire other mothers to make their own dreams a reality.  An Introduction to the series can be found here.

Rebecca Covert, the inspired Pittsburgh mommy who started Firefly Arts
Rebecca Covert, the Inspired Pittsburgh Mommy who started Firefly Arts

This time in my “Inspired Pittsburgh Mommy” series, I am featuring a Pittsburgh mother named Rebecca Covert. Rebecca is the founder of a local organization called Firefly Arts, which provides innovative arts-based programming for families raising children with autism in the city.  Rebecca just launched her first major fundraising campaign for Firefly Arts and I wanted to help support this effort through featuring her project in a blog post.  Here’s what I discovered about Firefly Arts during a recent conversation with Rebecca (in her own words):

What is Firefly Arts?

Firefly Arts is a new organization in Pittsburgh designed to build a sense of community between families living with autism through arts-related programming. I gravitated toward the name Firefly because a firefly is more than what meets the eye.  It is a creature of beauty and inspiration when illuminated.  There are still people out there that underestimate autistic individuals when, in fact, they have so much to teach us if we just find opportunities to let them shine!

What programming will you offer?

The heart of Firefly Arts will be our 8-week family program. It is designed to serve the whole family. There will be exploratory arts workshops for the kids integrating visual art, music, and movement and there will be adult programming for caregivers including yoga, stress relief classes, art-making sessions, etc.  That way, it’s a one-stop shop:  everyone gets served, and we build a united front–a community–in the process.

A Firefly Arts participant learning cello basics with Rachel Smith, Music Teaching Artist Photo credit: Stephanie Letzkus of Letzkus Photography
A Firefly Arts participant learning cello basics with Rachel Smith, Music Teaching Artist
Photo credit: Stephanie Letzkus of Letzkus Photography

Have you held any programming yet?

We recently held our first family event at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.  It was a one-workshop teaser to showcase our family program and to give us insights into how we can further adapt and refine our programming to better suit the needs and interests of participating families.  It was truly magical to watch an idea that has been stuck on paper for months, come to life. Seeing the excitement of the children and parents as they engaged with our teaching artists was energizing and inspiring.

A Firefly Arts participant designing his next mandala for a family  painting project. Photo credit: Stephanie Letzkus of Letzkus Photography
Designing a mandala for a family painting project.
Photo credit: Stephanie Letzkus of Letzkus Photography

 

What programming is upcoming?

We are continuing to fundraise to support the full 8-week family arts program.  Our hope is that we will be able to pilot it this summer at one or more of our established partner sites: Familylinks, The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, or The Woodlands.  In the meantime, we are offering several three-workshop series exploring natural habitats (ocean, rainforest, Arctic, etc.).  These workshops will start on Saturday, January 25th at Familylinks Therapeutic Learning Center in the South Hills.

How can the community help in your fundraising efforts?

We launched our big fundraising campaign online on January 1, 2014 via Indiegogo.  Please check our website,  Facebook page, and Twitter account for more information on this campaign.  Firefly Arts is not officially a 501c3 non-profit yet, but we’re fiscally sponsored by Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization based in New York City.  All donations to Firefly Arts will be tax deductible.

****

Next, I learned about Rebecca’s inspiration for starting Firefly Arts:

Rebecca's son, Jack, striking a pose at a local Touch-a-Truck event.
Rebecca’s son, Jack, striking a pose at a local Touch-a-Truck event.

What is your personal connection to autism?

My son, Jack, was diagnosed with autism in 2010.  He seemed to be developing neuro-typically until he reached 20 months when we noticed a severe regression in his ability to communicate and socialize.  Now, at age 5, his daily life is dictated by a struggle to process sensory information.  Jack is hyposensitive, meaning he requires and craves more sensory input than most children.  Fortunately, this translates into lots of hugs and snuggles, a love of music, a need to explore different tactile surfaces and textures, and a constant desire to go-go-GO!  To be honest, the ASD diagnosis was really tough to accept initially, but my husband and I found peace as we explored autistic self-advocacy networks online and encountered more autistic children and their parents throughout our journey.  Jack’s autism is a major part of what makes him an awesome kid and his innate joy and unique perspective of the world is truly a gift.  He teaches us something new every single day!

