Raising children is difficult enough without having to deal with a pandemic.
“We are dealing with a lot of stressors in our lives,” school counselor Leslie Smirniw said. “We’re stressed by these things, and we know that our children are stressed by the changes that they’re facing. So it’s hard for us to know how can we best help our kids.”
To help provide some guidance, she joined Tracy Scanlon, clinical director at Outreach Teen and Family Services in Mt. Lebanon, in presenting “Coping During the Crisis,” a program conducted online Wednesday by the Youth Steering Committee of Upper St. Clair.
Both are mothers of school-age students, and they cited attitude as one of the keys to steering youngsters through challenges they had never encountered before COVID-19.
“Even if you’re not feeling positive about how the school setup is going, about the COVID numbers or the many issues that are stressful in our world, keep that tone with your kids positive,” said Smirniw, who counsels at Streams Elementary School. “We’re going to find the positives in this situation versus focusing all of our attention on the negatives.”
Scanlon stressed the importance of taking time to concentrate on the activities of children, and in her case, that means her son.
“He needs my attention. He needs to know that I’m paying attention to what’s happening. And then I can watch him and I can help gauge what emotional kind of situation he might be in,” she said. “It also alleviates some of the angst that I feel, and I think you would feel that way, too.”
As far as dealing with emotionally adverse circumstances, Smirniw recommended taking an empathetic approach rather than telling a child, “I’m so sorry you have to go through this. This is just awful for you.”
“That’s sympathy,” Smirniw said. “Empathy is: ‘I know. This is tough. But this isn’t something you can’t handle. I’ve seen you handle these things before. We can do this together.’ We don’t want to treat our kids with sympathy in this situation. We want to have empathy and compassion, but not feel sorry for them.”
That type of action, in turn, can assist children in building resilience.
“This is just another stress experience that they’re going to get through and be successful with, and have it to look back on and say, ‘I made it through that.’ And you’ll be able to look back on it and say, ‘I made it through that,’ because we will make it through this,” Smirniw said.
In Scanlon’s counseling services, she is a proponent of mindfulness-based stress reduction, which she discussed during Wednesday’s program.
“You incorporate ways to teach people how to be mindful and present, even when all around you is in chaos,” she said. “It’s a way of sort of being more full in your thinking and a way of not just thinking, but connecting your body and your thoughts and your emotions.”
She described an activity along those lines, “a simple tool that you could use that really, a child can then adapt and do without you being there,” with the steps forming the acronym STOP: “We’re going to stop. We’re going to take a breath. We’re going to observe, and we’re going to proceed.
“STOP is as simple as, let’s close the lid on the laptop. Let’s sit. Let’s stop for a moment, no noise, no talking, nothing,” she said. “And then once we stop all of the stimuli that’s floating around, do a couple of deep breaths.”
Then comes the observation of how the child’s body is reacting, and once it returns to being somewhat normal, it’s back to schoolwork.
“It can happen in 90 seconds,” Scanlon said. “You can do it that quickly. And I think that helps during the day when things get a little rough.”
Taking other kinds of breaks can help, too, even if you’re an adult.
“I find I know I need a break when I start to get distracted and I’m finding other things to do than the task that I need to do,” Smirniw said.
For youngsters, she suggested their breaks be limited to 20 minutes or so, during which time they avoid the likes of televisions and electronic devices. Instead, they can do something purposeful, such as getting a bit of exercise.
“Maybe it seems like going for a walk or having a snack or just walking outside is overly simple,” Scanlon said. “But in all instances, when we are critically distressed, moderately distressed, it is the very simple things that bring us back to our baseline.”
Smirniw offered similar perspective.
“These tips seem so simple, but they really are the research-based coping skills for managing stress,” she said. “We never lose our ability to improve our coping skills. We don’t reach a peak age of, well, this is as resilient as I’m going to be. We can constantly be adding to our toolbox of skills.”
She added words of encouragement on behalf of “Coping During the Crisis.”
“We’re doing a great job at this job of helping our kids with these new challenges, and they are going to come out on the other end with some really surprising skills that we probably never thought our kids would have,” she said.
In the two decades since Jennifer Kehm was diagnosed with breast cancer, she has seen perceptions of the disease change for the better.
