The Children's Institute Blog

Meet The Day School's Alumni Group!

Posted by The Children's Institute - Feb 26, 2018

NIcole McGuirk was three when she entered The Day School at the Childrens Institute of Pittsburgh.

But, when she graduated at 21, her mother didn't want her to leave behind the community she had known nearly her entire life.

So May Ann joined with a cadre of other graduates' parents to form The Day School Alumni Group, a loosely linked coalition that seeks to extend The Day School's bonds and community beyond graduation date. It will celebrate its fourth annual spring dinner her at The Day School with food, refreshments and DJ next month.

"It's a means to stay connected," Mary Ann said. "Hopefully people see what we have to offer and connect with other families."

Hannah Bruesewitz started going to The Day School at age 14 and graduated 8 years later.

Hannah’s mom Robie said, "When you graduate from The Day School, you feel like you have lost an important part of your child’s support system. The Day School staff and your child have sometimes been on a long journey together and when you graduate that wonderful support system is gone. It is up to you as a parent to continue to find qualitative opportunities for your adult child. The alumni group gives people an opportunity to connect again with each other, and the graduates enjoy seeing old friends."

In addition to the spring dinner the alumni group, in conjunction with The Day School, will hold the second annual homecoming in the fall of 2018.

Right now, all eyes are set on the March event, and the alumni group is trying to drum up participation.

“Our hope is that people will feel more connected after socializing with other families and graduates,” Mary Ann said.

For more information, email the group at [email protected]


Children's Institute Patient Wins Spirit of Pittsburgh Award

Posted by The Children's Institute - Feb 20, 2018

A patient at The Children’s Institute is being honored by the foundation of one of Pittsburgh’s own.

The Bob O’Connor Foundation – organized in memory of the late Pittsburgh mayor, who died while in office in 2006 – will present Nia Holyfield with its Spirit of Pittsburgh award during a ceremony next month. Several staffers from The Children’s Institute plan to attend.

Nia, a former inpatient now receiving outpatient services here, suffered a bout of meningitis at age 17 in 2012 that left her paralyzed from the neck down. Today, Nia now is working on getting around during therapy sessions with a walker, fine-tuning her balance, and attending Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC) in hopes that she can one day become a nurse and give back.

“This changed me, made me more wise, made me better. It helped me grow as a person,” Nia said last summer. “Sometimes, I can't do things a typical 21-year-old can do. But, in a lot of ways, I’m doing things most 21-year-olds aren’t doing.”

“Nia has come so far since her initial diagnosis. It is rare to see a teen/young adult, with challenges such as Nia’s, take such an active part in their treatment and have the determination to coordinate their own care, manage transportation and schedules with little help from others,” said inpatient social worker Christine O’Brien in a nominator statement for the award. “Nia sets her goals high and works hard towards achieving them. Nia is a pleasure to know and I am truly honored to be a witness to her determination and drive and to nominate her for this award.”

Those behind the O’Connor award agreed.

“What caught our attention about Nia was her spirit of overcoming and never giving up,” said the foundation’s Heidy Garth. “My dad never gave up and wanted to help others. Nia has the same spirit and drive that he did.”


Celebrate Healthcare Human Resources Week

Posted by The Children's Institute - Feb 15, 2018

Know someone who works at The Children’s Institute? Liz Rajkowski, who’s worked in Human Resources here for 30 years, knows them better.

Heard about the new addition to the family? Liz got the news to amend their health insurance before the little kid even had a Social Security number.

Going to the party for their new place? Liz had the address of the house filed just after closing.

“People call me,” Liz laughed. “I like to help people solve problems. I like to give them the tools, the resources to help. Often times, I give them more information than they want!”

Liz is not alone.

A team of four – Linda Allen, Vice President of Human Resources; Lisa Wakefield, Human Resources Generalist; Pam Peterman, Human Resources Associate; and Liz, the longest-tenured on the team – fill out the HR ranks at The Children’s Institute, following employees, and their lives, through arrival and departure, births and deaths in the family, and everything in between. We celebrate them today as part of Healthcare Human Resources Week.

There’s a cycle to the HR year, one dictated by budget planning, recruitment efforts and, of course, benefits, which includes annual Open Enrollment and all of that Affordable Care Act paperwork.

“It’s a huge job to get that little 1095-C in your hand,” Liz laughed.

“You have to be up on all the various employment and benefit regulations,” Linda added.

