NAHS is empowering girls to reach the Summit

The Young Scholars Program at Norristown High School has their sights set on something much bigger than bake sales or car washes.

The grassroots mentor program provides students with academic and personal support, leadership opportunities, partnerships with business and government institutions, and college and career preparation. In its fourth year, the Young Scholars was co-created by English teach Jill Myers and two NAHS alums and employees Mike Evans and Rodchine Lusane who Myers credits for helping establish community ties.

With such admirable goals, I was honored when they asked me to be a presenter and panelist at the first Women’s Empowerment Summit.

There was just one question.

“Can I bring my mother?”

“Sure!” Myers said. “Mine will be there, too.”

My mother was less than enthusiastic. Not because she didn’t want to attend but she didn’t immediately understand why I was inviting her.

“I wouldn’t be an empowered woman if it wasn’t for you…” I started before Dad chimed in from the other room with a hearty, “that’s right!”

Mom, like almost every woman I encounter, tends to deflect praise. I speak to women at networking events and for interviews for stories and they shrug off accomplishments. Many are uncomfortable even talking about their achievements and act like building a company or reaching the apex of their field is akin to taking the trash to the curb.

30712064_10155103307386626_4958938445046087680_nThen there are the women, including myself, who apologize for everything. We’ll apologize if our shoulders graze yours in the subway, if we step on a dog’s toe or if we bump into furniture.

In the weeks leading up the Summit I felt unqualified to offer advice.

I needed to climb a mountain before I was able to speak at the Summit.

It started with a look in the mirror.

In late March I went to the King of Prussia Mall after work to relax and maybe get a few things for my spring/summer wardrobe. A salesperson tried to sell me a winter coat and…a bathing suit. The juxtaposition was not lost on me. When women shop, we often end up in the dreaded fitting room. Nothing offers more coverage than a winter coat and few things are more revealing than a bathing suit.

I tried on a few of both and a familiar chorus played in my head. The negative self-talk. But there was something louder than that. At each fitting room that night, I overhead women making comments about their bodies. “I disgust myself.” “My stomach is gross.” “I need to hide my arms.” “Life was so much better when I was a size six.” “I’m not going to try that on because I’ll just hate myself.” “I put on so much weight this winter I need to find something to make me feel sexy.” “I can’t wear shorts this summer.” “My arms so saggy.” “Look how big my hips are. I’m going to cry.” “I have thunder thighs.”

I didn’t hear a woman say one positive word about themselves.

Women need to treat themselves better. If it starts with taking back how we see ourselves and taking back the fitting room, let’s start there.

My trip to the mall might not have been relaxing but it got me closer to being ready for the Summit. Maybe I would never reach the peak in terms of acceptance with myself and quieting the doubts, but I would always work on it.

The Women’s Empowerment Summit was part career fair with about fifteen women representing fields from law, enviromental field services, human resources interior design, nonprofits and others. Students circulated to learn more about the various professions and the Young Scholars compiled a list of questions for the panel. The afternoon concluded with a balloon launch, which was meant to symbolize the breaking of the l glass ceiling.

“It was an event that showcased the power, determination, and triumphs of women, but also the hard work and ingenuity of Norristown students,” said Myers.

Since the event, Myers said the feedback from all involved has been positive and the Women’s Summit was the most successful event the Young Scholars ever hosted.

“I credit the students for their creativity and drive in making the event so meaningful. And I also credit the women who donated their time to act as role models showing the students that they can accomplish their goals and dreams, too, no matter what obstacles arise,” said Myers

Returning to my alma mater also stirred up memories. The impact of my mother who always stressed the importance of education, the guidance of newspaper advisor and teacher John Doyle, and many other the lessons I learned, and still carry with me.

Not only did I get a dose of nostalgia, Norristown High School still makes me think. I’m still processing Keynote Speaker and History teacher Krista Bolinsky

words: “When we think of leaders we need to think of our mothers, our grandmothers, our friends, and people who have done things for us that maybe we have never thanked. Maybe we should start thanking them. If this whole event is about empowerment, empowerment starts at home.

It does start at home. And wherever there are mirrors.

