Family House

We are very fortunate here in Pittsburgh to live in what has become a hub for some of the best medical care in the entire world. Because of this, people from all over travel to Western Pennsylvania for treatment and surgery. Traveling patients and especially their families are often left in the unfortunate position of having to figure out how they will afford a place to eat and sleep for a few nights, weeks, or even months. An additional stress like this just isn’t welcome when you or someone you love is dealing with a serious medical situation.

The obvious options aren’t great. Not every hospital room has a couch where a family member can crash. Even if they do, it certainly won’t be a comfortable option for very many nights. If you are lucky, there might be a hotel near the hospital. But the expenses of a long-term hotel stay can add up very quickly and simply be unaffordable for many families. And even if you can afford it, who wants to stay in a hotel for nights on end? They don’t usually have a kitchen or much in the way of community space. It may not take very long for claustrophobia to set in when you are limited to the same room for days on end.

This is why we are so thankful to have Family House here in Pittsburgh. They have been providing hospitality and a home-like atmosphere for guests from both near and far since 1983. There are three locations near the hospitals in Oakland and Shadyside to provide comfortable and affordable options to visitors who need to focus on health and care, but don’t need the additional stress of search out a cost-effective place to stay. Being treated at a hospital that isn’t so close to those East End neighborhoods? Not to worry, they also provide free shuttle service to get you to and from where you need to be.

The founding of Family House in 1983 was a joint effort between local doctors and community members who recognized how valuable it could be to the overall health of a patient to have family nearby while they are being treated and healing. Removing this frequent stress point from the equation has become a huge relief for the over 235,000 guests that have stayed at Family House since they opened their doors.

The list of services at Family House is long and adds to the comfort. Community lounges and kitchens provide a space to store your own groceries. Volunteer groups visit frequently to prepare meals for all the guests. There is a library, laundry facilities, linen service, and even a workout room. All this with the hope of allowing the guests to feel at home while their attention is rightfully focused elsewhere.

Volunteer

There is a long list of volunteer opportunities available through Family House. Both individuals and groups can likely find a good option that would fit their gifts. I’d encourage you to follow this link and connect with a Family House employee to discuss their needs and openings if you feel a call to serve families staying at Family House.

Events & Giving

Family House’s largest event and fundraiser of the year is right around the corner. On Saturday, September 14th they will be hosting their 36th annual Polo Match at Hartwood acres. This is an all-day, family-friendly even that of course includes polo, but also so much more. There will be special activities for kids, food trucks, beer and wine tasting, as well as a vintage car show. It’s an event that people talk about all year long. Get your tickets here for a fun-filled day that supports an extremely valuable service to Pittsburghers and vulnerable guests that we welcome into the city each year.

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I’m truly grateful to know that Pittsburgh has an organization like Family House that faces outwards, welcoming guests from the rest of the world and providing them with a place that can help to facilitate their healing and recovery. There are a number of straightforward and creative ways that you could join with their work and give. Follow this link to explore and join in.

 

Cancer Caring Center

Last week a good friend and business associate of mine shared the news of his recent cancer diagnosis. The surprise, frustration, fear, and anger that most of his loved ones were likely initially feeling were only a fraction of what he was feeling himself. He reports that he is receiving excellent medical care where he is right now and looks forward to feeling well enough to travel home and get connected with a local care team here in town.

Here in Pittsburgh we are fortunate to live in a city with some of the best medical care in the world. People travel here from far and wide to receive treatment and help in fighting this invader inflicting itself on their bodies. But the more we learn about and are willing to acknowledge how complex and amazing we are, the more it becomes apparent that the physical treatment of cancer isn’t the only approach necessary to help a person survive, overcome, and thrive.

The Cancer Caring Center, located on Liberty Ave in Bloomfield, is a wonderful place that seeks to meet some of those emotional and interrelationship needs for cancer fighters. They offer crucial support for both the survivor with a diagnosis and her loved ones who face a flood of new emotions related to the assault on their loved one’s health.

The Cancer Caring Center makes it their mission to complement the medical care that the person with the diagnosis receives. They offer a wide variety of FREE services in the belief that each person, each family, and each situation is  different. The most beneficial approaches and therapies for one person might be very different from what the next person needs.

The overarching theme is that the cancer survivor and the people who love him don’t have to do this alone. There are people there who care, who will listen and try to help. They do this through programs that include (but are not limited to): Counseling, a wide variety of general and specific support groups, a phone helpline, various workshops, pet therapy, yoga therapy, art therapy, and community-based satellite groups so that treatment and the relationships formed are closer to home.  They have consistently been helping 3,000+ patients a year for the last few years.

