90.5 WESA Features and Special Reports

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.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

Each month, about 20 volunteers help to hand out food to more than 200 individuals and families at the Westinghouse Valley Food Pantry in Turtle Creek. 

Among those volunteers is Rose Smeltzer, who serves as the pantry's coordinator. 

“This is my passion," Smeltzer said. "It is what I was born to do, I guess." 

Smeltzer also recruited her husband, children and grandchildren to help at the food pantry each month. 

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

Since 1961, the Pennsylvania State Police have been able to use radar to hand out speeding tickets, but municipal police in the state have been denied the same authority. 

“We trust them with a gun, we trust them with a Taser, we should be able to trust them with a radar gun,” Whitehall Borough Mayor Jim Nowalk said.

Nowalk was among a small, but vocal group that gathered Tuesday in Harrisburg to call on lawmakers to lift the ban. 

Melinda Roeder / 90.5 WESA

Anyone attached to their phone knows how frustrating a dead battery can be. But if you need a quick charge, look no further than your shoe.

Pittsburgh-based tech startup Sole Power has created a shoe insert with a battery pack that can charge small electronics such as flashlights, radios and cell phones. Sole Power was founded by Carnegie Mellon University graduate Matthew Stanton, who said it all started with a simple idea for a class project.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

 

There are two county-wide uniformed public safety forces in Allegheny County, the county police department and county sheriff’s deputies. 

While most of their efforts are separate, there are a few spots of overlap.

“So that raises the question, does Allegheny County need two police departments?” said Allegheny County Government Reform Commission member Jim Nowalk,

A report by the commission, released Tuesday, includes a call for the formation of a taskforce to review the possibility of a merger.

Rebekah Zook / 90.5 WESA

Deanna Blincow has been working with the Orphan Care Ministry since its conception in 2007, and serving as its director since 2012.

Within this time frame, she has witnessed at least 25 families she knows personally go through the intense process of adopting a child, and has counseled countless others.

“My husband and I adopted two children out of an orphanage in Russia, so we did an international adoption about 17 years ago. That’s really what started it for us,” Blincow said.

Mark Nootbar / 90.5 WESA

When the Allegheny County Home Rule Charter Commission was formed in 1997, the members decided it was time to move away from having three full-time commissioners running the county, and instead it was time to have a single full-time executive and a 15-member county council. 

“I think right now, we have a citizens council and I don’t want to make it a career thing, like a state legislature or Pittsburgh City Council,” said Allegheny County Council Member Charles Martoni who was also a member of the first council in 2000. “I think it works pretty well the way it is.”

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

For 13 years, Allegheny County has had a five-member accountability, conduct and ethics commission, and in that time it has never launched an investigation of its own. Not because its members have been remise in their duties, but because the commission does not have that power. 

That would change if the Allegheny County Government Review Commission had anything to say about it.

Melinda Roeder / 90.5 WESA

A Pittsburgh-based company is finding new ways to use eye-tracking technology to help children with disabilities learn language skills at a younger age by playing digital games. Now the video gaming industry is taking notice.

Tobii Dynavox has been making devices to help nonverbal patients communicate with the help of computer-assisted voice technology. Many of their customers are stroke survivors and adults with degenerative diseases like ALS, in which sufferers lose muscle control. But the company is now looking to expand their devices to young children, and even toddlers.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

In 2012, Lynda Carr lost her son Charles to a heroin addiction. Three years later, her stepson was killed in a drug-related car accident.

“Most people probably would not recover from that, but in spite of her loss, Lynda has chosen to give back,” said one person, whom Lynda sponsors as part of Nar-Anon, which relies on the anonymity of its members.  “She gives back by helping people like me every day.”

Melinda Roeder / 90.5 WESA

A new artificial lung could buy patients and doctors more time during life-threatening and cardiac-related emergencies.

Pittsburgh-based Cardiac Assist just received FDA approval for the respiratory device. Before that, the company created an artificial heart several years ago that’s been used more than 4,000 times worldwide. The artificial lung will hit the market within the next two months.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

A giving circle is growing in the South Hills and at its center is Jennifer McDowell.

“I’ve volunteered for a million different things over the years, but this is the thing that really sparked my imagination and made me want to do something different,” said McDowell of Mt. Lebanon.

Melinda Roeder / 90.5 WESA

A group of local high schoolers recently took on a smelly task: finding innovative ways to eliminate some of life’s most offensive odors.

Dozens of classmates from Avonworth and South Fayette high schools presented their ideas and prototypes to executives at Calgon Carbon Corporation. The Moon Township-based company creates purification systems for a range of products, from drinking water to pharmaceuticals.   

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

Every day, Pine-Richland High School Nurse Susan Leonberg sees 30 to 40 students come through her office door. 

She said the number of students is average, but the number of flu cases she's seen isn't. So far, no confirmed flu cases have been reported.

“Many times, we do not get notified of confirmed cases," Leonberg said. "But as far as clinically, I don’t think we have seen it. We’ve had sick children, but not flu sick. You know, the normal kind of stuff.”

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

If you walk through the doors of the North Hills Community Outreach office in Allison Park, it's very possible that it will be Joyce Rabinovitz who greets you with a smile. According to the charity, Rabinovitz has logged more than 3,000 volunteer hours with NHCO, since 2007.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

If your primary care physician says you need a test or procedure, and he suggests a location to get it done, what do you do?