To watch the Young Scholars Women’s Empowerment Summit –

The Young Scholars need your help – Due to federal budget cuts, their transportation funding has been terminated. Off campus trips are essential for students to be exposed to environments that allow them to dream bug. Their current campaign is attempting to raise funds for a trip to Princeton University and their Summer Institute. If you have questions or wish to be involved with the Young Scholars Mentor Program, contact Jill Myers


Strength of ‘Scandal’ lies in its gladiators

Is there really such a thing as appointment television today?

Everyone is so occupied with their form of “busy” – work, family, or making it seem like they are busy to keep up with everyone else. There is also the competition from other forms of media. Netflix and Hulu don’t tell you when you have to be in front of the screen to watch something.

It takes more than a show to make it worth clearing a half hour or an hour of your schedule.

It’s mostly about the real-life cast you watch it with.

During Sex and the City’s run, three of my friends would come to my house and we would watch the four fictional ladies date across New York. It was the one time during the week we knew we would be together. An unbreakable date for the duration of the season.

After the SATC finale in 2004, there was a void in appointment-TV-with-the-girls. Especially since two of those friends moved to other states.

There also wasn’t a show that could fill Carrie’s Manolo Blahnik’s.

In April 2012, Scandal’s pilot aired. I didn’t get on board until Season Three which started in October 2013 after I spent the summer binge-watching Seasons One and Two.

It wasn’t yet appointment television. Not until I got to know Sandy.

My husband, Tom, works and is involved in area politics. I do not have the passion for politics he does, but we are both mutually supportive of our respective careers. However, there are certain events I will make a guest appearances. It was at one of them I met Sandy, who is involved in local Upper Merion committees with Tom and retired from a career in publishing and non-profits.

30740211_10155109212511626_2928108982138568704_nSandy has a delightful sense of humor, a love of fashion, wine and good food so her and I became fast friends.

She’s also a “gladiator.”

In Scandal, the term is used to describe a member of Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and Associates. It’s a person in the middle of the action, fighting the good fight. Fans of the show often refer to themselves as “gladiators” or “gladiators in suits.” Sandy and I don’t go around calling each other gladiators or referring to the “white hat,” that symbolizes the “good guys.” We’re in it for the high drama, the powerful woman lead, and the handsome men.    However, none is more adorable than Sandy and her husband, Barry’s, Polish Lowland Sheepdog, Bear. Bear, a rescue, is smarter than many of the characters who have tried to cross Pope. When he hears my car door close and the beep of the alarm, he runs to the door to greet me. On the rare Thursday’s I wasn’t able to make it, he heard the familiar sounds of Scandal and saw Sandy in her chair, “but no Katie.”

“Bear is looking for you,” Sandy texted me, causing my heart to both melt and break at the same time.

I only wish I could get Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn) to follow me around like Bear tails Sandy. I have a crush on the devastatingly handsome Fitz while Sandy prefers Olivia’s other wannabe-but-not-Fitz-suitor Jake Ballard (Scott Foley).

Love triangles are just one part of the show’s creator Shonda Rhimes twisty world where cliffhangers happen every episode, not just for season finales. Of course, some would say things got a bit beyond the realm of possibility. It started a regular refrain from Sandy during Season 6.

“Is this the last season?”

It wasn’t because she was tired of me showing up on her doorstep every Thursday night. We actually started planning post-Scandal finale plans.

Aliens could have abducted Olivia and Fitz could have nuked the moon to get her back and we still would have watched (with snarky commentary).

The sight of a woman handling things on television, before Olivia Pope was rare. It was also groundbreaking. Scandal is the first show in 37 years that featured an African American woman in a network drama series. Pope used her wits and employed other women with a skill-set that complimented her own to get things done. You wanted to be as smart and confident as Pope, despite her flaws.

But when it came to appointment television on Thursday night, Olivia Pope wasn’t the woman I admired most.

It’s Sandy.

Her unending kindness, contagious smile, commitment to family and friends along with her own fierce strength aren’t fictional. They are qualities that everyone who has the pleasure of knowing her admires.