The HR team educates people through choosing their health insurance and other benefits, managing their 403(b) account, coordinating annual trainings and working closely with Payroll to assist employees. Recruitment was previously decentralized to department managers but now HR facilitates the process with managers using technology to promote job vacancies – that includes LinkedIn, Facebook and the Internet – and reach more candidates.

“I enjoy talking with the candidates and offering them the position, and they are so excited and happy to come work here at CI,” Lisa said.

Not only is CI getting more applications – which is great –but, since HR receives all the resumes, we can source candidates who may not meet the qualifications for the position they initially applied for but can be considered for other positions based on their education and experience , Linda indicated.

When it comes to recruitment, Linda or Lisa might be the contact name for the job vacancy notice, but Pam checks the references.

“Bringing a new hire on? I like getting to know them,” Pam said.

HR also is happy to extol the benefits of the Employee Assistance Program, where staffers can find help with counseling, discover care options for their children or elderly relatives – even draft a will.

“What happens is, when you have a history of the place, you know about what’s happened before,” Liz said. “I really like to be able to help people. When I can help them resolve something, that’s the most satisfying part of the job.”


Feeding Breakthrough: Juliette's Story

Posted by The Children's Institute - Feb 09, 2018

Kerry Ann Stare is familiar with the sound – the screeching of her daughter Juliette, now nearly 2, dragging the chair across the kitchen floor to sneak a tasty snack from the out-of-reach cabinet.

“She’ll drink water, she’ll drink juice, she’ll drink those yogurt-drink-type things,” Kerry Ann said. “We have to discipline her for going up into the cabinets to get food she wants.”

It wasn’t always this way.

Born Feb. 24, 2016, Juliette quickly showed a lack of interest in feeding, be it with breast or with bottle. Whenever she did feed, she’d gag or scream or both. Kerry Ann, who has an older daughter, tried to treat it as reflux and find the right approach to feeding. Nothing worked. In less than two months, Juliette was admitted to Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh for “failure to thrive.”

“It was very difficult to get [doctors] to accept that feeding was uncomfortable for her,” Kerry Ann said. “We had scopes. We had the swallow study. We did everything.”

By June, they had surgically inserted a G tube for feedings.

“I felt pretty hopeless because, at that point, she wouldn’t swallow anything at all,” Kerry Ann said. “This is the most basic human instinct – to feed yourself to survive – and she didn’t have that.”

Enter The Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh.

At the same time she had her G tube inserted, Juliette became one of approximately 230 patients per year admitted to The Children’s Institute’s outpatient and inpatient functional feeding programs.

“They just needed our therapy,” dietitian Jodi Smith said. “I think it’s just that we get it. We know what these Moms are going through and we establish goals we know they’re going to meet.”

“And kids know – they know when something’s not right. And they’ll stop eating if they can’t breathe or they get reflux,” Jodi added. “It’s not about likes or taste. It’s about survival and feel. It’s a learned behavior. And we just have to figure out why.”

So, the clinicians here continued to experiment with bottles, eventually finding that Juliette would drink from the clear squeeze bottles used to apply hair dye, if she had a special tube. This way, she controlled her intake and could anticipate the amount of liquid she was ingesting.

Within months, there was forward progress and the little girl “graduated” from the feeding program – the only remnant of her G tube was the scar from inserting it.

“It was a completely different experience [at The Children’s Institute],” Kerry Ann said. “I told [the clinicians] her symptoms and I told them her stories. I kept expecting them to say, ‘We don’t know what to do.’ They weren’t mystified. They weren’t intimidated. They just knew what to do.”

A lot of that is experience and taking a holistic approach to treatment, said speech-language pathologist Marybeth Trapani-Hanasewych, who worked with Jodi on Juliette’s feeding therapy.

“We look at the whole child and family and we listen to what they’re saying,” Marybeth said. “We modify the strategies based on their feedback – it’s not a one-size-fits-all. And I think we also really share in the joy of their progress.”

“Kerry Ann’s still so excited about it – and we are, too,” she added.

Today, Juliette eats even better than her older sister, Kerry Ann said.

“You would never imagine that for the first year of her life, she didn’t want to put things in her mouth and eat,” she said. “If you had told us back in June of 2016, that, ‘Not only will she be eating, but you’ll be after her for climbing up to get food or snatching people’s cups’ – I’d never have believed it.”


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.”


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,, 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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