The Children's Institute Blog

A Spirit-ed Halloween Bash

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

They came to The Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh this week with costumes in every size imaginable – a Lego knight, a Mighty Morphin Power Ranger, Super Mario, G.I. Joe.

They came with pumpkins to paint, stark-white masks to decorate, and lava-lamps to customize, not to mention a giant Kenny the Kangaroo to pose with in selfies.

They came with trendy backpacks, masks, wigs, blankets, and enough nail polish, lip gloss and temporary tattoos to accessorize an army.

“We do it for the kids,” said Spirit Halloween District Manager Amanda Makin, who leads stores in four Pennsylvania communities – Johnstown, Indiana, Lewisburg and Dubois. “We do get a lot of shock, especially from parents when they hear it’s free and we’re giving it away. If you can’t go out and trick-or-treat, kids can get depressed. So, we bring it to them.”

Child-life and therapeutic activities programs at The Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh would be impossible without Spirit Halloween. Its Spirit of Children fund-raiser, which has started for the 2017 Halloween season, has raised $37 million for child-life activities at North American hospitals in the past 10 years.

At The Children’s Institute alone, Spirit Halloween has donated $212,887 fueled by supporters’ purchases to date. In FY2017, that amount totaled $49,476.

You could count Isaac Kohn, 7, among the excited. The Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio boy was set to be discharged this week after taking part in an inpatient feeding program.

But what was the main reason he was excited to be at The Children’s Institute Wednesday night? The Spirit Halloween party.

“He’s been dying for this,” Isaac’s mom, Sierra Hampl, laughed. “It’s going to be very quiet without Isaac here.”

In another corner of Austin’s Playroom, a Spirit Halloween staffer – there were more than a half-dozen of them, from throughout Western Pennsylvania – with bright red hair helped deck out inpatient Madison Johnson in full regalia.

“She just wanted to see what this was all about,” said Madison’s mom, Valerie, chiming in with a recurring “Oh, my heavens!” as the Peters Township, Pa. family walked through a maze of free goodies. “It’s kind of overwhelming. It’s great to give these kids a distraction.”

For Spirit Halloween staffer Jennifer Sigvaldsen, who manages the Dubois store, it’s more than a distraction – it’s a mission.

“This is why I work for Spirit,” said Jennifer, after handing Madison some lip gloss and nail polish. “Spirit is an easy company to love and be passionate about. It’s satisfying. It’s gratifying. Knowing all of this is done for the kids? It’s empowering.”


Profiling Our Physician Assistants

Posted by The Children's Institute - Oct 18, 2017

Ali Kristobak and Kara Malagise started working at The Children’s Institute within two weeks of each other in the spring of 2016. But the organization’s only Physician Assistants, who we interviewed during Physician Assistant Week, hardly see each other and have never worked side-by-side.

“There’s only two of us,” laughed Kara, who covers inpatients on 3W while Ali works in inpatient and outpatient Behavioral Health. “It’s nice to know there’s another one around, though.”

Kara – a Beaver County native with two children of her own, who attended the University of Pittsburgh and then PA school in sunny Arizona – does a broad range of things on our 3W wing.

“It’s hard to summarize what I do. I can’t say, ‘I see patients, I treat patients,’” Kara said. “I’m involved heavily in admissions and dealing with patients as they come and go. And I also support nursing and the therapies.”

Kara has been working as a PA for eight years, previously at a Weirton, W.Virg.-area pediatrics practice.

“Everybody is really great on the team with these kiddos – I really feel our unit makes a real difference in patients’ and families’ lives,” Kara said. “I like that you get to work with other families. It puts things in perspective.”

She also particularly enjoys working with inpatients with feeding needs.

“When they’ve just made such good progress – it’s great to see that,” Kara said.

Dr. Howard Ferimer had high praise for Kara’s work ethic.

“She’s a great asset for The Children’s Institute – a team player who does great work she’s not asked to do,” he said.

