The Children's Institute Blog

Clinician Spotlight: Beth Ann Brednich

Posted by The Children's Institute - Jan 31, 2018

Today, for our Clinician Spotlight, we asked questions of Beth Ann Brednich, rehabilitation engineer at The Children's Institute of Pittsburgh.

When did you start working in your field?
January 2004

When did you start working at The Children’s Institute?
November 2006

Where did you grow up?
In the North Hills of Pittsburgh

As a child, what did you want to be?
A teacher

What did your high-school guidance counselor say you should do for a living?
Be an engineer

Where did you go to college? Did you do any post-grad work and, if so, where did you attend and what did you study?
Case Western Reserve University-BSE in Biomedical Engineering, University of Pittsburgh-MS in Rehabilitation Science and Technology

What inspired you to go into your field?
Working at a summer internship before my senior year of college at the University of Pittsburgh’s Human Engineering Research Lab

What do you like most about your job?
The variety of activities I do every day - I never have the same day twice, all of the children and young adults I get to interact with, helping clients become more independent in their lives with the use of technology, and my coworkers.

What do you like about Pittsburgh?
All of the outdoor activities available and Pittsburgh’s beautiful skyline

Do you have any pets?
One orange and white cat named Snickers

Do you have any hobbies?
Hiking and outdoor activities

Do you want to give shout-outs to any family – nuclear or otherwise – in the area?
My mom and dad, my sister and her fiancé, my brother and nephews, and of course my DH and two children

Who is your favorite musician?
Toby Keith, Tim McGraw, or really any country music

If you could have any superpower, what would you choose?
The ability to instantly calm and quiet a screaming baby/toddler

If you were given a $1 million check to give to one group or charity – other than The Children’s Institute – who would get it? Why?
I would give half to my church and half to a group (or create one) who gifts grant money to families for home accessibility modifications.

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TDS Students Take To PIT Airport

Posted by The Children's Institute - Jan 25, 2018

Travel surrounds our Day School students, even those who face obstacles with their own mobility.

"Our students come to school in a bus or van, they travel around their communities in cars,” teacher Chrissy Stevens said. “We were joking about the movie ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ – and trains will come up eventually.”

So, considering that, Chrissy and social skills therapist Stacy Porter Smith did what came naturally: they took her students to planes.

A group of eight Day School students from Stevens' High School Multiple Disabilities Support Classroom toured Pittsburgh International Airport recently, getting an up-close view of what it’s like to be an air-traveler. For many of them, it was the first visit to the airport. They went as part of their CBI, or Community-Based Instruction, program, where students have the opportunity to practice generalizing skills that they learned in the classroom into a community setting.

“We took pictures, checked out the baggage claim area and went through security,” Smith said.

She went on to explain that, while at the airport, students practiced their social, communication and safety skills. The students also thoroughly enjoyed the tram ride between the air and land terminals.

"It was definitely a highlight," she said.

At the security checkpoint, the TSA learned a lot about disabilities. The TSA agents gained exposure to travelers with multiple disabilities and their needs–such as limited mobility, feeding tubes and individuals with augmentative communication devices.

The airport’s Jeff Martinelli, who is the manager for customer programs, said it was great to host the students. TDS was one of the first groups to come through on the MyPitt Pass, which allows non-travelers to access airport amenities such as stores and restaurants.

“When we get these kinds of opportunity, especially non-passenger, that’s a benefit to the TSA,” he said, stressing that TSA agents constantly are undergoing training for their roles at the transit hub. “It was definitely beneficial for EVERYONE at the airport.”

What’s up next for these traveling students? They are taking to the water, of course. The students are planning a CBI to visit The Gateway Clipper and ride on Pittsburgh’s three rivers.

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Meeting A True 'Extended' Family

Posted by The Children's Institute - Jan 02, 2018

They have different parents and different last names, but they’ll always be brothers and sisters.

The children, seven in all, were born to the same Allegheny County woman but their real journey started after they left their biological home of abuse and neglect, and were fostered, then adopted, in four different Southwestern Pennsylvania families. Those parents – who we profile today in the spirit of a new year and new beginnings – now are raising the children separately but keeping them in close contact with each other, redefining what it means to be a sibling and a family.

