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5 Pittsburgh women building support networks for local families

Nadine Champsi
July31/ 2015

As Pittsburgh evolves into a model for livable cities, its parenting culture changes, too. Whether you’re a new parent–which can be isolating–or new to the area, or have lived here forever, it helps to have support in creating the “villages” that are so important to raising healthy and happy children.

Kidsburgh highlights five enterprising Pittsburgh women who are helping to form the social networks that will strengthen Pittsburgh families. We say cheers to that.

Caitlin and Daughter
Caitlin Venczel of Hike It Baby Pittsburgh, Photo by Kate Buckley

Caitlin Venczel of Hike It Baby Pittsburgh

An archeologist by training, Caitlin Venczel (above) moved to Pittsburgh two years ago for her husband’s job. After having their first child shortly after, she left her job and embraced life as a new stay-at-home mom. But it wasn’t exactly what she’d expected. “After I had Henrietta, I was feeling really isolated,” says Venczel. “We didn’t have a community here and I was far from my family. I was afraid to even go outside with her.”

Venczel started searching for a baby-friendly hiking group in the area to help. Finding none, she decided to take matters into her own hands. She launched Hike It Baby Pittsburgh in November 2014 and the group has quickly grown to include more than 1,000 members–all families who share a commitment to getting outside and being active.

According to Venczel, Hike It Baby Pittsburgh is the city’s only family-centric, free hiking group with outings scheduled throughout the week at locations all over the city, surroundings suburbs and further. Hikes are paced “with new mothers in mind,” says Venczel, although fathers, grandparents and caregivers are always welcome to attend with kids of all ages. Venczel has one rule: “Leave no mama or papa, or baby, or anyone for that matter behind. We’ve got you.”

While the group has already helped many Pittsburgh families embrace a healthier lifestyle, it has also achieved something more. “There are many families that hike with us that don’t have extended families here. They’re transplants like us,” says Venczel. “But I’ve seen these friendships blossom in this really, really nice supportive environment. We’ve helped build a community and it’s really cool to watch.”

Interesting in becoming a part of Hike It Baby Pittsburgh? Simply check out their calendar here, sign a waiver here and attend your first hike. Also, the organization has an active Facebook group here.

Kelly and Daughter
Kelly Hughes of Pgh Momtourage, Photo by Kate Buckley

Kelly Hughes of Pgh Momtourage

Another Pittsburgh transplant, Kelly Hughes moved to the city six years ago to help start a new church with her husband, a minister. She knew only a handful of families in the area at the time, and was determined to find a place for herself and her children in a new city.

“I started planning playdates and inviting moms that I would meet at the park, the library, the church,” says Hughes. “Soon I was organizing playdates for larger and larger groups until I finally formed a blog and a Facebook page to help coordinate events in one place.” Years later, her website Pgh Momtourage now includes not only her playdate calendar, but also articles of interest to Pittsburgh parents, giveaways and more.

Hughes’ bimonthly playdates take place at fun spots throughout the city and suburbs and are open to all moms, dads and caregivers with their children. She does her best to keep them free or very affordable and she’s always eager to check out a new family-friendly spot with the group.

And while her playdates help families explore the city with some company, Hughes also believes they serve another purpose too. “I often hear from parents that come to our playdates that they’re so anxious to meet other families, but don’t always know how to go about making friends in this busy season of life. Playdates provide a way for your kids to have fun, as well as giving parents a chance to connect with other adults.”

These connections can even translate into broader community impact, as Hughes demonstrated last holiday season. She mobilized her “momtourage” for the Foster Love Project–a community service project to create “placement bags” to ease the transition for new foster kids and their families. The Foster Love Project was a huge success in 2014 and she plans to grow the project even more this year.

Interested in becoming a part of Pgh Momtourage? Check out the website here and her Facebook page here.

Cynthia Mendoza of Pittsburgh Brown Mamas

Cynthia Mendoza of Pittsburgh Brown Mamas

Cynthia Mendoza, is a transplant of another sort. Born in Pittsburgh, she moved to New York City after getting married. She returned to Pittsburgh five years ago as a changed person–a mother of three–and without a community to support her in this new role. “I was a lonely mama upon my return,” says Mendoza. “I really wanted to meet like-minded mamas.”

Mendoza started a blog Pittsburgh Brown Mamas, which soon evolved into a free support group for black mothers in the Pittsburgh region. “I wanted to help black mothers experience Pittsburgh as one of the most livable cities in the nation and to assist moms of color in enjoying their motherhood journey,” says Mendoza, who has grown her network to include an active website, Facebook page and Twitter profile.