One special and somewhat unique item that the Cancer Caring Center tries to make certain it has a good supply of at all times to send along with any patient who needs some is Ensure. If you’ve spent much time around a cancer survivor while they were in active treatment, you’ll likely recognize how important a product like Ensure is to their health and strength during the fight. I remember a constant supply of it both in the hospital and around the house when my younger brother was fighting his liposarcoma.

I want to close by encouraging you to do very important things after reading today’s blog post.

  1. If you know of anyone in the Pittsburgh area who would benefit from the support and community provided by the Cancer Caring Center, please encourage them to check out their website and contact them to begin forming that connection.
  2. If you have resources, and see the value in the work that they are doing, please consider a donation to help them maintain and expand the help that they are providing to cancer survivors and their loved ones.

 

*I want to apologize to my new friends at the Cancer Caring Center and my loyal blog readers for taking so long to get this post out. These last two months have been some of the most hectic both personally and professionally that I’ve experienced in as long as I can remember. Better the Burgh is a side-project for me, but it is one that I love and really hope can add value to our community. I’ll work on being much more consistent with my posts and hopefully schedule some more meet-ups in the near future.

 

Allegheny GoatScape

I never had much interaction with goats until 10 or 11 years ago, when my wife and I were visiting a farm in rural Virginia. I recall they had at least three dozen goats, most of them babies (kids), and a big, gentle St Bernard who made certain that no visitors got close enough to touch any of them. During our weekend there, those goats provided hours of entertainment. What cool animals.

Since that time, every once in a while, I remind my wife that I’d love to own goats. Now the fact is, our house in the city with its city-sized yard would never really accommodate this. Plus I don’t know the first thing about properly caring for goats, or any other sort of farm animal. Still, a man can dream.

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Over a year ago, I stated hearing about a herd of gots in Pittsburgh that was going around and cleaning out the overgrown or invasive vegetation on abandoned lots, neglected areas of parks, and steep hillsides. Immediately I new that this idea was a total winner.

It took me a little digging, but I learned that Gavin Deming is the founder of a local non-profit, appropriately named: Allegheny GoatScape. The man leading this effective and entertaining project welcomed me to visit him and his goats recently; you can see the video here.

I cannot confirm or deny the old adage that goats will eat anything. But I do know that these goats can eat dozens of plan species that either don’t belong in Western, PA or are a nuisance in their present location. They eat plants that can be poisonous to people and other animals, plants that are hard to kill, plants that are unpleasant to have around. To the goats of Allegheny GoatScape, it all becomes a delicious meal.

There really are a number of great things about the way the goats work. They are chemical free. They don’t require any sort of noisy, gas guzzling, expensive machinery. They leave behind natural fertilizer for plants that can be added after the overgrown species are removed. And, probably most important of all, they are really entertaining. People love to watch the goats. They attract an audience. They bring a community together. Where poisonous spray or some sort of loud equipment would probably cause people to avoid the area, these goats get people outside, hanging out together, admiring the 4-legged workers.

According to Deming, the goal really is to create a clear palette for better utilization of the land. The goats come in and create a clean slate; thy don’t just remove what was bad and didn’t belong, they leave the area ready for something good to come take it’s place.

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Additionally, Allegheny GoatScape educates people on caring for goats and the important work that they can do. They have been work animals for centuries. People, especially children, love to learn about what they can do.

There are currently two herd, one made up of ten goats, the other with six. And each herd is protected by a guard donkey who will make a fuss and kick her hooves at anything threatening the goats. They all travel together to a worksite. Work happens in a fenced off area, and then they move along to the next location; putting in long hours and requiring very little additional care since eating is their job.

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So if you are reading this, looking at the pictures of goats and thinking: “this is awesome! How can I be a part of this?” then I’m happy to fill you in. Right now, especially, donations are very much appreciated. The goats eat a lot, and there really isn’t enough vegetation for them in the winter months. They are off duty for 3 or 4 months each year. Hay is very high up on their list of winter treats, but with all the rain this last year, quality hay at an affordable price is in short supply.

Additionally, as Allegheny GoatScape really is a one man (and 16 goat) operation right now, they could use the additional help of some trained volunteers.  If you might be able to give of your money or your time, I’d recommend reaching out to Gavin via the website.

