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Balloons brighten lives for residents of Mt. Lebanon retirement community
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As has been the case for most moms during the COVID-19 pandemic, Jessica Garda has been spending more time with her children.

Of course, that means coming up with more ways to occupy their time. And the North Franklin Township resident has found that her creative knack with inflated pieces of pliable plastic provides plenty of entertainment for her daughters, especially 4-year-old Abby.

“She became fascinated with it. She was like, ‘Mommy, can you make a balloon this? Mommy, make a balloon that,’” Garda said. “I started sharing some pictures, and people were saying, ‘Hey, can I buy that?’ And so I thought, why not?”

With the pandemic impacting her business as a wedding planner, Garda has drawn on what had been a hobby to provide balloons for special occasions. During the holiday season, for example, she assembled many a not-quite-Zeppelin-sized “pop” balloon, ready to burst forth with confetti and other celebratory doodads.

“Those were a hit,” she said. “I spent all of New Year’s Eve making deliveries.”

Her latest deliveries have been to the Mt. Lebanon retirement community Asbury Heights, providing residents with cheery Balloon Buddies. They’re bear-shaped creation that, uh, bear the message: “You are loved.”

“I decided to do a teddy bear, because there’s a Winnie-the-Pooh quote that I love: ‘Nobody has ever been uncheered with a balloon,’” Garda explained.

A onetime resident of Mt. Lebanon, Garda has connections with Asbury Heights through husband Brant’s family. His late grandfather served as chaplain there in the 1990s, and a great aunt spent her final years in Asbury Place, of the community’s two secure locations for memory support care.

“Actually, my daughter Abby took her first steps at Asbury Place, toward her,” Garda said. “There’s a lot of emotion there. So I knew that if I was going to do something for a nursing home, it would be Asbury.”

Her inspiration or brightening the lives of residents came from a national #AdoptAGrandparent campaign, her discovery of which prompted her to think:

“You know what? That sounds like a beautiful way to spread some joy. I’m a wedding planner. Joy and love is at the heart of what I do.”

Calling her campaign “Send a Smile,” Garda has the goal of making enough Balloon Buddies for 233 Asbury Heights residents, a task that may seem to be somewhat Herculean.

“People are like, ‘You’re making all of these?’ But they’re not that hard to make. They don’t take that much time, and my daughters are helping me, too,” she said, including her younger girl, Maddie. “I have these special balloons that link all together, and it’s like the twisting balloons that you see at kids’ parties. It’s like a grownup version of that.”

She has received messages from appreciative family members whose contact with their loved ones has been curtailed by the pandemic, such as a woman who wrote about her grandmother: “I see her through a window, but I haven’t been able to give her a hug in almost a year now.’”

“So I feel like it’s really resonating with people,” Garda said, “which is wonderful.”

As far as planning weddings, COVID-19 curtailed much of what she had going in 2020.

“I’m having couples now who are hiring me solely for the purpose of helping them reschedule or cancel their weddings, because they need help navigating those contracts,” she explained. “I’ve been fortunate, I guess, in some regards in that most of my couples did not cancel. They just postponed.”

That type of situation is making for an interesting 2021.

“Now, all of the weddings that were supposed to be last year are this year, and I’m still trying to book new business,” Garda reported.

Plus there is her business, and her colleagues in the closely knit Pittsburgh-area events industry have helped her with contributions toward covering the costs of supplies and transporting Balloon Buddies where they need to go.

“They are very fast to show support for each other,” she said, “which is awesome.”

For more information about the “Send a Smile” campaign, visit jessicagarda.com/send-a-smile.

Mt. Lebanon ready to move forward with Vibrant Uptown project
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Mt. Lebanon’s Vibrant Uptown project is moving forward with the unanimous backing of municipal commissioners.

The multimillion-dollar upgrade to the Washington Road business district, plans for which have been in the works for a year and a half, is nearing the point of wrapping up the design development process.

Ian McMeans, assistant municipal manager, led a “high-level overview” of the project as the main focus of the commission’s virtually conducted Jan. 26 discussion session, with the elected officials expressing their full support for proceeding.

Prior to the next discussion session, scheduled for Feb. 9, McMeans said the objective is to start developing public bid documents for the first of the project’s three phases.

“At that meeting, hopefully we’ll get the commission’s thumbs up to actually move forward and go out to bid,” he said.

More than $2 million, about half of which represents grant funding, is earmarked for an initial phase entailing “basically what is contained within the public space right of way on Washington Road,” according to McMeans. Facets include replacing sidewalks, installing new street lamps, and enhancing the area through a series of planters and seating areas to create a “linear park” ambience.

A major component addresses the state of Washington Road curb ramps with regard to the federal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

“Of the 33 ramps in the scope of the project, we’re making improvements to all 33 of them, and 28 of the 33 will be fully compliant with ADA standards,” McMeans said. “The other ones will still have improvements made to them but won’t fully meet the ADA standard.”

One trouble spot is at the Alfred Street intersection, next to the Clearview Common public area. The turning radius off Washington Road for larger vehicles, including Port Authority Allegheny County buses, limits the space for making significant physical improvements to the curbs.