“It’s four families raising one whole family together. It’s not always easy but it’s family and at the heart of it are seven children that deserve to have that contact,” said Bridgette Jodon, who – through Project STAR at The Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh, and with her husband, Jason – adopted Aubrey, now 6, and Adalynn, now 12, into their Armstrong County home. “When they first started meeting, you knew you wanted to maintain this bond, but it was difficult. It wasn’t conventional but it was a bond. As the bond progressed, they started to realize, ‘We’re supposed to be playing together – this is family.’”

The children get together at holidays and birthdays, and for more-than-occasional visits where the only thing on the agenda is sharing their new lives together and pushing away the past.

Carrie Velasquez met the extended family at a Christmas party in 2014, where she and her husband Frank went to meet the boy who would become their son – Jason, now 8.

“That was our first introduction to the family. It’s weird. You knew by accepting this placement, these people were going to be in your life forever. You don’t know them and they don’t know you,” Carrie said. “But it’s been good. From there, we’ve stayed together and communicated. We’ve really started to rely on each other – for information, for memories.”

Mary and John Tadler of Pittsburgh’s North Hills got married a little later than their friends, had a biological daughter, now 8, and, when considering the future of their family as they entered their 40s, were drawn toward foster care.

“We decided there were many more children out there who needed help. There were plenty of kids right here in Allegheny County who needed homes,” John said.

Project STAR brought them two children from the extended family for foster care –first, a six-week-old, now 3, and then a three-week-old, now 15 months old. They went on to adopt both girls.

“I treat them as my own, I treat them as any mother would treat them,” said Mary, who added, with a laugh, “I think I’ve had the motherly instinct since I was 12.”

For Laura and Ralph Kacy, joining the extended family was like answering a call from God. Two years ago, their 29-year-old biological son got siblings from the extended family: Mark, now 14 and the eldest of the seven, and John, now 10.

“We most commonly think of a mission as people going ‘over there’ – ‘Go to Cambodia, Go to Africa.’ This is a mission of a family. Even though we have different denominations, we all talk about how God brought this together,” said Laura, a healthcare worker who lives in Butler County. “It was a call to ministry to me to even enter into this. God has just spoken this into my life. When I was praying, I’d see that no one is invisible.”

Raising the extended family has not been without its struggles. Some of the children have developmental delays or disabilities. One was 7 and not potty-trained. Another, at 5, had never brushed his teeth. A third, upon entering what would become his forever home, had never eaten a fruit or vegetable.

When Adalynn came to the Jodons, she was in second grade and didn’t know her letters or how to add 2 plus 2.

“I looked at the special education teacher and said, ‘She’s got a normal IQ. Go to work,’” Bridgette said. “She’s now in fifth grade and she’s completely on grade level. Her last report card, she had 2 As and two high Bs. There’s a lot to be said for faith and love.”

On Jan. 16, 2015, when Jason, then almost 6, came to the Velasquezes’ Greater Pittsburgh home, he was not potty-trained and, at school, would throw tantrums where he would take off his clothes and hide under his desk.

It took Carrie and Frank just 10 days to potty-train him.

“When he came to us, it was ‘failure to thrive,’ and he was malnourished,” Carrie said.

In his first 18 months as a Velasquez, Jason grew nine inches. He has autism, but, in those months, he shed his diagnoses of other intellectual disabilities. Carrie is modest about her role in his turnaround.

“He was a good fit for us,” said Carrie, who also has a biological son, Kaden. “It was just meant to be.”

“Since they’ve been placed in their forever homes,” John said – “It’s turned around 90 percent,” Mary interjected.

When the two boys from the extended family were adjusting to their new forever homes with the Kacys, Laura would wake up John by saying, “You are a wonderful creation of God.”

“Mark would say, ‘Who am I?’ I’d say, ‘You are a warrior for Christ,’” she said.

Some of the children changed their first names, led by Adalynn’s example. The 14-year-old boy chose Mark, which he didn’t realize means “warrior.” John’s interest was piqued.

