Look Who’s Here! All-Abilities Media

Look Who’s Here! All-Abilities Media is a groundbreaking new project from Unabridged Press.

It provides news and features for and about the disabilities community, with significant reporting, production and planning conducted by people who have disabilities.

So far the team’s covered Medicaid, fitness training for people with special needs, an accessible fall festival, and more. All of our content has been released on our Facebook page.

The founding host of Look Who’s Here! is Erin Gannon, who lives in a group home run by Emmaus Community of Pittsburgh. Emmaus serves people with intellectual disabilities. Gannon has Down Syndrome. Emmaus is where Gannon met Unabridged Press producer and founder Jennifer Szweda Jordan, who has a parallel career as a direct support caregiver.

“I heard you’re on the radio, and you’re a writer,” Gannon said to Jordan one day. “That’s one of my dreams.”

Jordan has reported for The Associated Press, NPR, Pittsburgh’s 90.5 WESA and The Allegheny Front environmental news program, and was eager to show Gannon the ropes.

“Look Who’s Here!” is the phrase that Gannon often uses to enthusiastically greet people. And the words also represent a coming out of sorts, a new way of looking at people with disabilities–as agents of their own stories.

Gannon and Jordan attended podcast workshops at Point Park University’s Center for Media Innovation, and practiced reporting skills at home and in the office with the support of Emmaus. In the summer of 2017, the first Look Who’s Here! video episode was filmed. Gannon interviewed her personal fitness trainer of 15 years, Dee Barker, of Better Body Image. Gannon was Barker’s first client who had special needs.

“Once we started working with you,” Barker told Gannon on the episode, “that opened the gates for others with special needs or disabilities just like you to come in and be mainstreamed into regular exercise.”


Mark Steidl with Jess Solomon, director of programs at the Woodlands, and Jennifer Szweda Jordan with recording gear. Photo courtesy of Woodlands.

Look Who’s Here! has also attracted a second host/anchor, 22-year-old college student Mark Steidl. Steidl uses a DynaVox device to speak (similar to the famed physicist Stephen Hawking). That’s because Steidl has what’s known as spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy. Communication is in Steidl’s blood–his mother, Tina Calabro, is a longtime columnist about disabilities for the Post-Gazette and she now runs a blog about disabilities.

Steidl brings his interest and experience in arts, and a mischievous sense of humor to Look Who’s Here!

“Can it be fun?” is Steidl’s frequent question in developing program content. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

In coming weeks, interviews from Look Who’s Here! will include conversations with Marsha Blanco, a disabilities advocate for over 40 years, who’s retiring from ACHIEVA, one of the largest disabilities service providers in Pittsburgh. We’ll also find out how The Nutcracker and the musical Wicked will become more accessible in special performances for people with autism. Stay tuned!

Look Who’s Here! All-Abilities Media, and the Unabridged Press project Standup Sisters are both fiscally sponsored by New Sun Rising–a 501(C)(3) empowering leaders in the Pittsburgh area. As such, donations are eligible in most cases to be tax-deductible. Visit New Sun Rising to support Look Who’s Here! All-Abilities Media!


Courage and Compassion

By Jennifer Szweda Jordan

Five dynamic women share personal stories of their lives spent teaching, feeding, and learning from people from around the world.

Each Catholic sister spoke at the Standup Sisters: Border Crossings event, held at La Roche College. The audio is now available for each story by clicking on the images below.

“We are lucky,” said Sister Nelida Naveros Cordova. “And we all at the same time have the responsibility to help those in need. I invite you to find ways how we can reach those in need.”

Please listen, and prepare to be inspired!

Special thanks to National Catholic Sisters Week, La Roche College Mission and Ministry, Sisters of Divine Providence, Communications Professor Janine Bayer, and St. Thomas More Young Adult Ministry.

(All photos by Ryan Haggerty)

Sister Betty Sundry, a Sister of Divine Providence, is a social justice legend in Pittsburgh. Here, she talks about the event that sparked her interest in righting wrongs.

Rhonda Miska (who becomes a sister this month with the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters) shares her story of a holy walk with Nicaraguan villagers.

Sister Nelida Naveros Cordova, a Sister of Divine Providence, remembers seeing poverty for the first time, and describes her work mobilizing students to help people in need.

Sr. Janice Vanderneck, a Sister of St. Joseph, speaks of her early crush on Latino culture and her work today helping migrants from Mexico living in Pittsburgh.