McMeans said he and others working on the Vibrant Uptown project recently had a meeting with Port Authority representatives.

“Port Authority very explicitly stated that they are inherently tied to Alfred Street and will not reroute buses off of Alfred Street. It’s a very important street for them, not only for their existing bus routes but also because of the ‘T’ location there,” he said about the Mt. Lebanon light-rail station off nearby Parse Way. “They use Alfred Street when the ‘T’ is broken down or there’s a delay on the line, for detours and rerouting passengers onto buses off the ‘T.’”

Other problem intersections include those at Cedar Boulevard, where a traffic signal pole and steep grade inhibit upgrades, and Shady Drive. More significant improvements to the latter could be included as an add alternate, a task that would expand the scope of the project beyond the base bid.

“If the commission decides not to pursue it at this point in time, then we have a cost estimate for that section that we can then go out and apply for grant funding,” McMeans said.

The second phase of Vibrant Uptown calls for the renovation of Parse Way, the general appearance of which has raised concerns among officials who consider the narrow street to be a gateway to Mt. Lebanon, considering the presence of the transit station.

A “placemaking” effort represents the final phase, with further enhancements to public spaces drawing on a philosophy that “capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration and potential, and it results in the creation of quality public spaces that contribute to people’s health, happiness and well-being,” according to the New York City-based Project for Public Spaces.

In 2019, Mt. Lebanon issued bonds to fund the majority of the $3.9 million Vibrant Uptown project.

During the latest discussion session, Mindy Ranney, commission president, pointed out the design process took place under the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We were given the choice back in April whether to stop it and to pick it up post-COVID, but knowing that we wouldn’t know when post-COVID is, and that a lot of this grant money was expiring, we all chose to move forward in the best possible way we could,” she said. “And in my opinion, it’s gone much better than I expected.”

‘Racism – In My Neighborhood?’: Understanding is key to challenging systems
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Note: This is the first of a three-part series.

The simple act of a friend shutting off an electrical appliance taught Stephanie Edmond-Myers a lasting life lesson.

“Oops,” the friend said. “I don’t want to get my hair caught in the fan.”

As she watched the young woman hold back her tresses, Edmond-Myers had somewhat of a revelation.

“I’ve never thought about it that way. I have short hair. I never even think about my hair getting caught in the fan. I just reach down and turn it off,” she recalled telling her friend. “We have one fan, but we have two different experiences.”

Since then, the Mt. Lebanon resident has viewed the exchange as a metaphor for varying perceptions within American society, as she expressed during a recent panel discussion on “Racism – In My Neighborhood?”

Presented virtually by the Denis Theatre Foundation as part of its ongoing efforts to promote conversation within the community, the 90-minute program featured a considerable amount of insight from Edmond-Myers and fellow panelists Elaine Frantz, Chris Ivey and Tony Norman, along with moderator Jon Delano.

Regarding her friend and the fan, Edmond-Myers hypothesized about her response going in another direction.

“If, instead of saying that to her, I would have said, ‘What? That’s nonsense. Why would you worry about something like that,” she said. “That’s never happened to me.’ Or if I were to say something like, ‘The fan is there to keep us cool. What is there to fear? Maybe you’re doing something wrong.’”

Drawing on that scenario, people with closely cropped hair become the “dominant caste,” as Edmond-Myers termed it. And they set the ground rules for how the fan – that’s society – should be perceived.

“The difficulty for people like myself, who are not members of the dominant caste, is that we have no say-so in the formation of the system, and our needs and viewpoints are not considered. And therefore, they’re not represented,” Edmond-Myers said. “These types of problems not only exist in suburban communities, but they’re perpetuated by systems. It’s basically inherent.”

She lives in the midst of a suburban area that is rife with homogeneity in terms of demographics, with U.S. Census Bureau estimates listing about nine out of every 10 residents in four major municipalities along the Route 19 corridor as “White alone, not Hispanic or Latino.”

Delano, another Mt. Lebanon resident, pointed out a consequence of a longstanding lack of diversity, even as overall attitudes ostensibly change.

“We’re in a society where overt racism is no longer acceptable, period. It’s still there. We know it’s there in certain pockets,” he said. “But what we really have is covert racism, and racist systems or impacts that are racist, without necessarily the folks knowing that they’re being racist.”

Or they very well may be aware, according to Frantz.

“There’s a real anxiety that people have to think that they might be racist, and sort of at the heart of that is the fact that they are racist. Certainly being a white person in this world, you’re a racist. It’s just how it is, living as we do and being raised how we were,” she said.

“You can try not to harm people with your racism and really work at it,” the Mt. Lebanon resident continued. “Instead, maybe they should worry more about what harm their racism is causing. And then I think that in some way, that would make people feel a little bit more empowered to do something helpful and less sort of self-focused.”

Norman echoed the need for making efforts toward helping to understand the plights of others.