“He said, ‘I change my name!’ My husband said, ‘To what?’ He said, ‘Apple juice!’” laughed Laura. “Then, a few weeks later, he got it. He said, ‘I be John!’” John didn’t realize his name means “beloved of God.”

“When that realization came to me, I said, ‘Lord, you really have been walking with us through this,’” Laura said.

The parents aren’t the only ones led by their faith.

When asked what advice she has for other children seeking their forever families, Adalynn didn’t hesitate for a second.

“Never stop praying that God will lead you to the right path,” she said.

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A Closer Look at Volunteer Barbara Cooley Thaw

Posted by The Children's Institute - Dec 22, 2017

Barbara Cooley Thaw started volunteering at The Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh in her sophomore year of college, when the sister of the guy she was dating at the time was looking to fill some public-service hours.

“She did her six weeks and was done – and I just never left,” Barbara said.

That was 40 years ago.

“I always laugh and say, ‘How can that be if I’m only 29?’” she joked. “It’s, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s another year. Oh my gosh, there’s another five years.’ I have no intention of stopping.”

Today, Barbara heads up craft activities on our inpatient wing, and, with sleeves of colored paper and drops of white Elmer’s glue, holds court among people looking for a little brightness in their lives.

It comes naturally to her. Barbara started working with the Girl Scouts in her native Sewickley when her daughter, Rachel, was involved in the group. Today, Rachel is 28 and Barbara is still a troop leader. She started teaching Sunday school also during her sophomor year in college. Both of her children volunteered -- she calls it "volun-told" -- at vacation Bible school and Girl Scout Day Camp until they found jobs in other cities.

“I guess I’m not a quitter,” she laughed. “I don’t say, ‘Okay, I’ve done this, I’m ready to move on.’ I don’t know how conscious of a decision it was. It’s just who I am.”

A former machinist and manufacturer's representative – she worked with her father at his Wilkinsburg shop and then from home until Rachel was about eight years old -- Barbara says she’s “probably the luckiest person you’ll ever meet,” largely because she is comfortable enough to dedicate her time to service instead of a full-time job or jobs.

“She’s a real doer – and a great doer,” said Barbara Clougherty, who retired as Director of Community Resources and Training in 2004. “I’ve had volunteers who worry they’re not getting enough direction. She was there to do the task, do it well and care for the kids.”

Barbara Cloughtery now lives across the state, in Ardmore, Pa., with her husband, son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren. But she didn’t hesitate to pause her busy, new life to heap praise on her friend.

“To me, she’s one of the most amazing people I’ve ever seen,” she said. “The thing I’d like people to really appreciate about her is she doesn’t want anything back. She doesn’t want the attention – it’s something she decided to do. And she just does it.”




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A Closer Look at Volunteer Lou Mackey

Posted by The Children's Institute - Dec 22, 2017

When Lou Mackey – a man who now sports a thick mane of white hair, pierced ears and a devilish grin – started teaching at Weil PreK-5 in Pittsburgh’s Hill District four decades ago, he had no idea his career with children would take him through 16 schools and end at The Children’s Institute’s Day School.

“I hit lots of ‘em – it’s kind of neat. You get a flavor of the city that way,” said Lou, who’s been working as a Children’s Institute volunteer for more than 20 years. “Coming to The Children’s Institute, if that environment permeated the Pittsburgh Public School, I’d still work. There’s so much support here.”

Lou started as a volunteer in 1996, the year before he retired as an assistant principal. He spent his early years here in the pool doing recreation-night swimming. Later, he worked with TDS students to clean the cafeteria or do landscaping on-site.

As students’ issues and diagnoses became more complicated or severe – a trend many longtime staffers have noted – Lou started assisting students in the A Store, a convenience-store-style shop at our Squirrel Hill campus where kids and teens are trained to work a register and bag purchases.

The A-Store was where we found Lou recently, tearing receipts for customers as a young student, nearby, pressed virtual buttons on the register’s touchscreen.

“I’m just not in a hurry to do anything,” Lou laughed. “It’s worked out well for me. I’ve been happy since the day I retired.”