“There is data that shows that patients do what their doctor says,” said Mark Roberts, chair of the department of Health Policy and Management at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. “When your doctor tells you, ‘I want you to see a cardiologist and I want you to see this cardiologist,’ that’s who you go see.”

Weekend Edit-A-Thon Puts Women In Wikipedia

Mar 8, 2016
Melinda Roeder / 90.5 WESA

A group of local women are taking on Wikipedia.

“The gender gap on Wikipedia really just boils down to most of the people who write on Wikipedia are men,” said Kelly Doyle, a librarian at West Virginia University and scholar on gender equality. "We're trying to ... get more women to write on Wikipedia and, as a result, have more articles and content about women."

Doyle drove to Pittsburgh on Saturday to join more than 100 participants in a day-long Wikipedia “edit-a-thon.”

Rebekah Zook / 90.5 WESA

Joe Divack attributes volunteer John Erickson’s “all-star” status to his attitude.

“It’s his sense of humor," Divack said. "And he really likes doing it. He might not always admit it."

Joe and John have teamed up together for Allegheny Cleanways’ Dump Busters program for four years, with no signs of stopping any time soon.

4Moms

Pittsburgh-based 4Moms, which works to create innovative parent-friendly products for children, unveiled a new product to streamline the clunky process of installing a car seat.

For sale later this year, the self-installing car seat joins a battery of other user friendly products that harness technology to sterilize, self-fold and mimic a parent's touch.   

Mara McFaddon, director of product management, said it’ll be the safest one yet on the market.

Sarah Kovash / 90.5 WESA

  Last May, Governor Tom Wolf held a news conference in front of the Camp Hill state prison in Cumberland County.

He was joined by Corrections Secretary John Wetzel and a handful of district attorneys, all pushing for a $120 million funding increase — not for prisons — but for preschool.

“These are the first steps to what I have as a four-year goal to fully fund early childhood education,” Wolf said.

Irina Zhorov / Keystone Crossroads

In Vogt True Value Hardware on Pittsburgh's South Side, the stock of plumbing pipes includes copper and plastic. The owner of the neighborhood store, Shawn Vogt, shook his head no when asked if he carries any lead lines. 

“It’s no longer legal,” he said. “That’s like an old fashioned thing.”

The store hasn’t carried any lead pipes in decades, he said. 

Larkin Page-Jacobs / WESA

In the Monongahela Valley, communities that saw their economies boom with the steel and manufacturing industry in the last century continue to feel the bust from those industries’ decline. But as Pittsburgh’s economic position strengthens, many Mon Valley towns are looking for ways to spark their own revitalization, and zoning plays a key role in that endeavor.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 FM WESA

Faith Denson’s son was sentenced to prison in 2009. That moment changed her life.

She decided to launch an all-volunteer ministry to help keep inmates in contact with their children. 

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

Imagine if companies knew the probability of turning someone into a customer – and keeping that customer.

That’s exactly what Green Tree-based Othot thinks it can do. The start up’s current focus is higher education student recruitment, and Chief Technology Officer John Abbatico said there’s plenty of data to mine.

For Police Departments In PA, Collecting Data On Gun Violence Remains Inconsistent

Feb 22, 2016
Rachel McDevitt / Keystone Crossroads

 

Although data can be a powerful tool in the argument over policies to address gun violence, approaches to collecting and using data across local police departments are inconsistent.

A call to the Erie Police Department comes back with the number of guns taken off the streets in the last few years. The Philadelphia Police Department releases annual reports on its website that show the number of shooting victims and homicide by firearm. In Reading, they're focusing on the locations of verified shots fired in the city.

Rebekah Zook / 90.5 WESA

Michael David Battle spends his time doing many things: he’s the author of two biographies (and is in the process of writing another), he delivers sermons at community events, he orchestrates town hall meetings, digital story-telling projects and yearly retreats for Pittsburgh-area leaders to share their ideas. He even travels to the White House on occasion.

But his true brainchild is the Garden of Peace Project, an initiative that is rapidly bringing together, and aiming to improve the lives of, members of Pittsburgh’s LGBT community.

Melinda Roeder / 90.5 WESA

The makers of a new “smart plug” claim it can save companies and organizations millions of dollars each year on electric bills.

Boss Controls is a Pittsburgh-based company that produces the plugs. They’re designed to go directly into a wall outlet. But unlike traditional plugs, these gadgets are programmed to turn themselves on and off.

CEO Greg Puschnigg said they’re designed to reduce energy usage during times when devices, such as vending machines, copiers, coffee pots and computers, are not being used.

The Ellis School

In the year 2113, a city in the Katmandu Valley of Nepal will be surrounded by an earthquake mitigation system and crisscrossed by underground pneumatic tubes that will zip solid waste right out of your house. 

At least that is what a group of seventh and eighth graders at The Ellis School in Pittsburgh will be presenting next week at the national Future City competition.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

About 80 percent of the work done at Pittsburgh’s senior center on the South Side is done by volunteers. And lately, much of it has been done by one man: Charlie Mathews.

“To have Charlie here as a person that is just willing to help and is really good with people is very crucial to what we do,” said Sarah Johnston, director of the South Side Market House.

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