When The Inquirer launched The UpSide in March 2019, our happy mission was to tell uplifting stories that would celebrate the best of us, and the best in us. In 2020, that mission took on urgency as one heartbreaking news event after another drove Americans apart — and indoors.
Through it all, UpSide shared hundreds of tales that reminded us of our essential goodness, ingenuity, courage, and humanity. Below are updates on 11 UpSide stories that especially resonated with readers this year (you can read through our full archive at Inquirer.com/upside).
Thank you for reading The UpSide and for contributing story ideas throughout the year. May 2021 be hopeful and happy — and may your stories brim with connection, goodwill, and joy.
What happened to the child who lost his foot on a SEPTA escalator in 1996? He’s a model and entrepreneur.
In April, columnist Helen Ubiñas caught up with Shareif Hall, who in 1996 was just 4 years old when his right foot was torn off in a SEPTA escalator that was in need of repair. Now 27, “Reef” (as he is now called) creates vibrant “prosthetic art” to decorate his prosthetic leg and promote vibrant images and inspirational messages. Thanks to Ubiñas’ story, Curtis Ghee, 51, the Philadelphia police officer who helped save Hall’s life in 1996, reunited with him in an emotional, virtual phone call that Ubiñas arranged. The two men have since exchanged calls and texts and hope to meet in person one day soon.
“He’s a very busy young man, I can tell you that,” a chuckling Ghee told Ubiñas. “But whenever we do talk, it’s always a good conversation.” Said Hall, “It’s exciting that, after so many years, we’re at an age where we can talk about the past and what we’re doing now.”
For Ghee, that includes focusing on Uncuffed Potential, his nonprofit that helps people returning to life after prison, and writing a motivational book that will include Hall. Meanwhile, Hall continues to promote his prosthetic designs online while deciding on his next prosthetic-design business venture.
‘Michele’s Angel’ is helping a widower heal through anonymous good deeds
Michele Lomonaco died unexpectedly from a pulmonary embolism on Dec. 7, 2016, at age 36, just four days after she and her husband, Ronnie, returned from their honeymoon. By last spring, time had done little to ease Ronnie Lomonaco’s grief. But then he started receiving calls and texts from strangers saying that an anonymous person, billing himself or herself as “Michele’s Angel,” was performing acts of kindness for others, in Michele’s name. The only thing the “angel” required of recipients was that they call or text Lomonaco to let him know that Michele’s spirit was alive and well.
UpSide reporter Rita Giordano wrote about the mystery in May, after which, said Lomonaco, the calls and texts ratcheted up, often just when he needed encouragement the most. “They reminded me to keep pushing forward, to keep my outlook positive, to try to find new purpose and meaning,” he said. Miraculously, he has begun taking tentative steps toward new love. Although he did not wish to elaborate, he said, with a trace of wonder, “I’m now optimistic that there’s a chance to find happiness and fill the void in my heart.”
Dancing security guard brightens days for dialysis patients
The story tip to UpSide was irresistible: The staff at DaVita Dialysis Center in Cobbs Creek was planning a surprise, parking-lot “Drive-by Wave” to thank security guard Tammy Miller. She works at the center two days a week and is described by colleagues and clients as “our ray of sunshine.” Reporter Phil Anastasia jumped on this sweet tale about Miller, writing: “Unofficially, she is a one-woman welcome wagon. She greets patients at their cars with a smile and song. She dances alongside them as they enter the facility. She helps settle them in their stations … providing enough warmth to heat the building on 60th Street in Southwest Philadelphia.”
Six months later, Miller continues to delight DaVita’s patients and staff, said Eli Smith, the center’s facility director. “Tammy is still a pleasure to work with — she always goes above and beyond the call of duty, always willing to help the patient and definitely keeps us smiling.”
After 39 years and more than 30,000 hours in the air, a pioneering pilot retires
On the spring day when Capt. Pati Marsh, 65, retired as an American Airlines pilot, Inquirer reporter Mari Schaefer was at Philadelphia International Airport to capture the jubilant, final landing in an extraordinary career. When Marsh joined the commercial airline industry four decades ago, she was only the 10th female pilot hired by USAir (which merged with American in 2015). Year in and year out, Marsh belied the sexism of the male-dominated aviation industry, which once denied women the right to command a cockpit, and earned the admiration and respect of her peers. “There are going to be all kinds of reasons you can’t do something you’d like to do,” Marsh said. “The message is to persist, just keep trying, and do not take ‘no’ for an answer. Go over those mountains — do whatever it takes.”
The pandemic has forced Marsh to postpone the months of leisurely European travel she’d planned for her retirement. Instead, she is spending her time refurbishing her sailboat, Zooming with friends and family, exercising and cooking. “This is the longest I’ve stayed in one place since I was 15,” Marsh laughed, “but I’m still having a great time.”
A Radnor production company fell in love with a Navajo Nation town. And then the pandemic hit.
When reporter Phil Anastasia wrote about “Basketball or Nothing,” the multipart Netflix documentary, it had been nominated for a Sports Emmy — a huge accomplishment for The Workshop, the Main Line production company that created it. The inspiring series profiles a high school basketball team in the Navajo Nation town of Chinle, Ariz., where teammates play “rez ball,” a fast-paced, run-and-gun style that makes for high-scoring games played before enthusiastic crowds in Chinle High School’s 6,000-seat gymnasium. The series, which followed the school’s hoops team, the Warriors, through the 2017-18 season, ended on a high note with one of the school’s star players receiving a full ride to Arizona State University.