A Navy veteran and Duquesne University alum, Lou jokes that he “just kind of backed into education,” as white-collar jobs were not plentiful in Pittsburgh when he left the service 50 years ago. When he’s not volunteering at The Children’s Institute, which is mere blocks from his home, he likes to golf and spend time with his wife, Michele, who’s also a retired educator.

Lou speaks in sweeping terms about trends in education over the years, but his voice becomes breezy when discussing his better half, who he met at a Christmas party for Pittsburgh Public Schools.

“We danced and it was like ‘Wow!’” Lou said. “I walked her to her car, I saw her the next night, and four years later we were married. And it’s been good ever since.”

Lou is modest about his legacy among TDS students. Not Community Resources Supervisor Monica Smith, who called Lou “amazing” and stressed she was “beyond happy” with all he’s done here over the years.

“He has a natural way with the students that I cannot explain,” Monica said. “The kids light up when they see him as much as he lights up when he sees them.”

“It’s been a marvelous experience,” Lou added. “It’s a really caring group of people. It really is an amazing place.”

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Local Police To Spread Holiday Cheer

Posted by The Children's Institute - Dec 12, 2017

When it all started back around 2011, it was just an idea – a kernel of good-will in the Pittsburgh suburb of Aspinwall, Pa.

But, as Presents from Police– a holiday gift drive started by Northern Area Police Departments, which extended to outer-lying municipalities, now enters its seventh year with approximately 20 departments participating, it continues to grow, and is returning to The Children’s Institute for the second time in a row.

“It was thought up over a cup of coffee and some phone calls.”

That’s Millvale Police Officer Michael Vith, who has worked with the drive’s chief engineer – Aspinwall Police Officer David Nemec and Shawn McMinn, also an Aspinwall Police Officer – since the organization’s kick-start to deliver Christmas gifts to children in hospitals.

“I was in my kitchen when [Officer Nemec] called me to discuss the idea,” Officer Vith said. “It started out small. And we’re to a point now where we’re at 20 - 25 participating police departments.”

Officer Vith, a 20-year veteran of the Millvale force, is not exaggerating. Last year, Present from Police filled a large-sized U-Haul box-truck – twice! – and brought 25 police cruisers to deliver toys to The Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC and The Children’s Institute.

Officers supply a lot of gifts, but so do the group’s supporters and local businesses. Sometimes, police will receive a gift card; that’s when Officer Vith and others officers like him take their own kids out to shop and pick out toys for those who could use a little holiday cheer most.

“We walked into Toys R Us and I said, ‘You have $2,000 in gift card. Go shop!’” Officer Vith said. “They’re literally like kids in a candy store.”

The kids aren’t the only joyous ones. In videos posted to the group’s Web site, www.presentsfrompolice.org, the officers look like they’re filled with the holiday spirit, too. The participating officers said, “This is one of the reasons we became Police Officers, to bring happiness and cheer to others.”

“Having worked with this group and knowing them, they’re absolutely amazing for taking time out of their schedules of protecting and serving,” said Sarah Miedel, The Children’s Institute’s manager of therapeutic activities. “They’re wonderful – I can’t put into words how much we appreciate it.”

Presents from Police will visit The Children’s Institute Thursday and Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC next week. They will collect gifts for this year’s drive through Dec. 19.

Donation drop-off points are listed on the group’s Web site. Monetary donations can be made payable and sent to Presents From Police, 840 Grand Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15212. For further information, e-mail [email protected]



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Clinician Spotlight: Katie Hartman

Posted by The Children's Institute - Dec 07, 2017

Today, we kick off our new series, Clinician Spotlight, by talking with a speech-language pathologist from The Children's Institute of Pittsburgh, southwestern Pennsylvania native Katie Hartman.

When did you start working in your field? I started my Clinical Fellowship Year in February of 2004

When did you start working at The Children’s Institute? May 2006

Where did you grow up? Until I was 12, I lived in Somerset County PA, near Seven Springs. We moved to Pittsburgh at that time, and I’ve been here ever since.

As a child, what did you want to be? A teacher or a nurse

What did your high-school guidance counselor say you should do for a living? I don’t recall that conversation taking place, specifically. My mom said I talked a lot about medical jobs and teaching so they always figured I’d end up working with people.

