• Today is: Tuesday, November 12, 2019
Kristy Locklin
November07/ 2019

Photo: The NillyNoggin is one of the products offered by Hannahtopia.

They say necessity is the mother of invention. Some local parents have taken that proverb to new heights by launching organizations and businesses driven by the unmet needs of their medically fragile children.

Unable to find a solution, these entrepreneurs created their own, then went on to help other families improve their quality of life.

Gus Gear wraps protect medical lines on rough-and-tumble kids.

Gus Gear

Parents with children dependent on central lines, feeding tubes and ostomy pouches know that protecting those medical implements are critical to their kid’s health and well-being.

When Sarah Palya’s son went into intestinal failure, requiring a central line, she struggled to protect the device that was keeping him alive. Like most young boys, Gus, who is autistic and non-verbal, plays rough.

To safeguard the equipment (and to help her decompress from giving around-the-clock care), Sarah started making textile covers in 2011. The wraps, made of soft, supple fabric, lessened the risk of Gus accidentally pulling on or breaking the line. She shared her creations with parents of other sick kids who asked her to make more. Word spread and a business began to form.

Her ah-ha moment came when she got a call from a hospital. A nurse had seen a Gus Gear wrap on a kid in their clinic and wanted to order some for other patients.

Since then, Sarah has made more than 1,800 washable wraps and covers, available in a variety of sizes and colors. Gus Gear, based in Valencia, is available in 30 hospitals throughout the United States and Canada. Sarah and her team are now working toward helping families get reimbursed for the gear through insurance.

In the meantime, she attends national and local medical conferences, giving demonstrations and promoting her lifesaving products.

Today, Gus is 15 years old and doing great.

“He’s finally able to enjoy things,” Sarah says. “It’s the best quality of life he’s ever had.”

The Abram’s Nation Safety Sleeper comes in a variety of colors and sizes.

Abram’s Nation

When he was just over a year old, Abram Morris was diagnosed with autism and began crawling out of his crib despite his parents’ best efforts to keep him safely contained.

The pint-sized escape artist would throw himself against his bedroom walls and toss toys around the room so that he could roll across the floor to retrieve them. He rarely slept.

Rose Morris

His mom, Rose Morris, who was also raising a teenager and an infant, feared he would injure himself during his late-night activities. To give them all a rest, she invented the Safety Sleeper, a fully enclosed bed system, and created a new company, Abram’s Nation. 

Made from medical-grade, fire-retardant fabric that stretches over a collapsible aluminum frame, the Safety Sleeper can be set up on the floor or placed on a bed frame. There are different sizes to fit different mattresses (including air-filled versions), with no areas of entrapment. The system is lightweight and folds into a suitcase for easy travel.

The device provides kids with a sense of security. Often, users will retreat to the comfort of their Safety Sleeper when they feel a meltdown coming on.

Abram’s Nation sells about 300 Safety Sleepers a year. Other products for kids with special needs include the Fidget Folder, a portable sensory board, and Wheely Capes, waterproof capes that protect kids (and their wheelchairs) from the elements.

Abram, who is now 14, sleeps longer and better thanks to his mom’s ingenuity.

The entire Morris family, who live in Hampton, is now enjoying restful nights.

“I needed that bed,” Rose says. “It was like air. I could not have survived without it.”

Hannah and Heather Shuker, who created the Hannahtopia company, named after her daughter.


Throughout her life, Hannah Shuker has had more than 100,000 seizures. Diagnosed at a young age with epilepsy and Lennox–Gastaut Syndrome, she wasn’t expected to live past the age of 12. Hannah is now 16 and is 95-percent seizure-free thanks to medical marijuana, which is dispensed in oil form through her G-tube.

Her mother, Heather Shuker, spent many sleepless nights in hospital waiting rooms trying to figure out a way to make life a little better for her daughter and other chronically ill children. She watched as her daughter faced the terrifying sight of electroencephalogram (EEG) tests to measure brain activity when white gauze and tape was wrapped around her head like a mummy to protect the delicate electrodes.

She came up with the NillyNoggin, now sold through her company, Hannahtopia.

Kids wear the colorful, stretchy, breathable cotton-and-spandex cap during the EEG to cover the medical equipment.

NillyNoggins, available in different colors and patterns, minimize stress for kids during the procedure and allows the EEG technician better access to fix malfunctioning leads.

Hannahtopia has expanded its line to include simple and functional, yet fun products like pillowcases, blankets and G-tube covers made by other hospital-weary moms and dads.