Sister Mary Lou Palas, of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill, was a small-town Pennsylvania girl who traveled around the U.S. to teach. When she was 70-something, she packed her bags and moved to Korea for another adventure.

Standup Sisters: Border Crossings

Get ready for an inspiring evening of courageous women’s stories, emceed by KDKA’s Lynne Hayes-Freeland.Standup Sisters JPG

Unabridged Press, La Roche College and the Sisters of Divine Providence present Standup Sisters: Border Crossings. The event brings four Catholic sisters, and one “sister-in-training” to the stage at La Roche College from 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, March 14. The Standup Sisters will share their stories of the places and people they serve around the world, including people they serve who’ve crossed borders to live in the U.S.

Sr. Mary Lou and Korean sisters

Sr. Mary Lou Palas, in the center, with fellow Sisters of Charity in Korea

“While America is now wrestling with its immigration policy, sisters have been the ‘boots on the ground’ of foreign and domestic aid for centuries,” says Jennifer Szweda Jordan, producer of Standup Sisters. “These women will share true personal encounters of the risks and rewards of serving God and global neighbors.”

This event is part of National Catholic Sisters Week, a series of events celebrating sisters’ accomplishments. La Roche College is generously hosting this FREE event, which includes a reception, in the elegant College Square of its Zappala College Center. The address is 9000 Babcock Boulevard, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15237.

The Standup Sisters represent the following congregations: Sisters of Divine Providence, whose motherhouse is adjacent to the La Roche campus; Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill; Sisters of St. Joseph-Baden; Sinsinawa (Wisc.) Dominicans.

Please register here to ensure there is enough delicious food for all at the reception. 

The Branding of Catholic Sisters

The world will be a better place, says Sister Rosemarie Nassif, when people are aware of, and support the work of Catholic sisters.

Sister Heather Stiverson helps unemployed refugees with their English skills.

Sister Heather Stiverson helps tutor primarily Yemeni immigrants who lost factory jobs in Detroit. Photo: SisterToAll campaign

“The global sisterhood is a very powerful network and it hasn’t yet been fully unleashed,” Nassif says. “Unleashing that network can bring such tremendous positive realities to our entire world.”

Nassif directs the Catholic Sisters Initiative at the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. The foundation recently paid for public opinion research about sisters.

“We’re committed here to assure that (the sisters) network has a life, and a life that can continue to change the lives of the millions across our globe whose lives are so precious and yet so vulnerable,” says Nassif.

The Hilton Foundation is the legacy of its namesake, the late hotel founder, whose affection for sisters began when he was taught by the Sisters of Loreto. The foundation spends $17 million dollars a year funding sisters’ work to help the poor around the world. So the foundation wanted to learn more about what people think about Catholic sisters, and how Catholic churchwomen can build their brand.

“We believe that how people perceive sisters–no matter if they’re Catholic, or Jewish or Muslim or Hindu–kind of ingrains a dynamic in the culture that can influence how our works and prayers can be received, can be in some way emulated,” says Nassif.

The research found that most people–73 percent–like Catholic sisters, without having very accurate ideas about what most sisters do today. For example, many people don’t think sisters’ work impacts non-Catholics. But Nassif says that’s simply false.Data Image: Some sisters wear habits, most don't

“The truth is that sisters serve all,” she says. “No matter the religion, the ethnicity, the socio-economic status–although they do prefer the poor. And we feel that correcting that false perception among all people is very important not only to sisters–it’s very important to our nation.”

The research firm Anderson Robbins conducted about 15-hundred interviews about sisters.

“These women are trailblazers, risk-takers and pioneers,” says Anderson Robbins’ CEO Jennifer Robbins. “These are words that could be used to describe them 100 years ago and still today.”

Robbins isn’t Catholic and hadn’t done a study on any Catholic issues previously. She says she was “just amazed by what type of role these women played in our country’s history. …It was everything from work to help disadvantaged and poor to talking about how they were the first nurses on Navy ships. How a Catholic sister helped invent the first incubator for babies.”

Robbins says the people she spoke with at focus groups were also surprised.

“In some of these groups, after all was said and done, people wanted me to keep sharing information about these women. There was a real appetite for more detailed information,” Robbins says. “It was like like I blew their minds.”