Rebecca performing with guitarist Dan Burgun at her cabaret, Lady in Flames
Rebecca performing with guitarist Dan Burgun at her cabaret, Lady in Flames

What is your personal connection to the arts?

I received my Master’s degree in elementary education from Duquesne University.  However, after witnessing the disappearance of arts programming in schools, I decided to enter the classroom as a teaching artist instead of seeking a full-time teaching position.  For the past eight years, I’ve worked with Gateway to the Arts as a drama and music teaching artist, helping to integrate arts strategies into literacy and STEM instruction.  I also provide weekly drama classes for the students at Familylinks’ Therapeutic Learning Center and perform locally as a children’s storyteller.

I’m also a blues and jazz singer in Pittsburgh and perform in local theatrical productions when I can carve out the time.  I recently wrote and performed an autobiographical one-woman cabaret called “Lady in Flames” with a group of amazing musicians who donated their time and talent in order to raise money for Firefly Arts.  I’m working on a new cabaret project with vocalist Anna Elder and pianist/composer James Rushin that will hit the stage this coming summer.

firefly11
Rebecca and her son, Jack, enjoying a fall hay ride at Triple B Farms

Why were you inspired to start Firefly Arts? 

When we first received Jack’s diagnosis, I really struggled.  I was successfully engaging classrooms full of children; then, I would come home and would be unable to get Jack to respond to his own name!   After one particularly bad day (crying in a school parking lot) I knew I had to find a way to reconcile my teaching life with my parenting life.  Jack always responded well to music, and I started singing and coming up with movements for just about everything we did together.  I also started working with the autism support classroom at Familylinks.  Using pictures books as a springboard for instruction, I discovered music and movement strategies that encouraged one-on-one interaction and engagement. I learned that the arts are a powerful engagement tool to help autistic children explore creative and accessible ways to find their voice, understand concepts relevant to their world, and nurture new relationships.  I knew I wanted to realign my professional goals and adapt my teaching style to continue working in this field.

 

****

Finally, I learned about how Rebecca maintains her balance between her personal and professional life:

Bob, Rebecca's husband, giving Jack a lift while visiting Point State Park
Bob, Rebecca’s husband, giving Jack a lift while visiting Point State Park

How do you balance your role as mom/creator of Firefly Arts?

I have an extremely patient husband. I’ll say it again:  an EXTREMELY patient husband.  There are days when balance does not exist, but I’m lucky to have a partner who understands and supports my need to seek creative opportunities and to leave no stone unturned. We also share parenting and housekeeping responsibilities.  He is really hands-on and wonderful with Jack.  Firefly Arts would still be an idea, on paper, if that were not the case.  My greatest struggle is finding balance between work and family…that and not getting enough sleep.  Jack wakes up several times a night, which adds an element of delirium to the day.   I just constantly remind myself to stay in the present, keep my head where my feet are planted, and trust that I’m pointed in the right direction!

****

Out of all the women that I have interviewed for the Inspired Pittsburgh Mommy series, I felt like I could relate to Rebecca Covert’s story the most.  “I was crying, just sobbing, in my car,” she told me, “I couldn’t understand how I could connect with children in the classroom, but I couldn’t connect with my own child.”  I got it.  I got her.  Although, my struggles with being a mother/doctor were clearly different than Rebecca’s, I understood the intense emotions involved in reconciling one’s professional and personal lives.  I too have wailed mournfully in my car, wishing desperately that my choices were easier.  In fact, I’m sure we all have.