Ali is native to Johnstown, Pa. But, by the time she started working as a PA in that city’s Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center, she was commuting from Murrysville – some 60 miles away. Since coming to The Children’s Institute, she and her husband Alec, who met in a Penn State a capella group, relocated to nearby Greenfield.

For Ali, the path to medicine was clear, even from her younger school years.

“I definitely had thoughts about medical school but, to be quite honest, I’m indecisive so I like the flexibility of being a PA,” Ali said. “You can easily switch fields. If I decide I want to practice something other than psychiatry, I could apply for something like cardiology or general practice.”

In her decision to stay at The Children’s Institute, it doesn’t hurt that she’s working on the Behavioral Health Unit with Dr. Aileen Oandasan, with whom she also worked at Conemaugh.

“It’s nice to have the continuity because she was one of the people who trained me [and] our styles of practice really jived right away,” Ali said. “I feel like there’s been really great collaborations amongst the clinical team. They really value our role in these patients’ care.”

And psychological services remain close to her heart, in part because she went through a period in her pre-teens where a family member suffered a major depressive episode.

“I really loved and excelled at the physical health things. I was top of my class. But I was drawn to psych because of the challenge it presented,” she said. “You can’t prepare in the same way for psychiatry as for physical health. It’s not, ‘You have an ear infection. Here’s amoxicillin.’ It’s really an art.”

Dr. Oandasan said Ali has got that art down.

“She’s probably the best PA I’ve ever worked with,” Dr. Oandasan said. “Despite her only being out of school for a few years, she comes off as a very experienced Physician(no ‘s) Assistant. I wouldn’t be able to function without her.”


Marking Mental Illness Awareness Week

Posted by The Children's Institute - Oct 13, 2017

Nearly two years ago, Josh McKivigan was serving as assistant director of a Pennsylvania-based mental-health agency when he heard about The Children’s Institute’s approach to integrative health.

Patients in a behavioral health crisis were experiencing an integrative treatment model, he heard, and doing things like biofeedback, a non-drug treatment in which patients learn to control bodily processes that are normally involuntary, such as muscle tension, blood pressure, or heart rate.

“You really get to see the picture of the whole kid,” he said.

He left that job and has been at The Children’s Institute, working first as a behavioral health outpatient therapist and now as the Clinical Program Manager of Inpatient Behavioral Health, ever since. We talked with McKivigan and his colleagues recently to mark Mental Illness Awareness Week, which runs through today.

“The Children’s Institute is just a very unique place – being able to collaborate, to have all of the disciplines together, and being able to talk to these patients in this customized way.”

That’s Dr. Paula Cerrone, who’s worked for more than three years here as a neuropsychologist and, more recently, as manager of outpatient behavioral health services. Both Cerrone and McKivigan divide their days between treatment and administrative duties.

“[Collaboration] is something that’s really special here,” Cerrone said. “And it’s all under one roof.”

What do they mean? Well, at The Children’s Institute, when a patient is seeking treatment for mental health or help during a behavioral health crisis, they also get assessed by a team of clinicians concerned with their physical well-being.

“I think that’s becoming a huge sort of story in healthcare,” Cerrone said. “A lot of physical problems can affect a child’s mental functioning and vice versa. It goes both ways.”

She cited a child who came to The Children’s Institute because they were grappling with cognitive issues associated with chemotherapy. We discovered the child was on the autism spectrum.

“Because we have multiple services, they were able to have a nice collaboration between services, which is pretty unique to us,”Cerrone said.

“On our inpatient Behavioral Health Unit, we also try to include the caretaker, the guardians and that child’s community treatment team; we look to involve them and bring them together with our treatment approaches,” McKivigan added.

Those services are more in need than ever. Through the third quarter of Fiscal Year 2015 we provided 83% more outpatient services than we did in the same period of Fiscal Year 2014, and 16% over the targeted initiative goal, according to our most recent Community Health Needs Assessment (CHNA).

Approximately one in five adults in the United States—an estimated 43.8 million people—experiences mental illness in a given year.

But treatment, though views of it are improving, still comes with a stigma. The Children’s Institute tackles this using evidenced base approaches such as Cognitive Behavioral Health Therapy and by building a comfortable environment with the patient.