Heather recently launched the Hannahtopia Foundation to help get products to families in need. Later this month, she’ll distribute 100 NillyNoggins, courtesy of Moe’s Southwest Grill, to Children’s Hospital patients.

Keeping costs down, she runs Hannahtopia from an office in the back of Pollack’s Candies, which is owned by her sister and brother-in-law. On Nov. 12, Hannahtopia will host an event there to give parents free legal advice on wills, trusts, estates and guardianship. A Hannahtopia party for medically fragile kids and their caregivers will be held on Dec. 14 from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Hampton Township Community Center.

Shopping for a kid with special needs? Heather has a suggestion.

“People mean well, but so often our kids get gifts they aren’t able to use,” she says. “Why not give them a gift card to Hannahtopia so they can purchase something useful?”

Brandon Daveler’s PneuChair doesn’t need batteries or electronics. It runs entirely on compressed air and is fully submersible.


As a freshman in high school, Brandon Daveler dreamed of being a motorcycle mechanic. At age 15, a Motocross accident stopped him in his tracks. But only for a short while.

Quadriplegia didn’t prevent Brandon from finishing high school on time or earning an engineering degree from Penn State University.

Brandon Daveler

After reading an article about the University of Pittsburgh’s Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL).  Brandon applied to the master’s program. He graduated in 2014 and continued his doctoral studies there, becoming the lead mechanical design engineer on a waterproof motorized wheelchair called the PneuChair.

The PneuChair doesn’t need batteries or electronics. It runs entirely on compressed air and is fully submersible. It can go about three miles on one fully charged tank and takes just minutes to recharge. At 80 pounds, it is much lighter than a traditional battery-powered wheelchair.

While working on a PneuChair prototype, the team was approached by a representative from Morgan’s Wonderland, a 25-acre theme park for individuals with disabilities in San Antonio, Texas. They were interested in a mobility device for its new splash park. Today, Morgan’s Inspiration Island offers 10 PneuChairs to disabled guests free of charge.

As Brandon wraps up his PhD studies, he’s working to bring the PneuChair to the marketplace through his Pittsburgh-based company, Atimize Inc. Brandon is focused on improving the drive train and control system on the PneuChair and creating customized seating, so even those with high-level injuries, like his, can take a dip.

“It opens doors for people who want to experience water-related activities,” Brandon says. “There are alternatives, but they don’t really allow people to be independent.”

3 free, innovative ways for kids to get the best of nature in Pittsburgh

Sally Quinn
November05/ 2019

Experts agree: Time spent outdoors can promote physical activity, which in turn improves focus and reduces anxiety. Putting away screens and enjoying the sunshine and fresh air outdoors encourages play and socialization.

These innovative new Pittsburgh programs will get your kids to embrace nature.

1. Pittsburgh Parks Prescriber Toolkit

Here’s a prescription for your family’s health that includes fun physical activities, fresh air and mental challenges: Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC teamed up to create the Pittsburgh Rx Service and Toolkits to get kids to explore Pittsburgh parks in new ways.

A printable activity sheet from Parks Rx. Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.

Head to the website to begin the adventure. Click on one of the neighborhood parks to find a printable activity sheet that’s specifically designed for that individual park. We love browsing through them all to find parks we’ve never visited before.

The Arsenal Park plan, for example, includes a photo scavenger hunt, a bit of history, plus bus routes to the address. Arsenal Park activities include:

  • Walk the wall! Walk along the stone wall perimeter and keep an eye out for openings, markings and other interesting things.
  • Find the biggest tree! There are lots of big trees here. Use your arms (and your friends’ arms) or a piece of string to find the biggest one.
  • Make a map! From above, Arsenal Park looks like a rectangle. Take a rectangular sheet of paper and mark down all the different places in the park: fields, trees, benches, you name it.

The website includes suggestions for exercise and ways to play in all the parks. Seasonal activity sheets guide families to things to do throughout the year. You’ll find some excellent links to the park events calendar and tips to get the most from a hiking experience.

A backpack full of tools, guides and activities from the Nature Explorers Program. Photo by Sally Quinn.

2. Nature Backpack Program

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a personal guide walk your family through local parks, point out the highlights and teach you a bit about Pittsburgh’s green spaces and wooded trails?

Discover nature in Pittsburgh. Photo by Sally Quinn.