But the group is not only about digital connections. Mendoza also believes in the importance of face-to-face friendships. She brings mothers together regularly for playdates, adults-only evenings and workshops about mindful parenting, basic budgeting, meal-planning and more. “Bottom line, by making moms better moms and dads become better dads, children grow into better adults and communities, ultimately, become better communities,” says Mendoza, who works hard to strengthen the entire family unit by hosting events that include fathers and other caregivers too.

The impact on this community has already been felt. “A mom posted on our Facebook group that she was having trouble putting food on the table,” says Mendoza. “Two days later about 15 moms galvanized to donate food items, personal care products, etc. to make sure her children were taken care of. These are the kinds of happenings that bond communities.”

Want to be a part of Pittsburgh Brown Mamas? This webpage can help.

Vanessa Jameson of Covey App

Vanessa Jameson of Covey App

Vanessa Jameson merges the timeless need for the “village,” with the cutting-edge technology of the digital age. A CMU computer science graduate, Vanessa started working at Google’s Pittsburgh office in 2011 and, shortly afterwards, became pregnant. Appropriately, she started Googling.

“I searched for something like ‘I’m pregnant, now what?’ and started stepping through the hundreds of millions of results that came back,” says Jameson. “Navigating all the information and resources that are out there is tough.” While Jameson had dedicated years of her life to improving Google, she quickly realized that no search engine could replace the value of person-to-person support.

“My most confident parenting decisions were made after comparing notes and research with my mom friends. I asked them about everything: eating, sleeping, tantrums,” says Jameson. “I found tremendous value through simple social support from those friends. Parenting at times can be incredibly isolating, particularly in the early days.”

With the help of her mom friends, Jameson started dreaming big. “We envisioned a social tool designed for parents’ hectic schedules that provides a window into the local parenting communities via their smartphones,” says Jameson, who ended up leaving Google and launching the Covey App three months later.

Available on Android and IPhone, Covey App allows moms to connect with other moms in their area who have children of a similar age, “bringing online interactions into real life,” says Jameson. Mothers can simply download the app, set up a profile and start searching for area moms. Ideally, these app-based connections will then naturally progress to playdates and other face-to-face interactions, and eventually a supportive community of families.

And while the app currently focuses on mothers, Jameson is expanding it to include fathers and other caregivers within the year. “Meeting somebody new is not an easy thing,” says Jameson. “But once a connection is made, it is extremely valuable. We work hard to make sure that everybody who wants a new friend can find one.”

Kate Brennan of Nurture PA, Photo by Brian Cohen
Kate Brennan of Nurture PA, Photo by Brian Cohen

Kate Brennan of Nurture PA

Our final mother has a slightly different story. Kate Brennan was raised in Pittsburgh and she has older tween and teen children. But her career in Early Intervention has kept the challenges of having young children fresh in her mind.

“The better that kids do birth to age 3, the more likely they are to succeed when they start school,” says Brennan. “But if we want to support very young children, we need to support the parents.” In order to help these young families, Brennan became the senior manager of Nurture PA–another project to build a “village” in the digital age.

Nurture PA is a free text messaging-based mentoring program where new moms are paired with more experienced mothers. “The experience of being a new mom is incredibly overwhelming and is a vulnerable position to be in,” says Brennan. “It’s important to have somebody extra to check in, somebody who’s just there to reassure you and provide you with information that is frequently overlooked.”

Nurture PA currently has 260 enrolled mothers, who are regularly contacted via text messages to ensure their children are meeting milestones and to determine if any in-person services are needed. “We provide an extra source of support to these mothers, checking on on them regularly to make sure they’re doing well,” says Brennan. “We provide them with a safe place to share thoughts and information and ask questions without judgment.”

Want to be a part of Nurture PA? While mentees are chosen by program organizers in local maternity units, all experienced Pittsburgh mothers are welcome to apply to become a mentor. Just start the process here. And while moms are the focus of Nurture PA, Brennan notes, “If there is a dad or other caregiver interested in participating and receiving mentoring, we certainly do whatever we can to meet their needs as well.”

Whatever your family’s situation, it’s vital to have support as your children grow. Kidsburgh wants to thank these five inspiring women for creating both the physical and digital networks that will help Pittsburgh families form meaningful communities for years to come.

Featured photo: Hike It Baby Pittsburgh outing, Photo by Kate Buckley

Nadine Champsi

Nadine Champsi is an MD turned write-at-home Pittsburgh mom with two lovely children.