Features & Special Reports

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

For some receiving treatment for cancer, Mrs. Claus doesn’t just visit at Christmas.

“Our mission statement is to bring comfort, hope, encouragement and love to the (person) who has been recently diagnosed with cancer,” said Jeana Watenpool, founder of the Mrs. Claus Club of the North Hills.

The Mrs. Claus Club, which delivers gifts minus the sleigh year-round, has given out more than 500 comfort baskets since it was formed seven years ago. In the last seven months alone it has delivered more than 70 baskets. 

Laurl Valn / Flickr

In a sparsely decorated office in Braddock, two men are trying to build a parking payment empire and it all started with a lunchtime conversation.

“One of our colleagues, she opened up her purse to help chip in and instead of pulling out money she pulled out a fist full of parking tickets,” said MeterFeeder co-founder and CEO Jim Gibbs. “She looked at us with desperation in her eyes and said, ‘If you make an app where I can pay for parking I would use it every day.’ And two weeks later MeterFeeder was born.”

Sarah Kovash / 90.5 WESA

It’s a standardized testing day at Miller African-Centered Academy in the Hill District. But before one class of third graders starts the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments, Kathy Flynn-Somerville turns off the lights and has them just listen. She teaches them calmness strategies like being quiet, present and taking deep breaths.

But students aren’t the only ones employing these mindfulness strategies in the classroom. 

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

Luann Monteleone focused more seriously on painting after her husband died. She said she found it helped her deal with the pain. Then one sleepless night, she asked herself what she was going to do with her life to make sure her husband’s death was “not a waste.”

“I prayed and I just got the idea … and the name in one night,” Monteleone said. That was the birth of Art. Healing. Hearts.

New Photography Exhibit Explores Impacts Of The Fracking Boom

Jun 16, 2016
Lynn Johnson

 

The story of the fracking boom in Pennsylvania and nearby states runs as an almost continuous narrative in the region’s press. But covering the blow-by-blow of new drilling sites, protests, lawsuits and regulations is just one way to look at how fracking has changed the region.

Luyen Chou / Flickr

  

Jeff Blood has been fishing for more than 50 years. He’s cast his line for steelhead in Lake Erie, trout in State College and mined waters as far away as Alaska, Europe, South America and Central America.

“I have lots and lots of memories,” Blood said.

He's one of more than 800,000 licensed fishermen and women in Pennsylvania, according to Angler Labs founder Nic Wilson. It’s a growing sport, Wilson said -- one he loves. And it's that passion that inspired Wilson to create a soon-to-launch data tracking app for fishing enthusiasts.

Caitlin Regan / Flickr

For 13 years, Edith Davidson and Diana Cooper have met with women to talk about all aspects of their roles as new mothers.  

For the last several years, the gatherings, known as “Stork Bites,” have been held at the Sharon Community Presbyterian church in Moon Township. Davidson and Cooper divide the Stork Bites meetings into six-week classes, with many of the mothers attending multiple sessions. 

Jamie / Flickr

Pennsylvania has used a prescription drug monitoring program and database since 1972 and it’s due for an upgrade.

“Although it was a prescription monitoring system, it was woefully inadequate,” said Michael Zemaitis, a University of Pittsburgh pharmaceutical science professor.

Rennett Stowe / Flickr

 

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump says the U.S. needs to take back its jobs from China, Japan and Mexico—although he hasn’t offered a plan on how to do that.

Meanwhile, labor unions and environmental groups are pushing a more specific path for creating American jobs: Fix the nation’s infrastructure. And not just highways. They’re talking about things like the electric grid, water systems and natural gas pipelines.

Takashi Toyooka / Flickr

Reviewing a lengthy legal document can be a long and tedious task.

“Imagine looking at a computer screen for eight hours a day reading legal terms and trying to find the needle in the haystack,” said Alan Veeck, vice president of Denali Group, a Pittsburgh-based procurement service. “Doing that for eight hours makes your eyes bleed.”

LegalSifter, based in Lawrenceville, is offering an alternative. The program ContractSifter uses algorithms to extract certain terms and phrases from thick, wordy, legal documents, said CEO Kevin Miller.