The survey found a third of all Americans want to learn more about Catholic Sisters. The researcher says more knowledge may help those considering life as sisters to encounter a little less friction at home. Forty-three percent of people who answered the survey said that if they had a daughter considering the sisterhood, they’d support her completely. But 13 percent would urge her to re-consider and six percent would strongly oppose the decision.

“While these people think Catholic sisters are wonderful and doing great work, to the extent they know about sisters, they think that entering religious life is synonymous with giving up your dreams,” Robbins says. “That’s also not the case. Catholic sisters are physicians, social workers, engineers. This misperception about who they are and what they do really is kind of clouding people’s judgments about Catholic sisters and the opportunities one might have in religious life.”

The foundation has kicked off a public awareness campaign developed in tandem with the research. It’s called Sister to All and it highlights the work of Catholic churchwomen. The first group of sisters the campaign is showing off includes a sister teaching Muslim immigrants from Yemen to learn English, a sister who works with prostitutes on the street, and one who works to find shelter for homeless people.

“What we want to do is present a more accurate image of sisters today,” Nassif says. To learn more about the research and campaign, listen to the audio interviews embedded in this post, and go to SisterToAll.org.

This is part of Unabridged Press’ Standup Sisters project, sharing the work and stories of sisters in live events and podcasts. Standup Sisters received a minigrant earlier this year from the Hilton Foundation. To learn more, contact Jennifer@unabridgedpress.com.

Standing up for Peace

A little peace on earth! Pittsburghers celebrating the International Day of Peace walked flags from many nations from St. Mary of the Mount Catholic Church down along the city’s scenic Grandview Avenue on Wednesday, Sept. 21. The annual event in Pittsburgh has long been co-organized by Sister Barb Finch (pictured right, in purple), a Sister of St. Joseph. Sister Barb is a frequent visitor at all of Pittsburgh’s Peace and Justice activities!

“The International Day of Peace was established in 1981 by the United Nations General Assembly,” according to the organization’s website. “Two decades later, in 2001, the General Assembly unanimously voted to designate the Day as a period of non-violence and cease-fire. The United Nations invites all nations and people to honour a cessation of hostilities during the Day, and to otherwise commemorate the Day through education and public awareness on issues related to peace.”

Afterward, the names of 122 people murdered in Allegheny County in the last year were read. A candle was lit for each and those gathered stated, “We remember,” once each line of candles was lit.

Speakers from several different spiritual traditions spoke about peace and some shared pieces of rituals. A Hindu man chanted “Om, Shanti, Shanti, Shanti,” and explained that the first “Shanti” or “peace” is for peace in the world, the next is for peace between people, and the third is for interior peace. A Christian pastor offered peace by inviting a Muslim woman and Jewish rabbi to come to the altar, where he clasped their hands in his. In turn, the women carried that same embrace of peace to those in the pews of the Catholic church, a gesture that meant peace is carried from the altar to the outside world. The Rabbi shared a Midrash–interpretive story about reconcilation. Zen Buddhists led congregants in grounding themselves to the earth. Baha’i representatives discussed the tenets of their tradition in relation to peace. A Unitarian Universalist speaker read from Martin Luther King, Jr.

Organizers also shared other upcoming interfaith events–a birthday celebration will be held for Mahatma Gandhi Sunday, Oct. 2, 2-5pm, in the Frick Fine Arts Auditorium. The event will include tea and conversations, cultural performances and a panel discussion with authors and educators. For more information, call 412-606-6868.

Beautiful Music: Sister Guided Girls

Oh, that all young people dreaming of arts careers would find a mentor like Sister Helen Muha.

Sister Helen Muha

Image: Music teacher Sister Helen Muha. Credit: Courtesy Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill.

The late Sister Helen, a music teacher and singer, helped many people find their voices. In one case, she helped an entire family to make the world sound a little more beautiful.

Cellist Jeanne Tupper

Image: Cellist Jeanne Tupper. Credit: Ryan Haggerty.

Jane Strittmatter was a young mother of four daughters when she met Sister Helen, of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill. At the time, Strittmatter envisioned her daughters in more reliably lucrative careers–like orthodontics. But Sister Helen saw each of the daughters’ talent and helped them find instruments and training. All four of Strittmatter’s daughters are now successful musicians. Strittmatter gets to repay the favor in her work for the community as their public relations director. Sister Helen has since died.