Autism Connection of PA

One of the hardest things about feeling different or experiencing difficulties is feeling like you are alone. Not knowing what to do, who to talk to, or where to tun can be very disheartening. Even worse, in situations, it can be dangerous when you are forced to make difficult decisions on your own without the necessary tools to connections to decide what’s best.

This is why Autism Connection of PA exists. They have a three-pronged approach to helping individuals and families of people who have a diagnosis of autism to navigate society and day-to-day life in a way that allow for joy, competence, and security.

  1. Support – Perhaps the most important function of Autism Connection of PA is how it acts as a lifeline for people on the Autism spectrum and the ones who love them. The phones ring frequently in their offices with people looking for help. Help managing money. Help making appointments. Help finding a place to live. Help knowing what to do in a situation. Sometimes it’s just a call that helps the caller get beyond a feeling of loneliness.
  2. Advocacy – Autism Connection of PA also works to be, facilitate, or strengthen the advocate for an individual with autism or the family members who are caring for him. This can sometimes mean training and connecting volunteers with an individual diagnosed with autism from the community, but it can also mean coming along-side a family member or trusted friend to help them become a strong advocate. The point is to make certain that somebody whose voice might not have been heard otherwise has the opportunity to be heard and have his rights upheld.
  3. Education – Autism Connection of PA is connected to 76 (and counting) support groups for people with autism and their families. They are able to provide education and structure for these meetings, as well as participating in a wide variety of seminars, conferences, trainings for the workplace and community services. The goal here is to help the public understand autism and the unique ways that it manifests in individuals so that we can all better understand, help, and interact.

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There are a couple of event on the Autism Connection of PA calendar that I’d really like to point out. On October 27th there will be a sensory-friendly Trunk-or-Treat in the parking lot of the organization’s Etna office.  Additionally, they are sponsoring three separate Autism Friendly Santa times at local malls in early December.  Follow this link for more specifics.

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Like most non-profit organizations, the strength and reach of Autism Connection of PA depends upon it’s supporters. This small office cannot handle all the needs without help. They rely on the advocates and volunteers that they are able to train, as well as the donations that come in from organizations and individuals who recognize the important work that they are doing. If you’d be able to help out in either of those capacities, I’d encourage you to click here to learn more and to reach out.

If you’ll consider your life, you’d probably agree that one thing that most of us need is a relationship with a connector. Or perhaps you’d rather call them a helper. In any event, I’m thinking about a person who knows things, and who knows people. Who understands you problem and help you fix it. More than anything, that is what the good people of Autism Connection of PA are. They are that helper for adults with autism or the parents of children with autism. Because of this organization that relief, that solution, that listening ear is just a phone call away.

The Children’s Institute

I guess it’s only natural to view the world through the lens of our own experiences and understanding when we first consider a new situation. I find being the father of three healthy, happy boys to be both consistently rewarding and frequently difficult. We don’t have any major concerns. There are no problems that keep me up at night worrying about their future or what I can do to help them live full lives. But I think, there ought to also be situations that cause to open s up to empathy and consider what the world looks like for another person, another family, another father.

Learning about the stories and work done at The Children’s Institute is one of those occasions. This Pittsburgh institution has been working to see children, and in turn their families, not only survive but thrive for well over 100 years. In its early days, the Institute’s work meant not just quality of life, but often life itself to the children who were cared for. Today, while the issues are still varied and serious, the work centers on seeing children thrive

and grow,

and develop,

and achieve,

and excel.

Each individual who receives care is full of potential and deserves the opportunity to see it unleashed. The skillful staff at The Children’s Institute help this happen.

The Children’s Institute has three primary programs (all multi-faceted) that operate out of the main facility in Squirrel Hill as well as five satellite locations around the southwestern PA region. As you begin to learn about The Children’s Institute, you’ll frequently hear phrases like “the only” or “one of the only” when the services and therapy that they offer are described.

Pediatric Rehab Therapy

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I’d be WAY out of my depth if I tried to list, let alone explain, the extensive list of medical services and therapies provided on an outpatient basis by The Children’s Institute.   I’ll direct you to the website for those specifics, but I want to emphasize that these services really are the focal point around which all the other care and development are able to advance. A wide variety of pediatric medical and behavioral impairments are addressed and healed so children can function and grow.

Many of the kids need a variety of therapies at once, and all of them are available here under one roof. Whenever possible, the family is incorporated into the therapy plan so that caregivers can participate in and understand the care as it continues in other settings. There is a basic philosophy that seems to be infused throughout the institute: All of these kids are capable of amazing things; let’s help them get there.