Rebecca leading a circle activity at Firefly Arts' first family event Photo credit: Stephanie Letzkus of Letzkus Photography
Rebecca leading a circle activity at Firefly Arts’ first family event
Photo credit: Stephanie Letzkus of Letzkus Photography

What distinguishes Rebecca from so many other people, is that she didn’t let it end there. She didn’t wipe away her tears and go on with her regularly scheduled routine.  In fact, after speaking with Rebecca, I realized that it would have been impossible for her to do so.  She is a woman of such intense passion that she will fight tirelessly until she is living a life that makes her proud.    And so, Firefly Arts was born.  It is the perfect amalgamation of her professional interests (in education and in the visual and performing arts) and of her personal investment in finding a way to “illuminate” her child, and every other one, living with autism.

“I don’t really feel like I have a choice,” she says courageously, “I’m not sure if it will work out. But I just HAVE to try and make this project a success.  For me, for my son, for other families living with children who have autism.”

Rebecca, you do have a choice.  We all do.  And you made a beautiful one.  Thank you for taking a leap of faith and choosing to use your creative talents in this inspiring project.  I wish you the best of luck with your current fundraising campaign and with Firefly Arts, in general!

Want to connect with Rebecca Covert and Firefly Arts?  Here’s the link to her website,  Facebook page, and Twitter account.  Also, if you would like to donate to her fundraising campaign, here’s her Indiegogo site.

 

Inspired Pittsburgh Mommy: Alyssa Herzog Melby and the PBT’s Autism-Friendly Nutcracker

Inspired Pittsburgh Mommy:  Alyssa Herzog Melby
Nadine Champsi

Nadine Champsi

I am a doctor turned write-at-home-mom who runs the Pittsburgh Mommy Blog and is editor of Kidsburgh. I have two wonderful young children and am happily married. My interests include cooking, green-living, gardening, being in the outdoors, listening to great music, checking out the city's cool art, coming up with creative things to do with my kids, and having as many adventures as I can!
Nadine Champsi
In my “Inspired Pittsburgh Mommy” series, I feature different Pittsburgh mothers who have started unique grassroots-type projects within the city. These projects directly benefit the greater good of Pittsburgh and improve the lives of our children, families, and/or other mothers.  The series is my humble effort to create a positive, supportive environment among Pittsburgh mothers.  I hope that it will a) help make these projects a success b) motivate other mothers to help support these projects and c) inspire other mothers to make their own dreams a reality.  An introduction to the series can be found here.

 

Inspired Pittsburgh Mommy:  Alyssa Herzog Melby
Inspired Pittsburgh Mommy: Alyssa Herzog Melby

This time in my “Inspired Pittsburgh Mommy” series, I am featuring a Pittsburgh mother named Alyssa Herzog Melby. Alyssa is the Director of Education and Community Engagement for the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and she is a very special lady indeed!  She is spearheading the first ever autism-friendly performance of the Nutcracker by a professional ballet company RIGHT HERE IN PITTSBURGH! The show is taking place on Friday, December 27th at 2pm at the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts in Downtown Pittsburgh. Recently, I had a chance to interview Alyssa about this exciting and groundbreaking project.  Here’s what I learned (in her own words):

 

What is an “autism-friendly” performance?  

A performance is considered “autism-friendly” (or “sensory-friendly”) when it makes accommodations and adaptations that would be beneficial to someone who has a sensory-processing disorder or is differently-abled.

 

nutcracker1

What kind of accommodations and adaptations have you made for the upcoming Nutcracker performance?

Our show has a few big differences from a regular performance: the lights and sound will be lowered, the house lights will remain partially on during the performance, and the house rules are very relaxed. This means that people can get up and move around as they need to, make noise as they need to, and just be who they are. We will have both quiet and activity areas out in the lobby for those who might need to wind down or recharge during the performance.  We will also have volunteers on hand who have direct professional experience working with people on the spectrum and with other special needs.

 

Who can attend the performance?

We are committed to maintaining a safe, supportive atmosphere for families; because of this, we are limiting ticket sales to those who have a family member on the autism spectrum, someone who has a sensory-processing disorder, or someone who has another disability (intellectual, developmental, etc.) who might benefit from the accommodations and adaptations being made. Also, The Nutcracker is best for people ages 3 and above–so pretty much all ages are welcome!