“I definitely think more people are aware, and one of the more critical things, too, is that doctors are aware,” the Peters Township resident said. “Twenty years ago, some of the doctors would just tell women, ‘You’re young. Don’t worry about it.’”
Fortunately, her gynecologist at the time recommended that Kehm pursue a mammogram after she noticed a lump, and as a result, she received the treatment she needed.
Her experience prompted her to begin efforts that eventually led to Kehm and fellow survivor Lisa Edmonds founding the nonprofit Young Women’s Breast Cancer Awareness Foundation.
“The reason we developed it was because there was no support for young women with breast cancer in the year 2000,” said Kehm, who serves as the organization’s director. “There was no social media. There was not a great way to communicate with other women.”
In recognition of her commitment to providing support and promoting awareness, Kehm has been presented with this year’s Giant Eagle Karen Shapira Survivor Award by Susan G. Komen Greater Pennsylvania’s Pittsburgh affiliate. The award is in honor of the late wife of David Shapira, chairman, chief executive officer and president of Giant Eagle Inc.
Kehm also serves as development and liaison manager for Cancer Caring Center in Bloomfield, a nonprofit that shares many of the goals of the Young Women’s Breast Cancer Awareness Foundation.
“It’s to make sure people realize that they’re not alone, that there are a lot of resources out there,” Kehm said. “I feel that if you can connect to a cancer community, the courage is contagious. It’s very empowering to listen to the women in our groups talk about their stories and what they’re overcoming.
“If you talk to any one of them, you just stand there in awe because of what they’re able to manage,” she added. “Yes, they do have bad days, and yes, things collapse. But they find ways to rise above it.”
She compares the challenges of battling cancer to running a marathon.
“You need folks cheering you on along the side. You need other people who know what you’re dealing with and understand what it’s like,” she said. “That’s always what has been at the core of my wanting to help. I don’t want people to be alone, and I want to try to do whatever I can to make it easier for this man or woman to get through.”
Continuing their annual efforts on behalf of the Young Women’s Breast Cancer Awareness Foundation and Cancer Caring Center, Pittsburgh-area Bruegger’s Bagels restaurants are offering special “pink ribbon” bagels – featuring cherry chips, dried cherries, cranberries, vanilla, honey and brown sugar – during October, with proceeds going to the organizations.
Patrons also can round up their bills at the restaurants to contribute, and preorders for the bagels are being accepted, perhaps as gifts of encouragement to those who are battling cancer.
“It is very challenging, dealing with this disease,” Kehm said. “It’s scary.”
The type of trauma endured by Joann Cantrell is nothing new.
“People have been losing babies since Biblical times,” the Peters Township resident said. “They were told back in the day, forget about it. Don’t mention it. Don’t even tell people. And many of them never got to see their infants or hold their infants.”
Cantrell, who lost twin sons 30 years ago, provides an avenue for discussion with her book “Carried Within Me: Echoes of Infant Loss,” a collection of narratives from parents with similar experiences.
The book came out last year in advance of National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Month, as proclaimed in 1988 by President Ronald Reagan for each October. Cantrell held launch events at two bookstores, including Barnes & Noble at South Hills Village, at which more than 100 copies went to interested buyers.
“They said at Barnes & Noble that they’d never had such a response of selling out that many of a book by a local author, not a national bestseller,” she said.
“Carried Within Me” also was to be featured during an infant loss annual conference with 300 in attendance. But the event was canceled because of COVID-19.
With National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day scheduled for Oct. 15, Cantrell continues to promote awareness on behalf of grieving families.
“It’s something that never goes away their entire lives. A mother or father, they remember this,” she said. “The sentiment is the same, whether it happened five years ago or 50 years ago. And just knowing that someone else got through it is what helps the newly bereaved go through this.”
The idea for “Carried Within Me” began with the responses Cantrell received to an article on the subject that she wrote for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
“It resonated with so many people,” she recalled. “I heard so many different stories that I thought, I’m going to compile these narratives into a book.”
While she was working on it, Cantrell connected with Lauren McLean of Bethel Park, executive director of the Still Remembered Project, which provides bereaved parents and families Christian-based support and encouragement.
“She connected me with a lot of people to write stories about,” Cantrell said.