Day School

The Day School is operated out of the Institute’s main campus and serves over 200 children and adults ages 5-21. This is a state-accredited private school where local children who meet the admissions criteria are able to attend free of charge. The goals here are about quality of life and helping each individual move towards independence in whatever way is most appropriate to their particular situation. The curriculum is broken down into three separate categories.

Autism Spectrum – Children on the autism spectrum are educated in a way that focuses on language and social skills. Teachers and therapists seek to analyze motivation and take a practical approach to best providing for the instructional needs of each individual. The program helps students better manage their behavior in ways that allow them to more fully participate in their education so that both academic and life skills can grow.

Multiple Disabilities Support – Other students at the Day School have two or more disabling conditions that place certain limitations on learning and life skills in a typical school setting. This educational track works closely with supportive therapeutic services to help the children practice appropriate skills through structured setting and even in the community. The focus is on positive reinforcement to encourage the greatest degree of transfer into real world settings.

Adult – When students from either program hit 18, the goal becomes to transition them towards the Adult prep program at The Children’s Institute. In this phase, teachers work with students to help them strive towards their greatest level of self-sufficiency. Here students are surrounded by the various support services that The Children’s Institute can offer so as to maximize growth.

But there is a understanding that as much support may not always be available to them in their daily lives, so growing towards greater levels of daily competency is very important.

Project STAR

A final, unique offering at The Children’s Institute is a program they call STAR. In short, Project STAR is case management services that help all children and families thrive. This takes shape in a handful of different ways.

The first goal is always going to be family preservation when possible. Case Managers will work with birth families to equip them with the emotional and practical tools necessary to see their children safely grow up at home. This often looks like coming beside a family to help them understand a child’s needs and connecting them with services and information necessary to best meet those needs

Additionally, Project STAR provides both Foster Care and Adoptive support to families who provide a home (short- or long-term) for a child with special needs. Learning how to provide the necessary care and family bonding required to see a child and family flourish isn’t necessarily intuitive, even for the willing. Case Managers with Project STAR work to see children and families get connected and grow via in-home visits and appointments at a variety of The Children’s Institute sites.

Wrap Up

Here’s where I tell you about all the awesome ways that you can be a part of the work going on at The Children’s Institute. First off, visit the website. The services that are offered are extensive and I’ve really only scratched the surface of them here. If you are a family that might be eligible to receive help, or know of one, please have them reach out. What’s really important is that kids who need help are connected to these important services that are available to them.

Beyond this, like many non-profit organizations (even the well established ones) there is a real need for both volunteers and donations. The money received through various grants and government programs only covers a portion of the excellent care provided here. If you can jump in to supplement some of that with your time or money, I know that it will be put to good use.

As I walked the halls at The Children’s Institute, I couldn’t help but think of the legacy that has been created at this place. For nearly 120 years children have been coming here and seeing their hopes renewed. Truly a worthy mission if ever there was one.

Sam Kieffer

What do you do when you learn about a problem?

If you are like most of us, you are probably moved with compassion (at least a little), and wish better for the people or situation.  Maybe you even stop and pray, or do a little research on the situation.

Sadly, very few of us (I’m including myself here) ever decide to do something about it. Taking action often feels like something for somebody else to do.

Sam Kieffer sees it a bit differently.  Sam is the kind of guy who wants to do something about it. At the ripe old age of 9, he has already started three significant projects to help improve the lives of those around him.

Sam’s Blessing Box

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You may have seen a blessing box or something similar as you’ve driven around town. Sam had, too, and decided that his home area of Cheswick could use one. The idea is pretty simple, but very helpful. Every community has people in need. Sometimes it’s temporary; others times it’s more of a long-term situation. Why not create a little station (or box) where someone with needs could stop by and anonymously pick up a few food or personal items to help them when life is difficult?

Sam’s Blessing Box is located on Jacoby Road. It’s busy enough that he has to restock it twice a week. The top two shelves have a variety of non-perishable food items (he tells me that staple items like flour and sugar go especially fast), and the bottom shelf rotates between personal items and seasonal gifts.  It’s become well-enough-known around his Indiana Township home area that many people have joined in on providing donations and even commented that they were inspired to do something similar.

Save the Brains

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Moved by his father’s fight with brain tumors, Same has taken it upon himself to find a way to end them. Specifically, he has started a fundraising project that he calls “Save the Brains,”  which has raised over $7,000 dollars since he started it two summers ago as a 7-year-old.