McKivigan said one patient, early in their outpatient treatment asked, “Will this be on my record?” Later, they missed one session and were incredibly apologetic, not wanting to skip out on their time with therapy. McKivigan shared how the working relationship and individualized treatment approaches with each patient help breakdown mental health stigmas.

“Therapy now is shorter. It’s much more focused,” Cerrone added. “And it’s targeted to find a solution.”


Quasics Wows Inpatients With Robots

Posted by The Children's Institute - Oct 13, 2017

Quasics, the robotics club from Gateway High School, is on a mission to spread STEM and STEAM education wherever it lands its feet. A group of about a dozen people from the 45-member team brought that mission recently to The Children’s Institute, displaying customized robots and inviting inpatients to control a tiny BB8 model with nothing but a swipe on the iPad.

The mission is far from a new one.

“By the end of this month, we’re going to have done 20 or so of these outreach events since July Fourth,” said Sean McMahon, the Pittsburgher who’s been coaching Quasics since it formed 11 years ago in Monroeville, Pa. “My kids are getting pretty good at matching with whoever they’re demonstrating for.”

That was especially evident with one patient with a brain injury whose cognitive level was low but desire to have a little fun was high.

“It looked like she was having a blast,” said Children’s Institute Child Life Assistant Michelle Johnson, who added the girl was using the iPad to control the Star Wars character BB8. “It was amazing to see the progress that she has made here at The Children’s Institute manifest in her ability to play and, ultimately, have fun.”

The two centerpieces of the Quasics displays were a one-foot-tall robot, “Millie,” named after the first female professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and two-foot by three-foot by three-foot robot that drove and took spins around The Children’s Institute’s gym. “Millie” was built specifically for demonstrations from the VEX Robotics EDR kit. “Nike” was the Quasics robot entry in the 2017 FIRST Robotics Competition.

“They really enjoyed it,” Michelle added. “One of our patients expressed interest in joining the Robotics Club at her own high school so she could design a robot of her own.”

Group mentor Nicole Kelly, whose son is a four-year member of Quasics, said she watched two shy inpatients come out of their shell when they were encouraged by the kids to assist them in building a caterpillar robot.

“After they allowed the Quasics kids to help them, they didn’t want to stop interacting with them and the robots,” Nicole said. “Allowing our kids this rewarding opportunity has changed their lives and helped them grow and learn as well.”

Sean, who was joined by coaches Meg Gilmore and Antonio Garcia-Smith, said Quasics usually draws in students who have taken a robotics class at Gateway. But that’s far from all.

“Some of them are naturally drawn to science and technology,” Sean said.

“And we have to impress them,” he laughed.


Dell Technologies Supports Children's Institute, Mattress Factory Museum

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

For Dell Technologies’ John Bouchard – who travels from Detroit to Pittsburgh for three to four days each week to help manage PNC Bank’s technology needs – the region’s philanthropic spirit boiled down recently to one specific leg of The Great Race.

“It’s not too often you can walk down Boulevard of the Allies and see the skyline – being near the water, seeing the diverse landscape,” John said. “To be able to shut a city down for a good cause like that says a lot about this community.”

Several dozen Dell Technologies employees, their families and others took part in the race this year, and the company donated proceeds from the walk to The Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh and The Mattress Factory museum. For Ray Nair, a Dell Technologies client executive, that’s just the beginning.

“It’s a modest amount of money we raised this year but it’s a foundation. Our goal is to double that amount next year,” Ray said. “It is a fun thing for the families involved. It is a good thing for the stakeholders. It’s a good thing all around.”

John has developed some favorite Pittsburgh haunts – dinner at Meat & Potatoes, ball game at PNC Park – but he got the most pleasure during The Great Race not passing by those haunts, but in watching his children run and walk alongside him. His son Hunter ran the 5K in less than 27 minutes. And his younger son Carter had a great time too: “50 yards from the finish line, he started to sprint – just to show off,” John laughed.

Ray even beat his 5K time, due in large part, he said, to the downhill route at the end of the race.