 

The Nutcracker will have a multi-sensory room, such as this one used in the Lion King performance earlier this year
The Nutcracker will have a multi-sensory room like this one used in the Lion King performance earlier this year

How can families prepare for the performance?

We want to help families prepare as much as possible for the performance. On Saturday, December 14 from 9:30-11:00 am, we will be hosting a “Meet Your Seat” event at the Benedum Center for those who might wish to familiarize themselves with the space prior to the performance. We will also email all ticket buyers a pre-visit guide, similar to a social story, that will help acquaint families with the Benedum Center as well as the story of The Nutcracker.

 

How much do tickets cost?

Tickets are available in all sections of the theatre starting at $13.50-$43.75, over a 50% discount off our normal prices. We realize that families with special needs children often have limited funds, and we wanted to be sure that everyone who wanted to would be able to attend.

 *****

Next, I learned more about Alyssa’s inspiration for this project and how she turned her dream into a reality:

 

Alyssa with Betty Siegel, Director of VSA and Accessibility at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, accepting the Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disabilities 2013 Emerging Leader Award in August 2013
Alyssa with Betty Siegel, Director of VSA and Accessibility at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, accepting the Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disabilities 2013 Emerging Leader Award

Why were you inspired to make the arts more accessible to the autism community?

I’ve always had a personal investment in disability awareness and advocacy as my cousin had muscular dystrophy.  Since he passed away 10 years ago, I’ve found myself thinking more and more about how I can help others who have different abilities, like him, experience all the joy and wonder of the arts that he loved so very much. Also, I have a dear friend, Rebecca Covert, who has a son with autism, and she is spearheading a new arts organization called Firefly: Illuminating Autism through the Arts.  I’m proud to be serving on her advisory council for that.

 

How did you conceive of creating an autism-friendly version of the Nutcracker?

It was actually very serendipitous how it all came together. During last year’s Nutcracker, we had a patron call and inquire if we did an autism-friendly performance of The Nutcracker.  About a month later, I received an email from our stage manager about a theatre in Massachusetts that was doing an autism-friendly performance with a note saying “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could do something like this?” It was at that point that I thought, “Yeah, it would be!” I then had an intern do some research on what was happening in the field.  While the theatre world had begun offering these types of performances, only one ballet company–NJ Ballet–was doing an autism-friendly performance (they did Pinocchio). With all of this information, it became clear that this was a) a real opportunity to lead the ballet world into opening its doors to people on the spectrum, and b) that there were others in the community and PBT who were also interested in seeing this happen. It was funny because I generated a huge list of talking points to share with others at PBT to get them on board with doing an autism-friendly performance, and I hardly used any of them. It didn’t take long for everyone to realize the value and potential impact that this performance would have on the community and even PBT itself. Everyone said yes right away!!

 

Alyssa participating in a panel discussion on "Cultivating Diversity" that I was on for the Pittsburgh Emerging Arts Leaders "Creative Conversation" in October 2012 ( (c)2012 Nathan J Shaulis).
Alyssa participating in a panel discussion on “Cultivating Diversity” that she was on for the Pittsburgh Emerging Arts Leaders “Creative Conversation” in October 2012 [(c) 2012 Nathan J Shaulis)].

How did you go about organizing it? 

We started off right away working with the local autism community. It was important to me that we knew the community would be supportive of this, and they jumped with enthusiasm when we approached them! We started working closely with Lu Randall at ABOARD’s Autism Connection of PA and Autism Speaks of Greater Pittsburgh. Theater Development Fund has also been hugely instrumental in providing us with some best practices and consulting support as we’ve organized the performance. Since then, we’ve reached out to several other organizations, such as The Children’s Institute (who is also a sponsor), The Watson Institute, Wesley Spectrum, the Down Syndrome Center at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, and many others, for help in spreading the word about the event and providing feedback as we’ve squared away details.