“Our” show might be over, but the friendship, like a gladiator, is just getting stronger.

Accident motivates Plymouth Meeting woman to give back

Marissa Witman is about to take a bike ride to nowhere.

At the Cyclebar in Plymouth Meeting she will hop on a bike and pedal to the sounds of EDM and current chart toppers. Her heart rate will rise and she will feel the burning sensation so familiar to those hate it and those who crave it.

Marissa Witman looks flawless on this Sunday morning. The type of beauty you see walking around Whole Foods in the afternoon with poker straight hair, dewy skin and a physique that makes you curse your draw in the genetic lottery.

We base so much on looks. What is easy to see is a bike that goes nowhere and a beautiful 27-year-old woman.

Our eyes look but our mind processes what we see. It’s why – I hope – we don’t base everything on looks. That unseen thing between our ears that tells us to look, ask and learn.

Marissa Witman looks like she could be the spokesperson for Cyclebar. Instead, she uses her spare to raise awareness about Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).

Last Sunday, she put together a cycling class benefitting the “Run, Walk, Roll for Brain Injury.” Camp Cranium and the Brain Injury Association of Pennsylvania partner for the event, which is held on April 21st at Tyler State Park.

Witman, a lifelong Plymouth Meeting resident, has been involved with both organizations, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and others. She credits each of them with their role in saving and shaping her life.

A life that was changed on Halloween in 2004.

A vehicle struck Witman, then fourteen-years-old, when she was crossing Joshua Road and Ridge Pike in Lafayette Hill. She was medevac’d to the University Pennsylvania Hospital where she received emergency brain surgery. She also broke six bones and sustained a collapsed right lung. She was then transferred to CHOP where she underwent extensive occupational, physical and speech therapy. Witman spent two months in the hospital before returning home.

“It gave me a path. It changed my path,” said Witman. “I had to grow up quickly. Because of that accident it’s why I am the person I am today. I want to be able to help people and get awareness out there for brain injury.”

According to the Center for Disease Control, in the United States, an estimated 1.7 million people sustain a TBI each year. Of them, 52,000 die, 275,000 are hospitalized and 1.365 million are treated and released from an emergency department. The CDC also reports that TBI is a contributing factor to a third of all injury related deaths in the country. Seventy-five percent of TBIs that occur each year are concussions or other forms of Mild Traumatic Brain Injury. Children 0-4, older adolescents 15-19, and adults over 65 are most likely to sustain a TBI

Camp Cranium’s Assistant Director Heather Ruthrauff says those with TBI run the gambit from those significantly affected to someone like Witman. Run the gambit from those significantly effected to someone like Marissa.

“It’s all about education and getting ourselves out there. TBI can be in many different forms. We all need to support them within the community,” said Ruthrauff.

Camp Cranium is a camp for children with acquired or sustained brain injuries. The weeklong camp in the Poconos features zip lining, rock climbing and dances.

Witman was a camper, counselor and is now a cabin leader along with co-chairing the race for the past three years. She shares her story and serves as a mentor across the Philadelphia area while working as a teachers aid in the Wissahickon School District. Her goal is to finish school and become an occupational therapist.

“They helped me become the person I am,” Witman says about the various hospitals and organizations that have aided in recovery. “They helped me get better. All I want to do is help people get better to.”

“She’s fantastic,” commented Ruthrauff. “I listen to her and it makes me tear up.

To see her grow and develop and do what she wants in life…. to really turn it around after a TBI is just the values we are looking for and what we strive to do for our kids at Camp Cranium. It’s inspiring.”

At first look, it’s obvious Witman wants to show gratitude to the community that saved her and share her story to those who those who suffered from TBI.

But after a few minutes, it goes deeper. It’s not just about people with first-hand experience with TBI. Witman is serious about prevention. Her eyes narrow like she and her words are backed with not just facts, but feelings. She wants you to know how important it is to take care of your brain – whether you are playing sports or fall off a bike.

“It can happen from anything,” said Witman. “Be aware of it. Take it seriously. Take care of yourself. Be careful. Your brain is so precious and delicate.”