Strittmatter shared this story as part of Standup Sisters, held at St. Sylvester Church in Brentwood, Penna.

Standup Sisters features stories by and about Catholic churchwomen, and was part of National Catholic Sisters Week. At the event, one of Strittmatter’s daughter’s, Jeanne Tupper, played the cello. Jeanne Tupper is a founder of Hot Metal Strings and a teacher at South Fayette School District. 

Click the Soundcloud player to hear Strittmatter tell it–and hear Tupper on cello, too!


Standup Sisters JPG

What God Told Her About Suffering

Why do bad things happen to good people? It’s one of those fundamental questions in religion. Sister Barbara Einloth found herself faced with her version of this question. In this episode of Standup Sisters, she shares the answer that came to her in her pleading with God.

Sister Barbara is one of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill.
She serves the United States Province of the Sisters of Charity as part of a five-woman leadership team, giving particular attention to direction on issues of mission integration, ministry, and social justice.

Sister Barbara told this story at the inaugural Standup Sisters event in St. Sylvester Church in Brentwood, Pennsylvania. Standup Sisters was funded by a National Catholic Sisters Week mini-grant and inspired by their 2014 event SisterStories, which was developed with The Moth Radio Hour.

The music by Bach in this episode was performed by cellist Jeanne Tupper. Standup Sisters JPG

A Moment of Truth and a Mystery

Sisters formally commit to be part of their religious orders in a sequence of ceremonies. But they informally commit to remain sisters day after day. Even when leaving seems like a better idea. How do they do it? Sister Mary Clark, of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill has this story about a moment of truth. Her talk was part of the Standup Sisters event, produced by @JeniferPossible and Unabridged Press.

Standup Sisters is a media project highlighting the contributions of Catholic churchwomen by giving them a microphone to tell their stories.

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The music by Bach in this episode was performed by Cellist Jeanne Tupper. This Standup Sisters event took place in St. Sylvester Church in Brentwood, Pennsylvania. Photo of Sr. Mary Clark by Ryan Haggerty, Haggerty Media.


This Sister’s Still Cool, and Popular, Too

And now for our second podcast episode of #StandupSisters…


Pittsburgher Barb Boss was a cool teen-ager hyper-focused on her social life before God gave her a shove into the sisterhood. She’s still cool, and she still attracts a big social circle–for decades, she’s headed an intergenerational education center and daycare with a waiting list. It’s called Elizabeth Seton Center after the foundress of Sister Barb’s order, the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill. (Saint Elizabeth Seton was also a socialite with a soft spot for children in need!) But don’t just sit there reading, click below to listen!

Photo by Ryan Haggerty. Audio recording by Epicast Media.

#WeMadePgh: Writing Was Very Good to this 80-year-old

We’re working to collect and share 100 oral histories of the common folks who made Pittsburgh what it is. As the South Side Market House celebrates its 100th anniversary, we’re celebrating the seniors who go there for community and activities. Here’s the kind of story we hope to share…IMG_6482 (1)

To hear 80-year-old Roberta Smith describe what made her one of South Pittsburgh’s most prominent female leaders is to learn the value of public education, public housing, lifelong connections to a community, and perseverance.

Mrs. Smith, who’s now retired, was the first female owner of The South Pittsburgh Reporter, the first female president of the Brashear Association community organization, and the first female head of the South Side Chamber of Commerce. She’s lived her entire life in South Pittsburgh, primarily in Mt. Oliver.

Mrs. Smith dates the start of her writing career back to third grade, when she was known as Roberta Johnson. She attended Hillsdale Elementary School in Dormont.

“The teacher asked us to write the obligatory ‘What I did on my summer vacation…’ And I had been to visit my sister in Buffalo and Niagara Falls. The teacher read the essay. She liked it. She read it to the class and she said ‘Miss Johnson has a talent for paragraph writing.’ And that kind of set me off,” Mrs. Smith says. “Through the years, I was editor of my school paper and the Junior Achievement paper. I entered contests all over the place and with one of them I won a Senatorial scholarship to Pitt.”

But the University of Pittsburgh scholarship was only for half the tuition and that caused a bit of a conflict in the family. Mrs. Smith’s mother, who herself only had a third grade education, was reluctant about her daughter attending.

“She’s going to get married someday and we’ll have wasted all this money,” Roberta Smith recalls her mother saying.

Her father, though, who was a printer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, championed his daughter’s aspirations.