In addition, I have to mention how fortunate PBT is to be working so closely with the accessibility team at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust to make this happen (the Trust owns the Benedum Center, where PBT is a resident company). They just did their own autism-friendly performance of The Lion King in September, and we’ve been in communication with them through their whole process. They are being wonderfully supportive as we now embark upon our own production by answering our questions and ensuring that all of their staff and volunteers who will be working our production (such as usher, house manager, bartenders, etc.) are trained about autism. We truly could not do this without them!!

 

What were your funding sources?

Funding came about relatively easy. There is tremendous support in the Pittsburgh community for this cause! We had a fantastic lead donation from the Edith L. Trees Charitable Trust, and since then have also secured additional funding from Pitt Ohio, the FISA Foundation, and the Children’s Institute. We are absolutely grateful for all of their support in this endeavor!

*****

Finally, I learned about Alyssa’s family and how she balances her role as Mommy with her important place as an innovator at the PBT:

Alyssa and her family
Alyssa and her family

How many children do you have?  How old are they?

Adela Marie is 2 years old, and we have a baby boy arriving in mid-December, which means I probably am not even going to be at the autism-friendly performance!  But as I keep saying, real baby trumps work baby!

 

What’s your favorite part of about being a mother?

Snuggles and giggles. Everything else–all troubles, all concerns–fade away when these things happen!

 

Adela in her Halloween costume (Mamma made her pumpkin hat and she's very proud of it!)
Adela in her Halloween costume (Mamma made her pumpkin hat and she’s very proud of it!)
How do you balance your role as a mother and a leader at the PBT?

First and foremost strong support from my husband, family, and co-workers who recognize that a balance between work and personal life is of high priority for me. I also have adopted a few key personal values that help me keep sane: 1) I can’t do it all (either at work or at home) and so I’ve become better letting things go; 2) Mama needs her “me” time (I love to craft, bake, and read); and 3) in the end, my mama job isn’t to always make my children happy, but instead to help them become a compassionate, empathetic, independent, and productive human beings. All of these things help me to stay focused on being present, being loving, and being a strong role model in word and deed for my children.

 *****

While interviewing Alyssa, I was reminded of why I started the “Inspired Pittsburgh Mommy” series in the first place. Alyssa is EXACTLY the kind of person for whom I was looking–a mover and a shaker, a woman of purpose with a special eye for uncharted territory, and an altruistic mission that is genuinely improving the lives of Pittsburgh families.  Moreover, I think her example shows us the importance of seizing the opportunities we are given. After all, she transformed a single phone call from a patron of the ballet into an opportunity to realize one of her greatest passions–bringing the arts to the disabled community of Pittsburgh!  Notably, she did so in a very egalitarian way, by gathering input from the autism community, by partnering with many community organizations, and by seeking insights from those who have already experimented with autism-friendly performances.  Also, she achieved her goal without sacrificing her self-determined work/personal life balance.  “Real baby trumps work baby,” she says bravely and unapologetically.  Bravo, Alyssa!

Four generations of ladies!  Alyssa is so grateful for her mother and grandmother and all they have done.  She hopes to be as good of a role model for Adela as they were for her.
Four generations of ladies! Alyssa is so grateful for her mother and grandmother and all they have done. She hopes to be as good of a role model for Adela as they were for her.

Although she is a woman of lofty dreams, I learned quickly that Alyssa is incredibly down-to-earth, humble, and nice.  I could sense it from our initial email interaction; but, I really knew it to be so after our phone conversation last Friday. Although she was swamped with work and moving the location of her office that day, we had a leisurely conversation that completely belied her stress.  We chatted easily, comfortably. It made me think of a late summer’s twilight in a rocking chair on a wraparound porch with an old friend, sipping lemonade and philosophizing about the world.  “The autism-friendly performance of the Nutcracker is a start,” she said dreamily, “But I hope that 10 years from now, we won’t even need a special performance of the Nutcracker for autistic families.  I hope that we will have helped increase community awareness and accessibility to the point where autistic children will be welcomed at the regular performances of the Nutcracker, even if they have special needs.”