Mark Pulcini, keeps things growing as horticulturist at Elmwood Park Zoo

The latest nor’easter might have put a damper on your dreams for this year’s garden. It’s hard to imagine flowers in full bloom or juicy tomatoes on the vine when there is nearly a foot of snow on the ground.

Elmwood Park Zoo horticulturist Mark Pulcini is a lot like the United States Parcel Service. “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” can keep him from his mission.

A rainy day at the zoo is obviously bad for attendance but it means indoor projects for Pulcini like the recently completed bluebird houses for the Norristown Farm Park. On this particular rainy and cold day, Pulcini plans to tackle administrative tasks and putting together orders for spring.

His eyes and his thoughts are always on his main job, cultivating plants for the beatification of the zoo grounds. Pulcini peers outside at the heavy precipitation and smiles.

“It does help the plants grow. When we have a wet spring like this, I don’t mind.”

Pulcini, a Norristown native and resident, is the first staff horticulturist at Elmwood Park Zoo. A horticulturist job is to take care of plants and plant material. At the zoo, it entails a bit more work. Their plants are used for browsing and enrichment so it’s important to know which ones are safe for use.

unknown-17Pulcini’s comes from a family of gardeners. He admitted to struggling for years on a career path. He spent years as a local bartender while moonlighting as a garden designer. While attending Temple University for Landscape Architecture and Design and he “found his happiness”

One of his garden designs ended up at the zoo and caught the attention of the zoo’s CEO Al Zone who asked to meet Pulcini.

“Gardening in the backyard is simply pure joy and pure pleasure. Gardening at the zoo is pleasure joy and work,” commented Pulcini.

There are many more eyes and feet at his “zoo garden” then his backyard garden. The zoo welcomed 530,000 guests in 2016, a huge leap from 2011’s 114,000 guests.

It doesn’t bother Pulcini that plants t get stepped on. One of his regular tasks is keeping everything looking fresh and thriving.

As a horticulturist, Pulcini views he 16-acre zoo as a canvas. Everything doesn’t look the same, but it blends seamlessly.

The giraffe exhibit looks different than the jaguar exhibit. There are over 300 types of grasses planted in the giraffe yard.

“Come June it looks like the African savanna.”

Last year, they installed a new main path with an EP Henry stone wall and Pulcini added a lot of pollinator plants.

“There is a lot of color and insect activity,” said Pulcini. He pointed out he does not use chemicals on plants at the zoo. “To be able create such beauty without chemicals was a great source of pride for me. A pollinator garden should never have chemicals.”

His favorite animal is an eagle and not just because he is a fan of the Super Bowl Champions.

“I’ve always admired birds and birds of prey. The greatest thing about the zoo is as soon as you walk in you are immersed with our national emblem.”

When guests ask why the eagles don’t fly away, Pulcini tells them that all of the eagles in the exhibit have been injured in the wild and are nursed back to health at the zoo. However, some can’t be rereleased into the wild due to the injuries they sustained. Then they remain at the zoo as animal ambassadors.

“The zoo is successful right now. It hasn’t always been that way but with the new people coming in, the chance to showcase my work is a rare opportunity and what I really enjoy about gardening here at the zoo,” said Pulcini.

He still loves to garden at home and offered his number one tip.

He urges gardeners to remove and discard all the mulch from their garden. Many people put mulch on top of mulch each year. Pulcini strongly advises against it since it will suffocate plants and mulch is a host for an artillery fungus that will fire spores (up to 30 feet in the air).

Yes, that is the black spots you might see against houses.

“If you would have removed the mulch and put fresh down you wouldn’t have that problem.”


The road to Donkey’s Too is smoother than Cheez Whiz

The continued quest for satisfaction sometimes takes you to parts unknown.

Frodo and Middle Earth. Dorothy on the Yellow Brick Road to Oz.

For me and my family, one of our quests are for culinary brilliance. Especially when it comes to cheesesteaks. We are on a wiz-stained journey to taste bud nirvana

The Philadelphia area’s signature sandwich is a point of pride. You can only get a real Philly cheesesteak here. Maybe it’s the bread. Not since the Last Supper have a group of people taken bread more serious.

