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A family of helpers: Relatives key to Bethel Park aid agency’s success

A family of helpers: Relatives key to Bethel Park aid agency's success
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette  read online
Wednesday, September 29, 2004


When Jill Koraido went to work with her sister, their mother sent them flowers with a card that cautioned them to "play nice."

Sibling concerns notwithstanding, Koraido and sister Joanna Strang-Kuczma not only got along at work but "grew closer as sisters and as friends," Strang-Kuczma said. They've been working together for more than two years.

The sisters work for Southwestern Human Services, a nonprofit agency in Bethel Park, providing a variety of services for children, adolescents, adults and families in southwestern Pennsylvania. Strang-Kuczma is a therapist, younger sister Koraido a fiscal administrator.

They're not the only family members working together there. There are three sets of sisters, two sets of brothers, a couple of husband-and-wife teams, a mother with two daughters, another mother with three sons and a father with a son and daughter.

Suzanne Schollaert started Southwestern Human Services in 1997 with two employees. Now there are more than 200, "most of them somehow related," she joked.

Over the years, they've had few problems with family members working together. It's been more humorous than challenging, Schollaert said.

Martha Mbandi, of Cameroon, and her sons, Nji, Ngu and Chiq, all have worked for SHS. Nji and Ngu are identical twins, "and we could never tell them apart," Schollaert said. Nji's girlfriend, also of Cameroon, works for the agency. Nji's girlfriend's father also worked at SHS at one time.

Family working together makes perfect sense to Schollaert. "Working with family creates a family work atmosphere for all the employees. As a result, we are better able to maintain a focus on the families we treat, which enables us to provide them with quality care."

Amber Johnson, of Bethel Park, works evenings at SHS's office. Her sister, Lauran, and mother, Kathi, also work for the agency. She credits Lauran with teaching her the ropes and assisting her in becoming part of the team. Their mother, who works in the field as a therapist, often brings dinner to her daughters at the office.

Joshua Nichols and younger brother Matthew are both field clinicians. "Knowing my brother's strengths makes it easier to use him effectively in the field," Joshua Nichols said. The brothers are close, which makes it a challenge to separate their professional and sibling relationship, Matthew Nichols said. "We always seem to end up talking about work."

Jaime Ratay works with her sister, Theresa Gathers, and met her fiance, Joseph Hegedus, at SHS. The sisters, who live together, have had to learn to "leave work at work and try to not bring it home," Ratay said.

She has 11 years on her 17-year-old sister, and has to refrain from "intervening as a guardian or offering advice" to her sister. "I have to let her learn from her own mistakes, and make sure I'm setting a good example," she said.

Phylis Thompson joined SHS in 2001, with her sister, Mary, joining her a year later, both master's level field clinicians.

"We consult with each other and recommend books, articles and data to each other," Phylis Thompson said. "Now that we work together, we talk more than ever."

One of Southwestern's specialties is providing "wraparound" services to treat autism and related disorders. They have children's programs for social skills, anger management and a "Sibs" program for the siblings of special needs children. The agency offers outpatient counseling, medication management and family counseling.

Southwestern Human Services is a culturally diverse environment, with employees who speak Spanish, French, German, Russian, Bulgarian, Italian, Mandarin Chinese and American Sign Language.

Dr. Madhavan Thuppal, a clinical psychiatrist at SHS, will soon be joined at work with son Hayavadhan and daughter Niranjani.

Over the past couple of years, the kids have been stopping by the office to visit their father. With encouragement from dad, both applied for clerical positions at SHS and will be starting there soon.

Qin Chen came to Pittsburgh from Shanghai six years ago, and was hired at SHS despite her limited English language skills. Her husband, Michael Gallagher, was working for SHS at the time. Since then, Qin has mastered English. "She is a great worker and an irreplaceable part of the SHS family," Schollaert said.

"We've all kind of grown up together," Schollaert said. "We're always looking to hire good people. We encouraged our staff to recruit. They did, and it seems they started at home."

So did Schollaert. She now employs three nieces, three nephews, a cousin and her cousin's granddaughter.

One time, Schollaert had to write up her 21-year-old nephew for coming in late. He complained to his mother, her sister, but "thank God she sided with me," Schollaert said. "And he hasn't been late since."

Southwestern Human Services is online at

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