The money raised by Save the Brains goes to the Epidermoid Brain Tumor Society (EBTS) to help combat a rare form of brain tumor.  Sam raises money via a Go-Fund-Me page and a Lemonade Stand that happens throughout the year.  The next event will be held on May 12th at the Middle Road Soccer Field Complex in Glenshaw.

Just to round out the impressive things about this young man: he’s also a published author. He recently released a book of poetry called Freedom Zone that is full of his work, as well as illustrations from his friends and family.  Some of the proceeds will  be going towards EBTS.

Buddy Bench

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Sam’s inspiration for outreach isn’t just limited to his family and his neighborhood.  He’s also working with his teachers and school administration to help get a Buddy Bench built at his Fox Chapel School District elementary school. A Buddy Bench is meant to help combat loneliness on school playgrounds. Basically, a kid who is feeling lonely or doesn’t have anyone to play with goes and sits on the bench. Other kids who know about the bench come over to connect with that kid and ensure nobody feels left out or alone.

Since Better the Burgh started about a year and a half ago, I have only done profiles of local nonprofits. All along I said that I’d also love to profile local individuals with lives that exemplify what it means to Better the Burgh.  Sam is our first, and I hope his commitment to take action with situations that are directly related to his life is an inspiration to you. He hasn’t allowed the idea of it being “somebody else’s problem” to creep into his thinking. May we all look to do likewise.

412 Food Rescue

 

Generally speaking, nonprofits are founded for the purpose of addressing an unmet need.  When they are run well, they focus on one mission and work to correct the problem.  412 Food Rescue has found a way to do more, in a uniquely visionary way.  In fact, 412 Food Rescue actually works to correct three pretty major issue in our world with one simple, but brilliant, idea.

Even with the push in recent years to develop environmental consciousness and increase recycling, we still live in a society in which far too many things are disposed of too easily.  We churn through things. We don’t use what we buy. We throw away things when they are broken instead of figuring out how to fix them. We just move on to the next thing, often without much thoughts about the cost.

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When it comes to food, the statistics that 412 Food Rescue shares on their website are pretty staggering.  Here in the U.S., 15% of the population is hungry. 40% of the food production in our world ends up being thrown away.  When all the numbers are added up, they equate to 20 pounds of food person, per month that is being wasted. Isn’t that a disconnect?  Isn’t there something wrong here? The founders of 412 Food Rescue, Leah Lizarando and Gisele Fetterman sure believed so. And they figured out an amazing way to bridge that gap.

A lot of the success of 412 Food Rescue seems to rest in their unique ability to create partnerships and connections in three different directions. They have built relationships with restaurants, grocery stores, caterers, and wholesale suppliers who reach out to 412 Food Rescue when they have a surplus, leftovers, or the food on the shelves is nearing it’s sell-by date. 412 Food Rescue then gives that food to local nonprofits, community centers, and even local housing authorities serving people who for whom food (especially fresh, perishable food) can be scarce.

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Transporting things from point A to point B is where things really get cool. While 412 Food Rescue does have a refrigerator truck that can handle some of the larger pick ups and deliveries, most of the food transportation is handled by volunteers, or as 412 Food Rescue calls them, Food Rescue Heroes.

These connections are made primarily through an amazing app that I’d encourage you to download at the App Store or on Google Play by typing in 412 Food Rescue in the search bar. Sometimes there are consistent daily or weekly pick ups, but often there is a new situation that will pop up, and it is important to get that food to the people who need it while it is still fresh. W?hen you are signed up on the app to be a Hero, you will be notified when there is a waiting food donation in your area. If you can pick it up and get it where it needs to go, you simply claim it via the app and make the delivery. If it won’t fit your schedule, you can leave it for someone else to scoop up.

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This is a really amazing way to volunteer. No huge, long-term commitments (unless you’d like it to be). If you have a free hour today, you can volunteer. You do what you can, when you can. The hope is that there will be enough people just like you, wanting to help end things like food wast, hunger, and the environmental toll of trashing usable food, that all needs will be met.

I really can’t commend this organization enough. They are an amazing example of creative problem solving; finding a way to solve multiple problems with one fell swoop. In fact, things have gone so well with 412 Food Rescue here in Allegheny County that 724 Food Rescue is in the works to address some of these same problems in the rest of the Pittsburgh metro area. Please reach out if you live in one of the surrounding counties and would like to help too.