Cheesesteaks, like professional sports teams, are also the subject of debate.

Who makes the best? What are your “Top Three?”

When “outsiders” weigh in, we are skeptical.

What do they know? How many midnight cheesesteak runs have they made? Did they really squeeze onto a stool at the counter or did they get some kind of red carpet treatment?

In 2015, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain visited Donkey’s Place in Camden for his eat-around-the-globe show Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown on CNN.

“National landmark. Unbelievably good,” Bourdain said after eating the sandwich.

Bourdain’s bold proclamation put Donkey’s on my radar but I never quite made it to Camden to give it a try.
Instead, it took a fictioar-180329896-jpgmaxh400maxw667nal depiction of a cheesesteak argument followed by cheesesteak run. On a recent episode (fittingly named “Crusade for the Hoagie Grail”) of The Goldberg’s, the Jenkintown-based family has a familiar, and spirited argument over who makes the best cheesesteaks.

Oldest son Barry says he had the best cheesesteak ever in New Jersey on the way to a Flyers road game against the Devils.

Since the Goldberg’s is one of my favorite shows it might have held more weight than Bourdain. Creator Adam F. Goldberg (a Jenkintown native) isn’t exactly an outsider and much of show hits close to home as a child of the eighties and the Philadelphia area.

‘We have to go,” I said to my husband, Tom, after the episode.

“They close at 6,” he said. Tom knows the drill for cheesesteak runs. When the craving hits hard, you gotta go.

“Okay, when can we go?”

It would be more difficult than I imagined. Maybe because I was in a cheesesteak trance, I took the word of Tom and my dad who told me that Donkey’s was only open during the week and closed at 6 p.m. After I did my own searching, I quickly discovered there is a Donkey’s Too in Medford that is open weekends. It is owned and operated by the same people and have equally rave reviews.

“I don’t like poppy seeds,” Tom admitted. “But I’ll go.”

I narrowed my eyes at my partner-in-provolone. My so-called one-with-the-onion mate.

“It’s on a poppy seed roll!” I said about Donkey’s sandwiches distinguishing feature. “It’s not like they put Swiss on it or wrap it in a kale leaf!”

I eventually forgave Tom because he always agrees to drive. First-time cheesesteak excursions with such hype require a contingent. Mom and Dad had heard of the high praise and immediately agreed to the trip.

Dad is quite literally the father of my cheesesteak craze. He not only makes a damn good at-home one, he introduced me and many of his friends to Phillips on Passyunk which holds a spot in the “Top 3.”

Donkey’s Too in Medford is in a over-the-speed-limit-and-you’ll-miss-it, two store strip. It’s a no-frills shop with a few tables, no menu on the wall, and old-time memorabilia throughout. The unmistakable medley of beef, onions and oil on the grill greets you as soon as you open the door.

A mouth-watering welcome.

We ordered then we waited. Donkey’s is not fast food or quick serve. They are artists at work and have been at the craft since 1943. First the fries were brought over. A perfectly cooked potato seasoned with a light salting of what tasted like a mild old bay-type seasoning. A few minutes after that, the sandwiches arrived.

Donkey’s sandwiches come on a round Kaiser poppy seed roll. There is a slice of cheese on the bottom roll, delicately sliced steak, and it is topped with cheese and fried onions.

But there is something special about the flavors.

The roll which many say is the key to any great cheesesteak is close to perfect. Sturdy enough to handle a cheesesteak and fresh. You can’t even taste the poppy seeds. (Even poppy-seed hater Tom and Mom didn’t seem to mind. But when they saw a sandwich sans poppy seed roll go by they made a note to order that the next time).

The cheese is creamy and superior to wiz in every way.

The meat was the un-greasiest variety I’ve had on a cheesesteak.

Then there were the onions. The delicious bands of flavor in every bite that made me think I should have ordered extra. Caramelized to perfection, I would have ordered a few pounds to go and eat them straight up.

All of it is seasoned in a beautiful harmony of salt, pepper and what I suspect may be some secret seasonings.

“Wow” and “it’s right up there” was the consensus after the first few bites.