“I never ran from the University of Pittsburgh area, down that path,” he said. “When I’m there during the week, the place is jam-packed. But it was the weekend. I was like, ‘Look, this is Oakland!’”

“It actually is good for all units of our business, to get a chance to be out there in the community,” Ray added. “We wanted to use a fun event to coalesce our efforts around. Obviously, our focus is to contribute to the community that we’re a part of, and that PNC Bank is a part of.”

“I think what Dell Technologies did was a really wonderful way to support the Pittsburgh community,” said Caitlin Harpster, Director of Development at Mattress Factory. “It was an honor to participate in The Great Race with The Children’s Institute knowing that both our organizations can share this opportunity to make a greater impact on our collective community.”

For more information on Dell Technologies or its philanthropic efforts, visit


The Waits Family's Project STAR Story

Posted by The Children's Institute - Oct 06, 2017

Pittsburghers Todd and Liz Waits first went to a Project STAR information session about foster care in 2012. Less than a year later, Nathan arrived.

He was their first placement and different from their biological son, Connor, just one month younger, in some ways – black to the family’s white, short to the family’s tall, and with a number of medical complexities, including a heart transplant, previous stroke, and ongoing seizure disorder.

None of that mattered.

“I try not to be cheesy but the second Nathan walked into the room, there was instant acceptance,” Todd said. “[Connor and Nathan] treat each other as brothers, too. He is just a part of the family. There’s no sense of ‘other.’”

“Nathan’s never like ‘Where did I come from?’” he added. “He’s never said anything about it being weird for him. It’s normal.”

Seven months after they started foster care with Nathan, the Waitses adopted him.

“It was right for us to take him in,” Liz said. “The following seven months there was a lot going on. Between learning how to be foster parents, while being foster parents, trying to bond with a kid who has experienced more trauma in his little, three-year-old life then I ever have – it was a rollercoaster, to say the least.”

What differs about adoptions like Nathan’s compared to those from a generation or two ago is that adoptive families often keep a biological parent or parents in the loop about the child’s life. Such is the case with Nathan and his birth mother, Lolene.

“It became very apparent to us that even though Nathan was a foster kid for nearly his entire life, the only consistent person he had was his birth mom,” Liz said. “As our love grew for him, it also grew for her. How could it not? When we hug her she feels like him, and when we see her she makes facial expressions like him. Also, they love each other!”

It’s been about four years now since Nathan arrived. The Waitses feel they might consider fostering again – but, for now, they want to focus on their immediate family.

“We want to make sure [Nathan] knows there’s absolute permanence here,” Todd said.

“A lot of people will say – in a thoughtful way – that Nathan is lucky to have us,” Liz added. “But we feel the very opposite. He didn't get to choose his life and circumstances he was born into. None of us do. Nathan has experienced a lot. I wouldn't call him lucky; I would call him very strong. We are lucky to get to be his parents, and get the privilege of seeing him grow up with his brother and see what kind of people they grow up to be.”


Celebrate Healthcare Food Service Workers Week!

Posted by The Children's Institute - Oct 05, 2017

Leslie Kurban, the cashier in The Children’s Institute’s Squirrel Hill cafeteria, is the face of an organization that served 154,888 meals this past fiscal year.

But, for Leslie, whose food group we are profiling today in celebration of Healthcare Food Service Workers Week, it’s the people, not the meals, who help to pass the days.

“I see people every day. I know more about what they eat and what they drink than what their names are,” she laughed. “You can tell the time of day by what time people come in.”

Leslie is one of the more senior employees on a team of 21 that handles everything from running the cafeteria and catering events to serving patient meals up on the inpatient wings. In the dining room alone this year – from the fiscal year running October 2016 to September 2017 – they estimate they have served about 74,000 patrons.

“It just takes a lot of dedication and attention to seasonality, as well as attention to the market “ said Johanna “Jody” Michalik, director of food and nutrition services, and the head of the Morrison team for the past five years. “Today’s world is a lot more complicated. But it’s just keeping up with all the trends, the rules and regulations. There’s always something happening.”