Alyssa, from what I’ve learned about you already, I think you are EXACTLY the right person to make that dream a reality!  And thank you for moving us one step closer with your inspiring efforts to bring the first-ever autism-friendly performance of the Nutcracker to Pittsburgh audiences!

*****

Want to find out more about this autism friendly performance?  Here’s a link to the website.

Want to connect with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre?  They’re on FacebookTwitter, and Pinterest.

Also, I first learned about this project through the FISA Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that provides grants to projects that improve the lives of women, girls, and people with disabilities in Southwestern PA.  They have been integrally involved in improving accessibility to the arts for those with disabilities throughout the city.  Thank you, FISA!

 

Inspired Pittsburgh Mommy: Kelly Hughes and Pgh Momtourage

pghmomtourage8
Nadine Champsi

Nadine Champsi

I am a doctor turned write-at-home-mom who runs the Pittsburgh Mommy Blog and is editor of Kidsburgh. I have two wonderful young children and am happily married. My interests include cooking, green-living, gardening, being in the outdoors, listening to great music, checking out the city's cool art, coming up with creative things to do with my kids, and having as many adventures as I can!
Nadine Champsi

In my “Inspired Pittsburgh Mommy” series, I feature different Pittsburgh mothers who have started unique grassroots-type projects within the city. These projects directly benefit the greater good of Pittsburgh and improve the lives of our children, families, and/or other mothers.  The series is my humble effort to create a positive, supportive environment among Pittsburgh mothers.  I hope that it will a) help make these projects a success b) motivate other mothers to help support these projects and c) inspire other mothers to make their own dreams a reality.  An introduction to the series can be found here.

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Inspired Pittsburgh Mommy: Kelly Hughes

This time in my “Inspired Pittsburgh Mommy” series, I am featuring a Pittsburgh mother named Kelly Hughes. Kelly is the founder of the Pgh Momtourage, a free and all-inclusive play group for Pittsburgh area children and their caregivers.  I first met Kelly Hughes during a local Mommy Blogger Meetup last summer.  Since that time, I’ve had the pleasure of learning more about her and her Pgh Momtourage.  Here’s what I discovered (in her own words):

1) What is Pgh Momtourage?

The Pgh Momtourage organizes two citywide playdates for Pittsburgh families per month.  We love to check out new spaces and explore all the great family places in the ‘Burgh! We welcome moms, dads, grandmas, grandpas & other caregivers at any of our events.  We do not have a formal joining process to avoid charging any fees to be a part of our group. I simply post the events and anyone is welcome to come! The project has even expanded into an online blog that has become a place to connect, share info, and find local events!

4 Year Anniversary of Pgh Momtourage

2) What kinds of playdates have you organized? 

We have done a huge variety of playdates including Fire Station Tours, Paint-Your-Own-Pottery, Music Together Class, Soergel’s Orchard, Living Treasures, Raccoon Creek Beach, North Shore Water Steps, Spray Parks, Tot Time Ice Skating, etc.   I think the most unique was Arts & Crafts Day.  Each mom brought a different project to do and the kids rotated stations. We made slime, jewelry, painted & crafted!  Also, making animal sandwiches was really unique & fun! We had an awesome host family that provided all the sandwich building ingredients as well as printouts of ideas.

Lunch Break!

3) Do they cost money?  

We aim to keep our playdates accessible for all and strive to do as many as we can for free. We try to spread out the playdates that cost money between the free ones (although it does get slightly more challenging in the winter months!). We’ve also had members work together and share guest passes for the zoo & museums to allow more to get in for free.

4) Do you do your playdates all over the city?  