Allegheny County Library Association thinks that’s a great idea. They’ve collaborated with other likeminded organizations – Allegheny County Parks, Allegheny Land Trust and Western Pennsylvania Conservancy – to launch the interactive Backpack Nature Program for kids.

The backpacks, free to borrow from county libraries, are themed by five areas of interest and multiple subjects, such as wetlands, birds, wildflowers and conservation. Each backpack holds a treasure trove of activities and information. Depending on the subject, kids will find guidebooks, laminated trail maps, crayons and a magnifying glass or binoculars. Exploration tips will prep junior naturalists before heading out into the wild.

To add an incentive to discover multiple subjects and backpacks, the partners initiated a Nature Explorer Program (NEP). Kids can sign up at their participating library and receive a NEP Passport and nature journal. As they work through various backpack subjects, their passport will be stamped. Once all five themes have been completed, they will earn a certificate and nature tool for future exploration.

The ultimate goal is to produce a generation of citizen scientists, who will become our environmental caretakers.

Dylamato’s Market storefront was transformed into a play stop along the Hazelwood Play Trail. Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Playful Collaborative.

3. Neighborhood Play Stop Project

Volunteers of all ages helped remake space for parks and stops along the Hazelwood Play Trail. Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Playful Collaborative.

Kids can experience outdoor fun in a more urban setting, too. The Hazelwood Play Trail is a work in progress that encapsulates the concept of “play on the way” rather than seeing play as a destination. The idea is to make play a part of the neighborhood routine with play stops that kids can encounter in daily life.

Pittsburgh Playful Collaborative teamed with Trying Together to get the party started. Many community groups and volunteers have been working on the project since 2015. So far, they completed the KABOOM! playground, they turned a parking lot into the green space of Elizabeth Street Park (ESP) and they painted the ESP mural that was inspired by the neighborhood’s rich history.

One of the recently completed play stops fronts Dylamato’s Market. This neighborhood grocery’s brick storefront has been transformed into an oversized red-and-white tablecloth set for dinner. Kids can attach food images magnetically to build healthy meals. Or they can flip the pages on the over-sized cookbook to find delicious recipes, such as Apple Cake, Stuffed Cabbage, and Tomatillo and Strawberry Salsa.

The ideas came from the community, whose members actively participated in the creation. Next up: The YGarden and the Spartan Center. Pittsburgh Playful Collaborative hopes to expand these ideas to other neighborhoods as well. More outdoor play opportunities? Yes, please!

Other outdoor resources:

Allegheny Parks programming: The nine Allegheny County Parks offer a ton of outdoor seasonal programming. Download the 56-page Fall/Winter 2019 Parks Program Guide, which includes guided nature hikes, ice skating lessons, star parties and youth deck hockey.

Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy: City parks play host to the many Community and Family Programs, such as Volunteer Naturalists and Night Explorers. Head over to the Events Calendar for detailed info on active ways to make the most of the city’s parks.

Venture Outdoors: This organization coordinates year-round outdoor activities for all ages. The Gimme S’More Walk is a stroll through Riverview Park that ends with a marshmallow roast. Make a plan to head to the Candy Cane Walk to search for hidden candy canes through Schenley Park. And be sure to check out the 32 urban walks and trails your family can do on their own.

L.L. Bean Outdoor Discovery Programs: The outdoor retailer offers free programming for enthusiasts from tot-sized on up. Join a family-friendly hike, learn show-shoeing essentials, or boot up for a winter solstice outing. Smaller kids can develop a love of nature through weekly Tent Tales for Tykes, which focuses on nature-themed stories, games and crafts.

Dr. Todd Wolynn’s ‘Pediatrician for President’ campaign promotes better health for kids

Carolyne Whelan
November05/ 2019

Every election season, voters brace themselves for the hostility, aggression and fact-bending that comes up in rallies, debates and ads. One candidate, the dark horse in the running, is forging silently ahead with a campaign promise of reason and kindness. His name is Pediatrician For President.

He doesn’t have a budget, so his rally route is aligned with the personal travels of his campaign manager, Dr. Todd Wolynn, CEO of Kids+ Pediatrics. He looks almost exactly like Pediatrician For President, except that Dr. Wolynn would never wear dark-rimmed glasses.

Yes, Pediatrician For President is a fictional character, but his campaign is real. His mission promotes positive political awareness of kids and their good health. So far, the campaign has made appearances in New Orleans and Pittsburgh, with plans to head to Washington D.C., New York, Philadelphia, Miami, Denver and San Francisco.