In 2012, Michalik boomeranged from California to Pittsburgh – she used to live in central Pennsylvania – after working in school, corporate and hospital settings. Her last position in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) graduate, served as operations director of five kitchens serving families, students and seniors in need, Open Heart Kitchen, a non-profit.

In the Behavioral Health Unit, on the fourth floor, Morrison presents Mediterranean style meals that must be healthy and interesting. So, all meats are baked, meals are cooked in extra virgin olive oil, and snacks include guacamole and pita chips with hummus.

On the 3W wing, though, they can get away with some sweets. For Sunday Fun snack, “We try to do desserts; the patients enjoy the treat” Michalik said.

In the dining room, there’s an even wider variety – everything from soups and desserts made from scratch, and grilled items like hamburgers, hot dogs, and chicken wraps, to a fresh-every-day salad bar and a self-serve entrée and breakfast bar, bagel-and-sandwich station. And then there are the specials.

“There are a few entrees I can never take off the menu because I’d have my head chopped off,” Michalik laughed. “The Pittsburgh salad; the taco salad; the ribs; the fried chicken, mac and cheese, and stewed tomatoes.”

Don’t worry, fans. They’re not going anywhere anytime soon.

Other things don’t change. Tomorrow, you will see Leslie’s smiling face behind the cash register.

“I am doing more now than when I started. I may be stocking, getting more stuff; I may be washing,” Kurban said. “I do the vending machines, too, for the evenings and weekends.”

“And I like it,” she added. “I can’t sit at a desk in front of a computer – I would die.”


Nate Ragston: King of the Desserts

Posted by The Children's Institute - Oct 03, 2017

We have two words for anybody who wonders why the desserts in the dining room fly out the door so fast: Nate. Ragston.

Nate, who we’re profiling today as part of Healthcare Food Service Workers Week, has been here just one year but, in that time, the Texas native has made his presence known.

“Most the stuff you see out there, the desserts? They’re made from scratch,” Nate said proudly. “I make my own pie crusts, pie fillings, all from scratch. I make my own cake glazes and icings.”

“Nate is very proud of what he does here – and he should be,” said Johanna “Jody” Michalik, director of food and nutrition services.

Nate moved from Houston to Pittsburgh about three years ago and this is his first job in food services and catering. But he seems to have a knack for it.

“I’m always cooking – I come from six boys and no girls. You need to learn how to cook,” he laughed.

Does he have a favorite dish or dessert?

“Whatever I make, I’m into it fully,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what I make, I just enjoy cooking. And I just enjoy seeing people enjoy the food.”

While Nate hasn’t traded in his southern roots for the Pittsburgh Steelers – in addition to a deep passion for the New Orleans Saints, Nate introduced New Orleans-style beignets to The Children’s Institute – he does admit there’s one thing about Southwestern Pennsylvania he could take or leave.

“You can keep the snow – in Texas, we don’t see that much of it,” Nate laughed. “I’m alright ‘til winter rolls around.”

One thing does keep him smiling during the second half of the calendar year, though.

“On Sundays, I’m glued to football, switching on TV between that and ESPN,” he laughed, before adding, “And maybe a little from the cooking channels, to spruce it up.”


National PT Month: Ellen and the UEU

Posted by The Children's Institute - Oct 03, 2017

Physical therapist Ellen Kaminiski, whose work we are profiling today for National Physical Therapy Month, strapped eight bungee cords around two-year-old Caleb Naugle. They were inside the Universal Exercise Unit, or UEU, a giant metal frame about eight feet squared and 200 pounds, when the therapy began at The Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh’s Wexford satellite.

“I’ll get it,” said Caleb – who has cerebral palsy – as he stretched the cords to reach for a piece of foam fruit in the grating of the cube.

“I need to work on his quad strength so we’re doing lunges,” Ellen said. “It’s just a very creative way of getting him to strengthen.”

Caleb is learning to walk, with all of the complexities that brings. UEU is teaching him how to do it right.