Yes! We love having moms from all corners of the city who are willing to go around Pittsburgh to explore what it has to offer! We try to keep them pretty central, but occasionally we make a little longer of a trek for extra special places such as Living Treasures or Kiski Junction Railroad. Some our events have been in Lawrenceville, West End, South Hills, North Hills, Friendship, Shadyside, Monroeville, North Shore, Downtown….so we get around. :)

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Next, I learned about the birth of Pgh Momtourage and Kelly’s inspiration for starting it.

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1) Why were you inspired to start Pgh Momtourage?

My family moved to Pittsburgh to help with a new church that was starting.  We knew a handful of families through that avenue, but not many.  I really wanted a way to meet and connect with other moms in the city.   I started planning playdates and inviting moms that I would meet at the park, the library, church, etc.  Then I formed a blog and Facebook page to help coordinate events in one place.  100+ playdates and 4 years later, we’re still going strong! (I’m still amazed).

2) How did Pgh Momtourage enhance your experience of being a mother in a new city?

We have had so much fun as a family exploring so many different venues! Because I plan these events, I don’t have an excuse to skip “just because.” And although it can be a lot of work to get all the little people in my house out the door, I am always glad we did!  I am continually amazed at all the great family-oriented places & spaces that Pittsburgh has to offer. We look forward to continuing to explore them!  Also, we’ve made some good friends through our playdates.  Many of the original group that started is still together (although some of our kiddos are in school now and growing out of playdate stage). We often share our kiddos birthday parties and Mom’s Nites Out together!

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Finally, I learned a little more about Kelly and her unique family life.

Kelly and her beautiful family
Kelly and her beautiful family

1) How many kids do you have?  What are their ages?

Our family life has changed quite a lot this past year as we became a certified foster family. So, I have 2 kids of my own (Graham, 4) and (Eden, 2), but we have also had 3 separate sibling groups stay with us over the course of this past year. This year our family has been 5, 4, 3, 2, & 8mths; 4, 2, 2, & newborn; and is currently 4, 2, 2, & 14 mths, so life never has a dull moment!

2) What is your favorite part of being a mother to them?

Snuggles, kisses, reading together, I luv u’s, giggles….the BEST! I love seeing their joy in the little things. I have also been so thankful to see them welcome these temporary siblings into their home and willingly share their life, their clothes, their things, and their parents.

pghmomtourage4 3) How do you balance your two roles, creator of Pgh Momtourage and mother?

My family comes first. Sometimes I have to turn down opportunities, especially in this phase of life when they’re all so young. I do kick into pretty high gear at naptimes & bedtimes.  But I know my kiddos are only young once and I also know I have a whole community of support behind me who understand the priorities & responsibilities of my little ones.

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Ever since I met Kelly and learned about the Pgh Momtourage last summer, I have been intrigued. After all, we have a lot in common.  We’re both so-called “Mommy Bloggers.”  We’re also both “Pittsburgh Mommy Bloggers.”  And even more uniquely, we’re both Pittsburgh Mommy Bloggers who focus locally by specifically writing for Pittsburgh families.  But the truth is, Kelly’s Pgh Momtourage has transcended the “blogosphere” by creating something much rarer and more precious than just another online resource.  It has become an actual, in-the-flesh community of families building meaningful relationships with each other as they explore our beautiful city.

Maybe you just moved to Pittsburgh with your family and you don’t know anybody.  Maybe you’re the only SAHM in your social circle.  Maybe you just had your first baby and none of your friends have kids.  Maybe you want to explore the city, but you don’t want to do it alone.  In truth, there are probably a million permutations of why Pgh Momtourage could be one of the best things that has happened to parenting in this city in a long time!

Thank you, Kelly Hughes, for using your exceptional organizational skills (i.e. her own kids, foster children, AND Pgh Momtourage ?!) and your knack for social networking to create such a welcoming community for Pittsburgh families!

Pgh Momtourage’s next playdate is on Wednesday, November 13th at 11am.  Courtney Heath of “Music Together” is offering a FREE introductory music class!  RSVP here.

Want to connect with Kelly Hughes and Pgh Momtourage? Here’s a link to her blogplaydate calendar, Facebook page, and Twitter account

 

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