Heartwarming tales and hometown heroes: Pennsylvania stories we loved sharing in 2023

Sarah Laurel (left), at a community outreach event in Philadelphia for Savage Sisters, the nonprofit recovery and outreach program she founded to help those living with substance abuse disorder. (Courtesy Sarah Laurel/Savage Sisters)

By Ashley Adams

December 21, 2023

From a mission to help those struggling with addiction to Taylor Swift powering local economies, a look back at the news we loved sharing in 2023.

As Pennsylvanians welcome a new year, we’re taking a look back at some of the feel-good stories we loved sharing this year.

From universal free breakfasts in all schools to millions of dollars in passenger rail funding, to a mission to help those struggling with addiction and a recovery story that inspired many, here are some of the stories that we loved sharing in 2023:

Damar Hamlin’s recovery

The McKees Rocks native and Pitt alum suffered a cardiac arrest during a game between the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals on Jan. 2. Days after the incident, donations from NFL teams and fans poured into the foundation Hamlin started, raising over $7 million for his Chasing M’s Foundation. Hamlin has since made a full recovery and returned to the field for the Bills in October.

Hamlin was recently back in his hometown for his foundation’s annual toy drive. His charity also announced the launch of a new scholarship program for Cincinnati youth in honor of the medical team that helped save his life. The Cincinnati Heroes Scholarship will support underserved high school and college-bound students who hope to attend Greater Cincinnati area private high schools, trade schools, or Cincinnati area universities. 


Heartwarming tales and hometown heroes: Pennsylvania stories we loved sharing in 2023

Rep. Summer Lee, D-Pa., arrives for Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro’s Inauguration, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023, at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Summer Lee makes history

Summer Lee’s election to the US House was historic, as the Braddock native became the first Black woman to represent Pennsylvania in Congress. Her victory helped Democrats gain a 9-8 edge in Pennsylvania’s newly redrawn House map.

“We still have several states that haven’t had a black woman represent them,” Lee told us after taking office. “All over this country, there are Black women, queer women, queer folks, trans folks, poor working-class folks who have never had representation in our federal government. Which means [I have] a responsibility to not just serve honorably the people of (Allegheny and Westmoreland counties), but to also keep in mind the thousands of Black women throughout the commonwealth who are relying on my voice, my advocacy, my perspective, [and] the thousands of working-class people who are doing the same.”

Two from Pa. win gold at the Special Olympics World Games

In June, two Pennsylvanians won gold at the 2023 Special Olympics World Games in Berlin. York’s Loretta Claiborne, 70, won gold in a singles tennis match and a bronze in a doubles match. Izaak Hobday, 19, from Bradford County, won gold in the 1,500-meter run and silver in the 5,000-meter run. 

Heartwarming tales and hometown heroes: Pennsylvania stories we loved sharing in 2023

Governor Shapiro Signs Ceremonial Budget Bill Creating Universal Free Breakfast, Making Historic Investments in Public Education During Visit to Allegheny County Elementary School on August 8, 2023.

Universal free breakfast in schools

On Aug. 3, Gov. Josh Shapiro signed the 2023-24 state budget into law which included $46.5 million to provide universal free breakfast to all of the state’s 1.7 million public school students regardless of their income.

“How can we expect kids to learn math and science and English when they come to school on an empty stomach? We can’t,” Shapiro said at a bill signing ceremony at Penn Hills Elementary School in Allegheny County. “That is why in my budget address just about three or four months ago, I called for universal free breakfast for every one of Pennsylvania’s school children.”

A mission to help those struggling with addiction 

Sarah Laurel was a thriving professional who hit rock bottom due to addiction. She turned her life around and started an outreach program called Savage Sisters to help Pennsylvanians on the streets and in recovery.

“A lot of the recovery houses I went to were disgusting,” Laurel told us. “There were no resources—no drug tests or any kind of support. It was just get a job, pay your rent, and shut the f— up.

“I had experienced so much darkness and deprivation in Kensington. I was a very broken human being. I did not know how to live. But I wanted to help others. And I felt I could.”  

Fun ways to connect with like-minded Pennsylvanians

Making new friends as an adult doesn’t have to be so hard. From learning a new language to playing board games in a bar, we learned about fun ways to connect with like-minded Pennsylvanians.

Taylor Swift is Headed to Pittsburgh: Here’s What You Need to Know

Taylor Swift performs during “The Eras Tour” on Friday, May 5, 2023, at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

Taylor Swift’s impact on local economies

In Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and other cities across the country, fans flocked to see Berks County native Taylor Swift. The money spent on tickets, lodging, and restaurants provided a jolt to local economies, earning Swift a mention in a Federal Reserve report.

Swift’s two-night engagement at Acrisure Stadium in June set attendance records and generated millions for Pittsburgh and the surrounding area. The hotel-occupancy rate in Allegheny County approached 100% around her shows and hotel reservation platforms crashed because of the surge in web traffic.

“The totality of Taylor Swift’s US tour could generate $4.6 billion in total consumer spending, larger than the GDP of 35 countries,” the Common Sense Institute said.

Swiftonomics is clearly a thing.

Improvements to passenger rail in Pennsylvania

Passenger rail in Pennsylvania is getting major upgrades thanks to President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Amtrak funding is going towards station upgrades and added rail service for Western Pennsylvania as well as possibly reconnecting Reading to Philadelphia and Scranton to New York City.

Station improvements between Harrisbrug and Pittsburgh are already underway thanks to the funding. For example, the station in Tyrone received a new shelter platform, Latrobe is getting a new station and the platform at the Johnstown station is getting redone with funds through the infrastructure act.


  • Ashley Adams

    In her 16 years in the communications industry, Ashley Adams has worn many hats, including news reporter, public relations writer, marketing specialist, copy editor and technical writer. Ashley grew up in Berks County and has since returned to her roots to raise her three children.

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