“My dad’s attitude was: ‘What you learn, nobody can ever take away from you,'” she says.

Dad and daughter won out. Mrs. Smith did go to Pitt and became the first in her family to get a college education. She didn’t graduate quickly, though– Ms. Smith did, as her mother predicted, get married.

That marriage to Bill began with what was essentially a long-distance dating relationship-only her suitor lived less than ten miles away, in the North Side. The two communicated only by phone for over a year and finally met only after he’d gone overseas for military duty and then returned on leave.

“We lived above the South Hills trolley junction,” Mrs. Smith says. “I can remember him getting off that streetcar and there was this handsome red-headed guy in uniform.”

She was smitten. Still, it took years and a break-up before the two married and had four children. Which meant she would finish her degree in night school about 20 years after she began?

“I took probably two courses a semester,” Mrs. Smith says. “I wanted to do it for my dad.”

By the time she graduated in 1970, her father had died. But as soon she had her degree in hand, she visited her father’s gravesite with it. As she told this story recently, 40-plus years later, it still brought a few tears to her eyes.

The Pitt education served Mrs. Smith well, and in turn allowed her to serve the community. One of her early jobs was working in a reader contest department for the Post-Gazette. She also worked in Head Start education with three- and four-year-old children.

But what really pushed her career along, she says, was moving into a public housing site, St. Clair Village, when Bill lost his job. Mrs. Smith got involved in advocacy at the complex.

“I went from St. Clair Village to the South Side Community Council,” she says. “I wrote articles about their activities. It came to a point where the (South Pittsburgh Reporter) editor would call me at home to ask for stories.”

Mrs. Smith got to know The Reporter’s business manager at the time, and before long, the company wanted to pass on the paper to her.

“Writing,” she says, “has been very good to me.”

For just a dollar, the previous owner of The South Pittsburgh Reporter, Typecraft Press, which was printing the paper, sold it to Mrs. Smith.

“And he was supposed to charge me $10 after the first year,” Smith says. “At a dinner, I tried to give him the $10 and he wouldn’t take it.”

Asked why she took on the responsibility, she shares matter-of-factly, “I had this education I wasn’t using. It wasn’t enough for me to just be a wife and mother and housekeeper.”

It was a time when a number of community papers were thriving around Pittsburgh, Smith says. She believes what allowed The Reporter to thrive while other papers like it failed is that she lived in the community her entire life.

Plus, she says of her former staff, “We weren’t that concerned with making big salaries. We only had three employees at the most.”

One of those employees was Mrs. Smith’s son, Tom, who went to what’s now Point Park University to study journalism.

“I told him he could come as an intern, but I didn’t want him there for the rest of his life,” she says. “I didn’t think he ever would make enough money to support a family.”

But when she was 65, she retired and turned over the paper to Tom, who continues working today as its editor and publisher, and has also maintained community involvement like his mother with the Brashear Association, Hilltop Alliance, and other groups.

Roberta Smith says she sees the value of The Reporter and other small community papers as not unlike church bulletins.

“But not everybody goes to church,” she says. “I always felt like I was providing a kind of unique service. If someone is going to open a nudie bar next to their supermarket …. I liked being able to provide people with that kind of information. And you make a lot of friends and you make some enemies too.”

Mostly, though, Mrs. Smith says the friendships kept her in the business, she says-“from high-ranking public officials to people who worked in their organizations.”

One of those officials is Magisterial District Judge Gene Ricciardi. He says Smith not only shepherded south Pittsburgh’s development, but closely mentored people like him. He recalls a time when he was the sole opponent in a prominent vote in his first week as a city councilman.

Mrs. Smith, he says, “was able to pick people up, brush them off, and send them back into the game. I remember her saying, ‘Did you believe in that vote? Was it based in principle? Then what’s wrong?’ That meant a lot to me.”

But, Mr. Ricciardi says that in Mrs. Smith’s writing, or in person, she wasn’t afraid to take people on herself if a position seemed wrong-headed.

“If Roberta believed that someone had a hidden agenda,” he says, “watch out, because she would actually take you on head-to-head.”

For that honesty, Mr. Ricciardi says, “We really consider her an icon south of the rivers,” Her whole goal was the betterment of our neighborhood, of our communities. I think the respect she garnered was never for herself. Everything was driven to make things better south of the rivers.”

This article was first published in The South Pittsburgh Reporter.