While “Basketball or Nothing” didn’t win the Emmy, it has since been nominated for a prestigious 2021 Realscreen award, whose winners will be announced next month. Meantime, said series director Matt Howley, edits are proceeding on season two of the series, which is being shopped to other streaming services, and the relationships formed between The Workshop crew and the families of Chinle have endured and deepened during the pandemic. “We are in constant touch,” he said.
They found love in grief after the Pulse nightclub shooting
In March, Inquirer reporter Melanie Burney introduced readers to newlyweds Patience Carter, 24, and Alex Murray, 26, who connected deeply after Murray’s sister was killed at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history. Carter, a Philly native visiting Florida, was severely injured.
Since then, Burney reports, the couple, who live in Pompano Beach, Fla., have known ups and downs: They’ve started a water-ice business called W.O.W.; Carter’s book, Survive Then Live, is now available in hardcover; and she has started a foundation to support trauma victims. But Carter’s brother, Kevin Rouse, 34, unexpectedly died this year, and Carter and Murray have struggled with infertility. Indeed, in Carter’s new podcast, “Healing Her Halo,” she shared her disappointment about her inability to conceive (the couple is now taking a break from infertility treatment to focus on their relationship). “It will happen in its own time,” she said. Overall, she added, “I’m happy where we are now. The future is bright for us.”
Strangers send man thousands of cards and letters while he awaits a double-organ transplant
In July, The UpSide wrote about Skippack resident Joe Eitl, 37, who has Down syndrome and needed a heart and liver transplant because of birth defects. Thanks to a viral Facebook post from his mother, Peg Eitl, local and international supporters rallied to lift Joe’s spirits with thousands of get-well cards and Facebook posts. As Peg told reporter Rita Giordano: “During some of the really difficult times, the cards, the letters, and the gifts from strangers have literally made a difference between a day [Joe] didn’t want to get out of bed and a day he bounced out of bed. It’s been awesome.”
On Nov. 25, Joe at last underwent the dual-organ transplant at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. “We will never look at Thanksgiving the same way again,” said his mother. It was “priceless,” she added, to hear her son whisper to his brother and sister on the phone after the surgery, his voice weak from being intubated, that he had gotten his transplant. “He proceeded to tell them, ‘I told you! I told you!’” his mother said. “He was very, very proud. And he should be, because he’s just amazing.”
Her wigs restore dignity to women who have lost their hair to cancer
Life has been “a roller-coaster” for Lois Arnold, founder of the nonprofit Hairs 2 U wig bank in Queen Village, since freelance writer Terri Akman profiled her for the UpSide last January. Arnold supplies wigs to those who’ve lost hair to cancer and other diseases; her “compassionate consideration,” said her grateful customers, is Arnold’s superpower.
The UpSide story prompted other media coverage, and Arnold’s business took off. By March, she was running up credit cards to restock inventory. Then the pandemic hit, and business plummeted. “We’re off 75% from what we did in 2019,” said Arnold. Still, she remains an optimist who has “faith in the [coronavirus] vaccine and the difference it is going to make.” It can’t come soon enough for Arnold: three relatives are currently fighting COVID-19; three others have died from it. “It’s been a long year,” she said. “But we’re getting through it.”
Philly dad and newly adopted son head to the Super Bowl as VIP guests
Last January, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell extended a surprise invitation to Jackson Duncan and Zymir Cobbs to be his guests at the Super Bowl after hearing something remarkable about them: Duncan, just 35 at the time, was about to legally adopt Zymir, then 19. As told by Inquirer columnist Jenice Armstrong, Duncan, who had spent years in the foster-care system, knew how badly Cobb, a standout high school football player who was also foster care, needed stability and a parent’s love.
Today, said Jackson, he is prouder than ever to be dad to Zymir, who is “crushing it” (remotely) as a straight-A sophomore at Lackawanna State College, where — before the pandemic hit — he had been a linebacker and defensive captain for the school’s Falcons football team. Said Duncan, “I could sit for hours and tell you how special my son is.”
Suburban Philadelphia bodyboarder Andrew Karr takes big-wave world by storm
Reporter Phil Anastasia’s May profile of champion bodyboarder Andrew Karr brought a vicarious thrill to UpSide readers stuck at home in the pandemic and yearning for adventure. “Karr has gone higher, dropped faster, and tunneled deeper — into the seemingly breathing heart of a big wave — than most followers of his sport believed possible for a bodyboarder,” Anastasia enthused. “Just six months prior, Karr likely became the first bodyboarder to ride in the ‘barrel’ of a big wave at the famous Jaws break in Maui, Hawaii, a feat caught on video by a stunned safety-patrol driver on a jet ski.”
In the months since the story published, Karr has designed a bodyboard (the Karr Pro Model, produced by Congo), specifically for use at Jaws, and in discussions with Red Bull Media about creating a film that documents his adventures on the water.
Five West Philly sisters made a video to lift the spirits of their sixth sister as she battled leukemia
The six Wells sisters had done everything together for as long as they could remember. So when one of them — Hope, 23 — was diagnosed in 2018 with acute myeloid leukemia, the other five rallied on her behalf. Their most ambitious effort came to fruition last July: a morale-raising video for Hope, featuring over 200 messages of love and encouragement from every walk of her life. When Hope saw it, she told UpSide reporter Rita Giordano, “I was crying, but I felt so much better. It made me trust God so much more, and focus on my healing so much more.”
Sadly, Hope — who immersed herself into cancer advocacy during her illness — died just one week later. Her family is being carried and comforted by the love of a large circle of support and also developing Hope for Hope Nonprofit Inc. The organization was created by Hope and her father, the Rev. Michael Wells of Beulah Baptist Church, just before her death. Its aim is to empower families to live with hope as they care for sick loved ones.