Obituary: Ellen Elizabeth Siciliano / Tireless worker, advocate for children with disabilities

Oct. 14, 1923 - July 30, 2012

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Ellen Elizabeth Siciliano, a longtime advocate for the rights of children with disabilities who was once honored at the White House for her work, had a saying: "If you want to get something done, make a mother angry."

Her passion brought meetings with state officials in the attorney general's office and the Education Department, who later asked her to act as an advocate in Pennsylvania.

Mrs. Siciliano, 88, a mother of eight and a longtime Baldwin resident, died of organ failure last Monday in Pen Argyl, Northampton County.

One of the times Mrs. Siciliano got angry was the early 1970s, when her local school district said it could not afford additional buses to get special needs students to and from school. The special needs students, which included her youngest daughter Ellen, would get picked up last going to school and were taken home first after school.

That meant a shortened school day for the children who needed the most help, and that made Mrs. Siciliano mad.

After an appeal to the school board didn't work, her son, Paul, recalled, she researched the state School Code and learned the transportation issue meant those special needs students were not receiving the mandated minimum hours of school. She presented that information to the school board, and promised to present it in a courtroom as well, if necessary.

The district agreed to buy additional buses.

In the ensuing years, Mrs. Siciliano's fight for her daughter became a fight for all children with disabilities to have access to the same opportunities as other students.

In 1986, she was honored at the White House as part of a group recognized for their work to pass Pennsylvania and federal regulations that guaranteed the right to a free, appropriate public education for children with disabilities.

Although best known for her child advocacy, Mrs. Siciliano had previously been active in other community issues she believed important. Trained as a nurse, she pushed for adding fluoride to the drinking water in the 1950s, and she was active in the local civil rights movement in the 1960s.

While ready to fight for causes she believed in, she was not confrontational, said Paul Siciliano. When speaking at school board meetings, she would pose questions rather than make demands. When she drove to Harrisburg to meet with state officials, she would bring them freshly baked bread.

"She talked to people nicely, but with conviction," said Mr. Siciliano. "She tried to give people the chance to do the right thing, but she wasn't going to be intimidated by anybody."

A native of Bangor, Maine, Mrs. Siciliano worked in San Francisco as a nurse during World War II and met her future husband, Lou, there. Her husband's work as an appraiser of commercial equipment eventually brought them to Baldwin, where they raised their eight children. The Sicilianos were founding members of St. Germaine Parish in Bethel Park.

Mrs. Siciliano is survived by five sons, Joseph of South Side Slopes, Paul of Baldwin, Daniel of Burlingame, Calif., Woody of Reading, Pa., James of San Antonio, Texas, and Robert of New York City; two daughters, Margaret Scheihing of Pen Argyl and Ellen Siciliano of Castle Shannon; a brother, Howard Finley of Jefferson Hills; and 21 grandchildren.

A Mass will be held at 10 a.m. today in St. Germaine Church, 7003 Baptist Road. Inurnment will be at Queen of Heaven Cemetery, Peters.

The family requests memorial donations be made to Special Olympics Allegheny County, 404 First St., Heidelberg, PA 15106, or Mainstay Life Services, 200 Roessler Road, Pittsburgh 15220. Beinhauer Mortuary is in charge of arrangements.

obituaries

Steve Twedt: stwedt@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1963.


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