“A typical kid, when they’re learning to walk, 1,000 times they’ll fall, up and down, up and down,” Ellen said. “A lot of our kids never fall; we catch them. They don’t know the feeling. Caleb used to get very tearful when he’d fall. A lot of kids don’t contract the muscles quickly enough to walk, run, jump – gross motor skills, really.”

The UEU, which The Children’s Institute stocks at its Squirrel Hill campus and most of its satellites, is fully customizable, meaning therapists can use a seemingly unlimited combination of cords, weights, bands and pulleys to isolate muscles in their patients’ bodies to exercise. From training young toddlers to sit or walk to rehabilitating older kids who need to work on upper-body strength, the UEU is highly versatile.

“Up on your tip-toes, fly him over – Vroom-PEW! Back on your knees. Nice Job,” Ellen said as Caleb worked on jumping in a weightless space – assisted by rubber chickens, of course.

The Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh is the only facility in Western Pennsylvania known to stock and be trained officially in the UEU, Ellen said. The nearest? Cleveland. Two decades ago, though, children looking to exercise in a UEU had to trek to Europe.

“In Poland and a good part of Europe, the UEU’s a very prominent piece of equipment – it’s like a treadmill to us,” Ellen said. “Even the poorest of facilities have one of these.”

Ellen trained in the UEU about 10 years ago with a prominent advocate of the equipment, Polish therapist Izabela Koscielny, who came to America to practice.

“She came to a clinic and was, like, ‘Where’s your exercise unit?!’” Ellen said. “So they started bringing them over from Poland.”

For the past three weeks, five days a week, Ashley Ohler has trekked nearly two hours each way from Shanksville to Wexford for intensive therapy for her son, Gabriel, 3, who has spinal bifida. The UEU is getting him to work muscles in his legs.

“He’s definitely gotten a lot stronger from it. I think all of the therapists here have done an amazing job getting him engaged,” said Ashley, as Gabriel swung his weighted legs on a table in the UEU. “His doctors told us before he was born he’d never walk. They told us before we had him that he’d have very poor outcomes. He does more than they expected.”

And what does Gabriel’s brother – Bryson, 4, who urged him to kick plastic bowling pins off the table during therapy – think of the UEU?

“It’s far out,” Bryson said.

“And you’ve gotta drive a long ways to get here,” Ellen said.

And without a pause, Ashley replied.

“It’s worth it.”


Guitar Slinger Kicks Off Cafe Concert Series

Posted by The Children's Institute - Sep 28, 2017

He’s been called “the greatest labor singer in the United States today.” But, on Tuesday, West Virginia musician Tom Breiding wasn’t playing in front of thousands of coalminers-union members. His audience was five classrooms full of Children’s Institute Day School students. And he shined.

Breiding played original material, as well as covers of artists like Glen Campbell, adding a country-ish twang to his down-home folk style. He even sang a piece about acclaimed singer-songwriter Hank Williams.

“You guys are always such a wonderful audience,” said Breiding, making his fourth Children’s Institute appearance, between songs. “This next one is a beautiful song. I’m glad I could share it with you today.”

“He’s good, really good,” said donor Ray Wojszynski, whose support is helping to make this year’s Café Concert series possible, as Breiding strummed an acoustic guitar nearby. “It’s gratifying to be here. It makes me feel good – it really does. That’s why I want to do this, to enrich the kids’ days a little bit.”

It seemed to enrich them more than a little bit. Young attendees clapped loudly between songs and occasionally hooted and hollered in response to Breiding’s lyrics.

After the show, Breiding said playing for a group of children with special needs “is not a lot different” than playing for any other crowd.

“It’s easier because I can really be myself,” Breiding said.

“I am excited about this year’s expanded Café Concert series,” added music teacher Eric Emmons. “We will be giving twice as many students opportunities to enjoy live music and work on life skills associated with music in a public space.”

Did you miss the chance to see Breiding in person at The Children’s Institute? Visit him online at or pick up the soon-to-be-released new CD by Bill Toms and Hard Rain, an eighth-piece band in which Breiding plays guitar. It’s out Oct. 27.


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