Matt Nemeth / 90.5 WESA

Nancy Furbee, of Wexford, has her smartphone loaded with apps, like many people. But she has strategically placed two health related apps right where her thumb hovers each time she unlocks her iPhone.

“Because it really keeps me focused," she said. "And every time I look at my phone, they’re a little smack in the face to remind me to not eat too many things and to really keep honest with my fitness goals."

Furbee said her friends greatly impact her app choices.

Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA

  Interim Wilkinsburg High School Principal Shawn Johnston’s voice reverberated through the intercom into bare, empty hallways on the second to last day of school. Packing boxes had arrived in the office.

Melinda Roeder / 90.5 WESA

The idea that pit bulls aren't friendly is one that Hello Bully founder Daisy Balawejde has worked for more than a decade to squash.

“When people meet pit bulls, they’re always like, ‘Oh my gosh, this one’s so nice,’" she said. “That’s the pit bull, that’s the actual dog.” 

Hello Bully is a nonprofit rescue center that retrains pit bulls used in dog fighting and transforms them into family pets.

Balawejde started the rescue in 2005 and has recovered more than 1,500 dogs since then.

Jennifer Szweda Jordan / 90.5 FM WESA

A locally made app called Seekahoo connects electrical, plumbing and other contractors with customers. The concept may sound like the well-known site Angie’s List, but Seekahoo's creators said they designed their platform with contractors in mind.

Luv Purohit

Hundreds of summer camps are available to Pittsburgh youths each year, but for some parents there is really only one choice that makes sense.

“We wanted to create a space specifically for young people who have the experience of refugee and immigrant students,” said Jenna Baron, who four years ago founded the Pittsburgh Refugee Youth Summer Enrichment (PRYSE) Academy. “We organize a three-week summer program for immigrant refugee students in Allegheny County."

Meet Herb, A Robot To One Day Help Around The House

May 24, 2016
Carnegie Mellon University

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University's Personal Robotics Lab have spent years working on ways to make robots execute subtle, human-like movements in the hopes of helping around the house. 

With cameras for eyes, two thick arms and the occasional bowtie, Herb – an acronym for home exploring robot butler – only recently learned to move a cup across a table.

"We’re trying to get robots to be able to work in a home environment," said Carnegie Mellon University Ph.D. student Jennifer King. 

Virginia Alvino / 90.5 WESA

This month, Pittsburgh officials and members of the organization Donate Life are encouraging locals to consider becoming organ donors.

According to Donate Life, there are more than 8,000 people in Pennsylvania waiting to receive organ transplants. Most transplanted organs come from deceased donors, but just 46 percent of Pennsylvanians are registered eye, organ and tissue donors. While advocates are working to increase that number, they're also looking for more options to meet the demand.

For some, like Steve Debakawitz, that’s a living donor.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

In November of 2013, Bert Dorazio decided he wanted to be part of World Kindness Day, so he called up a friend.

“I said, ‘Why don’t we go down to a grocery store, get in line behind somebody and after they check out all their groceries let’s pay for their groceries?’” Dorazio said.

Dorazio said his friend thought it was a good idea and after hanging out near the check out line at the Giant Eagle on the South Side for a few minutes they chose a woman with a cart full of food.

Melinda Roeder / 90.5 WESA

Saint Bartholomew School student Daryl Jean, of Penn Hills said she can’t understand why more girls don’t get excited about science and technology.

“I feel like girls, they can like science and stuff, but they don’t understand it, and some boys can be intimidating,” she said. “But I think you should try your best, because there’s a lot of inspiration out there.”

The American Association of University Women tried to kick start some of that inspiration in young Pittsburghers last weekend with its “Tech Savvy” computer coding workshop at La Roche College.

Melinda Roeder / 90.5 WESA

A doctorate project-turned-start up by two University of Pittsburgh students has grown from its days sharing a space at AlphaLab in East Liberty.