In other words, our quest for a new holy grail was successful.

To Jerry Spinelli, success comes from enduring failure

Last Saturday, Norristown-native and award-winning author Jerry Spinelli spoke at Elmwood Park Zoo during their Read Across America festivities. He could have spent the majority of the time discussing his long and successful career that spans almost four decades. Instead, he spent an equal amount of time, perhaps more, examining failure.

“I think life is much more about losing and how we deal with losing than it is about winning,” said Spinelli. “If I were curriculum director of Norristown schools, you couldn’t graduate with out taking courses called ‘Beginning Failure’ and ‘Advanced Failure.’ When you graduate and got out in the real world and bump into the inevitable failure, instead of falling to pieces, you’re okay with it because you have already made friends with failure.”

He started his talk followed by a question-and-answer session in the zoo’s Canopy Gardens by saying he recently started three books but at about 75 pages in, tossed them.

“It’s the way it goes sometimes,” he said.

Some may think a writer like Spinelli spins yarns easily and his next three books are completed. Why is he throwing away stuff? Why is he talking about failure?

unknown-15 unknown-16Before he introduced you to your friend, Maniac Magee he was friends with failure. His first few novels were rejected and he had five published books before Maniac Magee.

Despite the rejections and the lack of overnight success he continued. Not only did he share an office with a pet rat – which Spinelli extolled their wonderful traits – he shared it with an invincible coworker.

He isn’t alone. The most innovative and successful people have chosen to work with, not stop working, despite failure.

If you choose writing as a profession, you two will become very familiar with each other.

It’s not just writing. It’s anything you are passionate about. If you are obsessed with fulfilling your potential you will come across immense hurdles and sometimes fail.

We root for the underdog as evidenced in our regional pride for the Eagles-postseason persona. We just don’t want to be them.

We love Rocky and share the movie quote, “But it isn’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”

But we don’t want to get hit too hard.

Little League season is approaching which means parents will be clamoring for their children to be assigned to the “best” coaches and “best” teams.

They will learn more from being on the Bad News Bears. How will they react when teammates run to third instead of first, when the pitcher walks the bases loaded, or when their best friend strikes out for the third time in the game?

Do they go into a shell and stay silent?

“Hey pitcher, let’s get this next one you got this!”

Are they sympathetic or take a few not-too-nice verbal barbs?

There are lessons in losing. Do you want to learn them now or later because I don’t know anyone who goes through life undefeated?

Think about fielding a ground ball.

It goes through your legs.

The coach tells you to get in better position. Put your glove on the ground. Get lower.

The next ground ball hits your glove and ricochets into the outfield.

“Move your body. Square up to the ball.”

This time the ball bounces off your glove and hits you on the chin.

It hurts. You might be bleeding. This is where the thought of quitting creeps in. Do I even want to play this sport?

Another ground ball is coming your way. It hits your glove, but you squeeze it too late and it pops out.

“Better,” the coach encourages. “Hold on to it.”

All technically failed attempts but each showed improvement.

The ball rolls in your direction, you take one step to your right and it nestles into your lowered glove.

“Let’s do a few more,” you say to the coach.

Failure on the baseball diamond or in the workplace depends on your attitude. It can either defeat you or be the motivation to move forward.

The most rewarding, impactful things are never easy and require courage to even attempt.

It is often said to not meet your heroes because you are bound to be disappointed. Growing up in Norristown, I read Spinelli’s books in my hot-pink bedroom and it made my dream of becoming a writer not-so-far fetched. Here was someone on a book cover from my town, writing about places I went to all the time!

In recent years, I’ve had the wonderful experience of meeting Spinelli and speaking with him about writing. He is one of the most humble, genuine, kind people I have had the pleasure of knowing.

On Saturday, he proved again why he is one of my heroes.

Spinelli and I share not only a hometown, but a mutual friend – failure. I might have marveled at the Newberry-Medal on his book when I was a girl but today, I’m more impressed to learn about how hard he continues to work to master his craft.

Local author Jerry Spinelli discusses his craft at Elmwood Park Zoo in Norristown