The three main pillars of Pediatrician For President’s campaign are Kids’ Health, Science, and Kindness. He explains:

  • “Kids’ health, by extension, is maternal health and community health,” says Dr. Wolynn. If a caregiver is in poor health, it negatively impacts their child’s health. Moms and dads need care and support in order to offer the same to their kids.
  • As for science? “Vaccines are good. Climate change is bad and it’s real,” Dr. Wolynn says. Scientific research continues to improve and is key to guiding our future path, reaffirming facts and dispelling myths..
  • The final pillar, kindness, is not simply a plea for civility. Instead, the idea is to remember we are all human. Compassion can go a long way to resolve suffering.

These policies align with those of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

Dr. Wolynn hopes the mission of this campaign will be transferred to other candidates. A positive outcome would be for voters to start asking themselves what kind of future they want to see championed by their chosen candidate, and what questions haven’t been discussed at campaign rallies and on the debate floor.

“One million kids have lost Medicaid this year. Air quality has diminished. Preventable diseases are back in force,” says Dr. Wolynn. “Kids’ health is getting worse, as well as the things that impact kids’ health – the big buzz words like transportation, housing, safe neighborhoods, access to healthy food.”

While all that may sound doom-and-gloom, Pediatrician For President and Dr. Wolynn are optimists who see this project as an opportunity for positive change.

“If we rely on science to guide us, we have an opportunity to make educated policies and enforce them to improve kids’ health,” Dr. Wolynn says. “We think that the path is there to easily be laid out. A lot of the impetus behind this campaign is that all of these things just aren’t being paid attention to.”

Pediatrician For President supporters can help spread the word on his policies and campaign initiatives, follow and share his social media platforms:

Facebook: @PediatricianForPresident

Instagram: @PediatricianForPresident

Twitter: @PedsForPres

Kristine Sorensen
November05/ 2019

Bullying is a serious problem for a lot of kids, and many schools are addressing it. But the conversation should also happen at home with parents and kids. KDKA’s Kristine Sorensen talks with a local principal about bullying and what parents can do about it. Here’s the edited conversation between Kristine and Molly O’Malley-Argueta, principal of Allegheny Traditional Academy in Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Kristine Sorensen: A lot of people talk about bullying, but there are some misconceptions about what it really is. Help define bullying.

Molly O’Malley-Arugeta: Before I get to bullying, I want to talk a little bit about rude behavior and mean behavior first.

So, rude behavior is a one-time incident. Although the child’s action may have been intentional, he/she really didn’t mean harm. One example I always like to give, that may be a little bit gross but kids will relate to, is, if a child walks up to another child and burps in her face intentionally, it is rude. No one should do that.

If it persists, meaning there might be one or two more incidents that the child intentionally did to make another child feel bad, but then it stops, that is mean behavior.  It is inappropriate, and the child shouldn’t have done it, but then it stops.

We start seeing bullying when it’s an ongoing, intentional, mean behavior. And there’s an imbalance of power.

Kristine Sorensen:  Bullying can come in many different forms, right?

Molly O’Malley-Argueta: Absolutely. It could be verbal, cyber or physical.

Kristine Sorensen: If you identify that your child is being bullied, what should you, as a parent, do?

Molly O’Malley-Argueta: Go to the principal. Make an appointment or go to the office the next day. Have a conversation with the school administration. Each district has a policy on bullying, and the administration should be able to get the steps in motion so that your child isn’t subjected to that anymore.

Kristine Sorensen: How do you talk to your kid about it if you think he or she may be bullied?

Molly O’Malley-Argueta: I always like to get the whole story, so begin a conversation. Ask your child what happened. If your child comes home and says he or she was bullied, ask your child questions. What happened before that? Was there an exchange of words?  Were you fighting? Are you upset with her?

Try to get the whole story and make sure you have an understanding of the incident. And listening is also important —  ask the questions and then listen.

Kristine Sorensen: Should you call the family of the child you think bullied your child? 

Molly O-Malley-Argueta: It’s tricky. The parent would have to make that decision based on the individual case. As a parent myself, I would appreciate the parent calling me if my son or my daughter was doing something to another child, but not all parents feel that way. I think, as a parent, you need to make that call and decide if that’s the right decision. The school is definitely equipped to handle those incidents, so I think, when in doubt, always notify the school and the teacher.

For additional help with bullying: Check out Stop Bullying, a government site with dozens of resources.