“Along with systemic discriminations and racisms and so forth, you really do have a failure of empathy and a failure of imagination,” he said. “I mean, a racist is usually the dullest person in the room, the person who is unable to imagine him or herself in another person’s experience. And that’s profoundly, profoundly sad.”

The focus of “Racism – In My Neighborhood?” isn’t limited to the suburbs. Ivey, a Squirrel Hill resident, discussed what he has faced in the region during his career as a filmmaker.

“When I started doing commercial work, when I was younger,” he said, “it was hard for me to get work at first because, one, I was the youngster director in that level of work, and two, because I was Black. And it still goes on today in the Pittsburgh advertising industry, and it goes on in a lot of different ways.”

He is a native of Monroe, N.C.

“It’s extremely conservative, but at least it’s all out in the open. You know what you’re dealing with,” Ivey said. “Here, it gets more to the way that the city is run and everything goes, and I find that a lot more scarier that way, trying to figure out, where do I fit?”

For their part, Norman and his family have found a good fit in Pittsburgh’s Swisshelm Park neighborhood.

“We could have moved out to the suburbs, but we want to be where we felt that our three sons would have a good education. And it is possible to get a good education in the city, at the right schools,” he said.

Comfort level also was a prime consideration.

“My boys certainly got a taste of the suburbs whenever they would go out and play soccer at one of the suburban schools, and get called names. So there was like a sense that the suburbs weren’t really ready for at least the Norman family, once upon a time,” Norman recalled.

“If my wife and I were to downsize and try to find a new place, would we go to the suburbs? Eh,” he said, unenthusiastically. “I mean, it would be a little more welcoming now than it would have been 30 years ago, when we were starting out. But it would not be a priority. The city is fine. We like diversity. Diversity is a positive thing, and we don’t necessarily want to be the people who are causing the diversity. We kind of like to take it for granted.”

Remedying systems that have failed to produce diversity first entails acknowledging their existence, according to Edmond-Myers.

“One of the things in the Black community that we say often is, ‘Get your people.’ And what we mean by that is, start having conversations with your people,” she said. “That, a lot of times, is the hard part, to actually call people out. But it’s crucial.”

That includes everyone.

“Anti-racism is a commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself,” Edmond-Myers asserted. “And that’s the only way forward.”

To view “Racism – In My Neighborhood?” in its entirety, visit www.facebook.com/183998133247/videos/437782217263469/.

Peters Township partners with Washington Health System for vaccination site
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During their first meeting of 2021, Peters Township Council members offered the availability of facilities for the administering of vaccines against COVID-19.

Three weeks later, 1,000 people were vaccinated during a clinic held at the township’s Community Recreation Center, which soon is to be the site of a partnership with Washington Health System.

“Come Feb. 22, they want to set up shop in our facility,” Chief Michael McLaughlin of the Peters Township Fire Department announced at Monday’s council meeting. They want to do that six days a week, and they want to start at about 300 vaccines per day.”

The health department’s efforts follow a Jan. 24 event featuring vaccinations given by Hilltop Pharmacy, a business in Pittsburgh’s Allentown neighborhood.

McLauglin said Hilltop owner Patrick Lavella, a Peters resident, inquired about how many firefighters had been vaccinated. At that point, the count included only those who are paramedics and emergency medical technicians.

“So we set out to fix that,” said McLaughlin, who also serves as the township’s emergency management coordinator. “In the process of fixing that, he said, ‘OK, tell me about your police. Tell me about your neighboring communities.’ And we found out more and more that these populations had not been done yet, despite their close interaction with the public.”

Eventually, 60 members of the fire and police departments in both Peters and North Strabane townships received vaccinations in the span of about an hour and 15 minutes, McLaughlin reported. Impressed with the efficiency, Lavella suggested a larger-scale event, which led to the mass inoculations at the Community Recreation Center of eligible people from as far away as Butler County.

“I’m proud to be a part of that, but more importantly, I’m proud to be a part of the community that raised their hand first to say, let’s do this and get this done,” McLaughlin said.

Regarding Washington Health System’s plans to administer vaccines in Peters, he suggested calling 724-579-1100 or visiting whs.org/covid for information and to sign up through the website for email updates.

Further information about vaccines is available at Health at www.pa.gov/guides/get-vaccinated. Featured is an interactive map of providers throughout the state and beyond.

“The good ones will also include how to register for the vaccine through that facility,” McLaughlin said Tuesday morning during a virtual community update presented by the Peters Township Chamber of Commerce.

Township manager Paul Lauer, who also participated in the update, clarified the municipality’s role in the process of people receiving vaccinations.

“We’re not the source of the vaccine. In the case of Washington Health System and the case of Hilltop Pharmacy, we’re simply providing space and support to make the vaccination process work,” he said. “So it does no good to contact the township, because we don’t have a list to be able to put you on.”

He suggested visiting www.peterstownship.com for a list of vaccination resources and “to get on as many waiting lists as you can.”

At this point, the state is in the first phase of vaccine distribution, for individuals including residents of long-term care facilities, healthcare personnel, people ages 65 and older and those ages 16 to 64 with high-risk conditions.