In the meantime, Cantrell was one of the first contributors to a Still Remembered Project initiative to provide burial garments to families.
“I had, at the time, a 35-year-old wedding dress that was not going anywhere, and I donated it,” she said. “And they made three ‘angel gowns’ out of it.”
Along with “Carried Within Me,” Cantrell has authored two other books, both part of Arcadia Publishing’s popular “Images of America” series. One details the Pittsburgh neighborhood where she grew up, Lawrenceville.
The other is “Legendary Locals of Pittsburgh,” which served as the pilot work in Arcadia’s growing line of similarly themed books.
“That celebrates the unsung heroes of the Pittsburgh area, people who really made a mark on the community but you don’t hear too much about,” Cantrell said, along with better-known personalities such as Fred Rogers and Dr. Jonas Salk.
With her latest book, she addresses a topic that is difficult for most people to speak about, including those who want to offer a degree of comfort but aren’t sure how.
“Sometimes, you don’t even have to have the right words to say,” Cantrell advised. “Just listen and acknowledge that, yes, you had this giant loss in your life.”
“Carried Within Me: Echoes of Infant Loss” is available through various booksellers, at stores and online.
Peters Township Council approved a series of expenditures Monday with the anticipation of reimbursement for most of them through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
One aspect of the act, which was signed into law March 27, is to provide funding to help mitigate the financial impact on municipalities in addressing concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to information presented at the council meeting, more than $634,000 has been allocated to the township by Washington County, which is administering CARES Act funding on behalf of its municipalities.
An estimated $116,000 of the Peters amount would go toward reimbursement for salaries paid to township employees who were ordered to stay at home or took sick leave because of COVID-19.
The remainder is for local projects that are likely to be covered by the federal money. Township manager Paul Lauer and David Ball, council chairman, met with county officials to try to make determinations in that regard.
“We need guidance now, because to be able to get these things ordered, purchased and paid for by Nov. 30 is extremely quick,” Lauer said during the council meeting, referencing the date stipulated for completion of projects.
“Normally, when these types of programs are done, they’re followed with a regulatory process and rulemaking process that could take years,” he told council. “With regard to the CARES Act, because of the nature of what they were trying to deal with, there weren’t any rules. And so everyone is sitting there confused or concerned, because one thing the federal government has made clear is that if you guess wrong, you will repay us.”
Among the items approved by council was awarding a contract for the design of a new heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system for Peters Township Public Library, to McKim & Creed of Franklin Park at a cost of $31,800.
“This was a project that was in the 2020 budget but, quite frankly, it was deferred as a result of the concern over the COVID impact on township finances,” Lauer said. “Part of the reason why it qualifies under the CARES Act is that we’re going to be asking McKim & Creed to pay special attention to the air-handling systems and also to look at the possibility of including in the design equipment designed to disinfect the air.”
Council also awarded three contracts to ZOLL Medical Corp. of Chelmsford, Mass., for the purchase of emergency-related equipment:
The intent was to order six of the units, with half of them for the Peters Township VFW 764 Ambulance Service.
“Because of the manner in which the ambulance service is incorporated, they are not able to receive any benefits through the CARES Act,” Lauer said. “They are not an eligible recipient, nor are we allowed to hold on to the equipment in our name and allow them to use it.”
He said the service is an extension of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 764, not a separate organization.
“These are three medical devices that work in conjunction with the monitors and defibrillators,” Lauer said.
“We have a variety of external defibrillators throughout the township, and what this would do is to replace those,” Lauer said, plus provide an additional device for use by the parks and recreation department.
A $79,800 contract was awarded to Freedom Enterprises & Associates of Cranberry Township for the purchase and installation of an automatic door system for the Community Recreation Center at Peterswood Park. The company has worked in Peters on renovations to the municipal building and main fire station.
Council also approved spending $37,741.51 for an update of the municipal website by Civic Plus of Manhattan, Kan.
“Although it has been allowed as a CARES expense elsewhere, Washington County’s position is that this website will not qualify under the CARES Act,” Lauer said.
The township’s 2020 budget, though, includes a $42,500 allocation for the project.
“If you look at our website, it’s fairly dated in terms of its appearance and its functionality,” Lauer said. “I’m hoping this is a little bit more user-friendly.”