Dorothea Dix, Jane Holmes, Mary Grogham Schenley. The last name may be familiar because of the city park, but do you know the other two?

These three women were early pioneers of Pittsburgh philanthropy. While we usually think of R.K. Mellon, Jack Heinz or Henry Hillman as the philanthropic pioneers in town, these three ladies were far ahead of our generous male donors.

In 1844, Dorothea Dix produced a scathing report on the sickening health conditions and complete lack of institutional care for the physically and mentally ill in Pittsburgh. This led to the founding of the Western Pennsylvania Hospital and later the Dixmont State Hospital.

Jane Holmes began caring for a poor, homeless sick young girl that led to her turning her Lawrenceville home into the Protestant Home for Incurables and was a founder of the Home for Colored Children in 1880.

In 1889, Mary Schenley donated land to the city to create Schenley Park, the Western Pennsylvania Institute for the Blind and the Newsboys Home. She also donated the Block House at the Point.

These remarkable women did all this before we “professionalized” philanthropy in our tax code and they paved the way for some of the Pittsburgh women leading our philanthropic community today. Who are they?

There are many but here are five outstanding women who are highly effective in changing our community for the better with their work in philanthropy. Look for more to come.

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Michele Rone Cooper. Photo by Brian Cohen.


Michele Rone Cooper

Meet Michele Rone Cooper, mild-mannered health care professional who one day got a call from the Sisters of Mercy asking if she would start a foundation from scratch. Leave it to Michele to have answered the call so well. In 2008, she worked with the Sisters to create the McAuley Ministries which now works to promote healthy, safe and vibrant communities with a focus in the Hill District, Uptown and West Oakland. Last year they awarded $3.5 million in grants.

One thing that makes Michele so effective is her powerful listening skills and her ability to act. When an elementary school teacher told her how many kids were showing up hungry each Monday morning, Michele got behind FOCUS Pittsburgh which was established in 2011 and now donates hundreds of weekend meal backpacks each week to children in the Hill District and public schools on the South Side.

Thanks to Michele and FOCUS, which has an emergency food bank and distributes bagged lunches on Saturdays, hunger in the Hill is being tackled. It’s one of many exemplary programs she supports. And is it any wonder that Michele’s first grant went to a significant project named after another great woman? The Thelma Lovette YMCA.

Joni Schwager photo by Brian Cohen.

Joni Schwager. Photo by Brian Cohen.

Joni Schwager

In her early days as a social worker, Joni Schwager felt strongly that no health care professional should treat patients in their office without making a home visit. “That’s when you really find out what’s going on and can really help a patient,” she says.

As executive director of the Staunton Farm Foundation, Joni can pack a powerful punch when it comes to advocating on behalf of people with mental health issues. She jumped at the chance to lead the only foundation in Western Pennsylvania solely focused on mental illness—and that was founded by another great woman, Matilda Staunton Craig McCready, affectionately known as Aunt Daisie.

Under Joni’s direction, Staunton Farm has led many innovative programs in mental health including the creation of the Allegheny County Mental Health Court—based on the belief that people with mental illness don’t belong in jail, they belong in treatment. Read some of the powerful stories on their website in a section called Tell Your Story, an effort to better understanding of  and remove the stigma of mental illness as well as encourage others to seek help. “Everyone has a story. Whether it’s your own, a family member, or an ally, telling your story will encourage others to do the same.”

Note: You can always find Joni in section 511 at home Steelers games.

Diana Bucco (pictured above) 

For those who haven’t met Diana Bucco, vice president of the Buhl Foundation, you’re missing out. For those of us who have, what a treat. Diana comes from a larger than life and loving Italian family. Her parents are immigrants: dad is a landscaper by day, wine and sauce maker by night. Mom is a famous and very personable tailor in Mt. Lebanon. If I had one wish, it would be to be invited to her parents’ house on Christmas Eve.

While Diana is a leader and professional in philanthropy, I think of her more as an incredible grassroots organizer. Prior to her role at Buhl, she was a driving force in the Greater Pittsburgh Nonprofit Partnership, a grassroots advocacy group of more than 350 nonprofits.