Where did you go to college? Did you do any post-grad work and, if so, where did you attend and what did you study? West Virginia University for Undergrad—Speech Pathology & Audiology; Pitt for Grad school in Communication Sciences and Disorders.

What inspired you to go into your field? When I was a teenager, my grandpa had a stroke. He was seen at home afterward by a travel SLP. I got to help him do his “homework” after sessions naming family members in pictures, etc. I wanted to help other people like that to improve their quality of life after stroke. It naturally led me to learn more about Speech Pathology.

What do you like most about your job? I love the diversity of needs and skills I get to use on a regular basis. I work on functional feeding, swallowing, cognition, emergent speech and language and more. I’m not pigeon-holed into one segment of our profession here.

What do you like about Pittsburgh? It’s small enough that I don’t get lost when I go downtown, but has some amazing local attractions.

Do you have any pets? No pets!

Do you have any hobbies? Reading, playing outside with my son, drinking coffee as often as possible!

Do you want to give shout-outs to any family – nuclear or otherwise – in the area? Ummm… no?

What is your favorite sports team? Pittsburgh Penguins!

Who is your favorite musician? Corey Taylor from Slipknot/Stone Sour. But that changes about every 6 months J

If you could have any superpower, what would you choose? Pause time… to enjoy time with loved ones, to finish tasks without rushing, and to sleep in

If you were given a $1 million check to give to one group or charity – other than The Children’s Institute – who would get it? Why? Probably my church

If you could meet any historical figure, living or dead, who would you choose to meet? Laura Ingalls Wilder. I loved reading her books when I was young and always wanted to meet her in real life.

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The Family Recruiter Story: National Adoption Awareness Month

Posted by The Children's Institute - Nov 29, 2017

It’s never just another day at Project STAR. There’s always a person in need, a crisis to avert, a family to unite, and a life to change.

Jeff Kazarick is getting into a rhythm there. Since March, he’s worked as a family recruiter with the Wilkinsburg-based social-services arm of The Children’s Institute, who we profile today as part of National Adoption Awareness Month.

“You always hear about the bad things in the news. But seeing how many good people there are, who want to open their homes – you never get used to that,” Jeff said. “It’s an amazing thing.”

After working for 16 years at The Bradley Center, a behavioral health and child services organization in Robinson, Jeff is now the gatekeeper for how Project STAR communicates with prospective foster-care and adoptive families. He organizes information night meetings, fields endless e-mails and phone calls, and helps an average of 10 families enter foster care each month.

“The need to provide a safe and loving home for children in need – that is the main reason everyone’s there in the first place,” Jeff said. “Any family, any individual who shows an interest in foster care, I’m the first contact they have. And I get them going in the right direction.”

That’s no small task. Project STAR served 2,346 children and families in Fiscal Year 2017. Why such interest and engagement?

“One constant response I do get from a lot of the families is that the reputation of Project STAR led them to the agency,” he said.

Jeff also is being modest. Amy Rendos – Jeff’s direct boss and Project STAR’s supervisor of placement services – said he’s taken on much of the responsibility for being the point of contact in Greater Pittsburgh since the departure this summer of a second, more senior family recuiter.

“The family recruiter is the starting point of foster care, they’re the first impression. Recruiters are our envoys into society,” Amy said. “And people remember that first person as part of their family story.”

“Jeff has taken on so much,” she added, “and handled in wonderfully.”

Jeff, for one, is excited to be a part of the team.

“What I really love most about my job is the versatility,” he said. “On a day-to-day basis, it’s just exciting for me.”



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Older Youths and Foster Care: You Can Change The Statistics

Posted by The Children's Institute - Nov 20, 2017

He was 16 years old and had spent most of his life in the system, from residential treatment centers to foster care homes that never led to adoption. A Wayne County native, he had been separated from his biological sister and taken across Pennsylvania. He had intellectual disabilities, and had suffered from physical abuse and neglect.

“I remember printing out a map of Pennsylvania. I starred each place he had been to, whether it was a treatment facility of a foster-care family,” said Katie Ashman, his case worker at Project STAR. “I remember going to a supervisor and asking, ‘Should I share this with him?!’ It was overwhelming how many places he had been.”