Kasey Catt and Noah Snyder first started InterPhase Materials with the intent of developing nontoxic coatings to be used inside the body for brain or dental implants. But after hitting roadblocks with the FDA, they refocused their efforts on coatings to keep marine life, such as mussels and barnacles, and mold from sticking to boats and buildings. 

In 1680, English nobleman Edward Coke codified his country's common law regarding fetal homicide.

"[T]his is a great misdemeanour, and no murder," Coke wrote of the intentional death of a fetus in utero "by Potion, Battery, or other cause."

South Hills Interfaith Movement / Facebook

Every Monday and Friday Marisa Niwa spends time with her father volunteering at the South Hills Interfaith Movement, or SHIM, food pantry.

“I volunteer and keep things neat and organized," said Niwa's father, Joe Murray. 

Murray said he, his wife and their daughter have a long history of doing volunteer work for people with intellectual disabilities, but when the opportunity at SHIM came up, they thought they would give it a try.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

In a small, but growing office in Shadyside, Rhiza Founder and CEO Josh Knauer stood in front of a computer linked to the cloud and crunched big data for a Kia car dealer and a Pittsburgh TV station.

“Behind this very simple display of data are hundreds of billions of records of data that we are sifting through,” Kanuer said of the colorful mix of graphics and numbers on his screen. “And in a matter of seconds … we were able to get to results that had gone through those records and found just the ones that are relevant to this story for this television station and for this very local specific advertiser.”

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 FM WESA

Students at Avonworth School District’s Primary Center had a chance every week to gather in an empty classroom to create anything from battery-powered cars to catapults. Then, one day, a few students came to kindergarten teacher Maureen Frew with a teeny request. 

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

The days of an individual doctor hanging out a shingle and offering a general family practice are all but gone. The new norm is that your primary care physician is part of a multi-doctor practice. It’s also more likely than not that those doctors have either already hired a nurse practitioner or a physician assistant, commonly referred to as physician extenders, or they are considering making such a move.

“I find that the PA (physician assistant) generally gives you a lot of time,” said Jeff Phillips of McCandless.  Phillips said until recently he never saw a PA, but now almost exclusively sees a PA when he visits his doctor’s office. “So far so good.”

Melinda Roeder / 90.5 WESA

As companies like Uber and Google work to make self-driving cars, a local company is working on another autonomous vehicle: forklifts.

Engineers and designers at Seegrid have spent the last decade perfecting technology that allows automated forklifts to travel through warehouses and move heavy product without a human behind the wheel. The machines roll about like robots, making noises that sound like beeps, bells and sirens as a means of communicating with one another and employees.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 FM WESA

It all started in 1971 when  Jimmy Cvetic grabbed a 13-year-old boy for stealing tape decks out of cars. He didn’t arrest him and less than two years later the boy was dead from a drug overdose.

“That bothered me,” said Cvetic, who is now retired from a 35-year career with the Allegheny County Police. “If I would have said something or did something.” 

Cvetic said the boy has always represented innocence to him. His response was to open a free boxing gym in downtown Pittsburgh.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

Lab rats can be taught to do just about any simple task for food or a treat. 

Scientists can also watch what is going on inside a rat’s brain by inserting a few electrodes. So it's not unusual that researchers at the University of Pittsburgh attached wires to the brains of a group of rats while performing menial tasks. The researchers wanted to understand the effect of anxiety, but what they learned was unusual.

Rebekah Zook / 90.5 WESA

Debbie Thackrah said she never expected her initiative, Feeding the Spirit, to be as large as it is today, considering its humble beginnings in 2011.

“My running partner and I ... started running with five dollar bills to slip under their knapsacks so it would be there when they woke up,” she said. Thackrah, on her morning runs, was seeing an ever-growing homeless population in her town of Greensburg, spend the night in open, public spaces.

“It made me really upset,” she said.

Melinda Roeder / 90.5 WESA

Managers at the Beaver Valley Nuclear Power Station got some advice this year from a panel of unlikely consultants – high school students.

Blackhawk High School students studied federal regulations for problems like workers' exposure to dangerous gases and the disposal of radioactive waste. Nuclear engineers and scientists from First Energy Corporation challenged the teens to produce energy safely and more efficiently.

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