9 indoor thrill rides in Pittsburgh to race, spin or blast off!

Sally Quinn
November05/ 2019

This story was first published on April 1, 2019, and has been updated.

So what if it’s cold and wet outside? Kids can get plenty of thrills at indoor entertainment centers right now! Expect breathless exhilaration, rousing competition and plenty of laughs.

Here are nine adrenalin-pumping amusements that we find highly amusing:

Adrenaline junkies will be in heaven racing on the track at Three Rivers Karting.


Those with a need for speed will love these indoor tracks. For kids, getting behind the wheel of these gorgeous go-karts is so much more satisfying than watching NASCAR from the sofa. These indoor tracks utilize emission-free karts, so no one goes home smelling of fumes and oil.

1. Junior racers at Steel City Indoor Karting in Monroeville begin at age 10 and 54 inches tall with karts that race up to an exhilarating 20 mph. (Adult karts go up to 50 mph!) The Grand Prix-style track setup uses an innovative barrier that absorbs impact without bouncing the kart back onto the track. An excellent benefit for beginner drivers. With races lasting eight minutes, kids have about 16 laps around the course to develop expertise on their first race.

2. The state-of-the-art facility at Three Rivers Karting in Leetsdale allows the track to be easily redesigned to give repeat racers a new experience on subsequent visits. Spectators can watch from ground level or the second-floor observation deck. Here, karts can reach speeds of up to 55 mph, but for younger riders, the top speed is set at 20 mph. In between the rush of racing, kids can hit the arcade and food concessions.

Both Steel City and Three Rivers focus on safety, requiring full helmets, head socks and neck braces. Newbies can expect a safety briefing before racing that explains the rules of the road.

3. A little tamer — no helmets needed here — Thunder Bolt Speedway at Scene75 in Edgewood gives racers a choice of one- or two-seater go-karts. Drivers must be at least 10 years old and 54 inches tall. But kids who are at least 36 inches in height can relish the thrill of racing as passengers.

Bump, bounce and spin out on Scene75’s bumper cars.

Bumper cars

There are very clear rules against collisions at go-kart tracks. But for bumper cars? Let the pandemonium begin!

Unlike old-school amusement park bumper cars, the seat and motor of these updated bumper cars fit inside an oversized inner tube, making them as safe as they are fun. The bumper cars operate by pushing handles forward or backward, bouncing into and off other cars. Bedlam ensues if another car hits your “Spin Zone” button. Once activated, your bumper car sends you into a wild three-second spin!

4. At Wildwood Sports Complex, Spin Zone Bumper Cars come in two sizes for single and double riders. At 5 years of age and 44 inches, kids can operate a bumper car on their own. But younger and shorter kids can get in on the action, too, as passengers riding with a driver who’s at least 16.

5. Bumper cars at Scene75 operate with a similar dizzying spin-out. Only single cars are available. Kids must be at least 5 years and 48 inches tall. Bright colors and flashing lights add to the joy.

6. Though geared more to the younger set celebrating birthdays, Lightning Bug entertainment complex in Mars offers attractions like Spin Zone Bumper Cars that anyone from age 5 on up will enjoy. Watch for specials, like Pre-School free meal days and Wacky Wednesday discounts.

Set your phasers on stun for the Jurassic World VR Expedition dark ride at Dave & Busters.

Virtual reality & dark rides

Get the excitement of a roller coaster combined with the buzz of an interactive video game in these virtual reality attractions. Get out the yardstick: Kids must be at least 40 inches tall to access these amusements.

7. Dave & Buster’s is serious about its virtual reality game lineup, which includes Dragonfrost VR, Jurassic World VR Expedition and the Star Trek: Dark Remnant adventure. The newest is Terminator Guardian of Fate. Players in the four-seat ride strap on VR headsets and head off to excitement. Tilting and jostling seats add to the experience. It’s a scream- and laugh-inducing adventure that’s as appealing to adults as it is to kids.

8. The Dark 7D Ride at Scene75 takes virtual reality a few steps further. Here, in an eight-player setup, kids wear special 3D glasses while watching the interactive mini-movies on a 15-foot screen. While tagging bad guys with phasers, players experience wind blowing in their faces, motion seats that pitch and rock, plus surround audio, for one wild ride.

9. The 4D Dark Ride XD at Fun Fore All in Cranberry requires riders to be at least 40 inches. Looking for a bargain? Wednesdays are Dark Ride Dollar Days with a $1 per ride all day long.