Nearly two out of every five youths who do not fins permanency with a family – who we profile today as part of National Adoption Awareness Month – will go homeless or “couch-surf” in their young-adult lives. They are three times more likely than peers who live with biological parents to receive special-education. They are twice more likely to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder than Gulf War veterans. Less than two percent of them will go on to earn a college degree but more than 270,000 of them are now in prison.

But, there is hope.

“There are things we kind of put on the table for them,” Katie said. “It’s about just finding them that one family who can look past their challenges, work and support them, and not give up, and give them a chance.”

Bethany Leas, Project STAR’s manager of placement services, said many of these challenges can be solved through education and awareness.

“It’s fear of the unknown, a fear of perceived behaviors,” Bethany said. “But there are families out there. We have seen these families and we have seen these young adults go on to be successful.”

“There are families that are committed and do this and change these kids’ lives,” she added. “People can be the change. They are the catalysts to change these statistics.”

Katie and Bethany agreed a lot of the issue is the need to change perceptions of older youth – especially with families or adults starting on the foster-care journey.

Katie worked with the 16-year-old boy for two years and he later went back to a foster-care family across Pennsylvania.

It’s also important to work toward the change you wish to see, as families and professionals, Bethany stressed.

“It’s do-able, it’s possible,” she added. “One family can be the change these kids need.”

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Donor Profile -- Wunderkind Fundraiser Jacob Haugh

Posted by The Children's Institute - Nov 15, 2017

Three years ago, when Jacob Haugh turned nine, he chose to stop receiving birthday gifts.

Instead, he said, he wanted people to donate the money they were going to spend on him to Pirate’s Charities and The Children’s Institute. Since then, he has raised nearly $25,000 for both organizations through Wins For Kids.

To Jacob, who will be honored today as the 2017 National Philanthropy Day’s Outstanding Youth Award winner, “it just kind of felt normal” to give back.

“I feel like I have everything I need and I just kind of thought, ‘Let’s do something for someone else,’” said Jacob, now 11, of Edinboro in Erie County, Pa. “I sometimes think of what I could get but I realize the money’s helping other people.”

He had some help along the way. In addition to support from his parents, he’s enlisted family, friends –even staff at James W. Parker Middle School, where he’s a sixth-grader.

“Our community has been buzzing about Jacob for several years,” said Jason Buto, the principal at Jacob’s middle school. “So, when he came here as a fifth-grader last year, I was aware of who he was and what he did.”

Last year, Jacob hosted a faculty breakfast at the school as a fundraiser. This year, Mr. Buto told him it was time to step up his game.

Jacob organized A Wins For Kids World Series, where the fifth- and sixth-grade homeroom classes would compete in a fund-raiser to see who would play the teachers in a wiffle-ball championship. (The final World Series game was held Nov. 10; the teachers won, 4-3. The fundraiser brought in $827.02.)

“We don’t have many kids that we can put this kind of responsibility on their shoulders,” Mr. Buto said. “Jacob, in my career, is the only kid I’ve seen who can do this. He is the quarterback on this.”

The story takes on another element because Jacob has autism and, in his own words, doesn’t want his mind to overpower his heart.

“Jacob has his own challenges. Having those challenges and being able to do what he does is an amazing thing,” Mr. Buto said. “It’s an example to other kids – it helps them see they can do great things.”

Jacob enrolled his uncle, who helps coach the California University of Pennsylvania men’s ice-hockey team and got them to sponsor a fundraiser when they played Robert Morris University.

And he enrolled his parents, Chad and Megan, who have been tasked with helping manage the money-collection activities of this fund-raising superstar.

“We’re pretty proud parents and we think it’s awesome,” Megan said. “All you could ask for is for your children to make a difference in the world. He’s setting a heck of an example for his little sister.”

For a pre-teen who exchanges e-mails with the head coach of the Pittsburgh Pirates – Clint Hurdle even brought Jacob down to spring training in Bradenton, Fla. earlier this year – Jacob is pretty modest.

“The reason I’m donating? I want to make an impact on the community, like Mr. Hurdle,” Jacob said. “It’s important for me to show other kids they can make a difference, too.”

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