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Surrounded by the women of her family, Michelle Sandidge enjoys a game as part of Ladies Day, a family tradition that brings them together for a day of joy and celebration.

Image by Kitoko Chargois

Modeling the Matriarch

A mother’s endowment honors her sister and daughter 
by Kitty Julian

Michelle Sandidge is magnetic, emitting a calm competence that draws people toward her. It’s a disposition she credits to the strong circle of Black women who raised her and taught her to give back.

Michelle established the Jourdan Kelli Fund at The Pittsburgh Foundation in 2022 to uplift these traditions and honor her sister, Kelli, who died of a rare childhood cancer, and her daughter, Jourdan, now an associate director at RCA Sony Music in Los Angeles, California.

Michelle hopes the fund will support access to education for students who would otherwise have financial difficulty.

“The women in my family passed on their legacy of resilience, caring and courage,” Michelle says. That legacy began with Michelle’s mother, Ronna Jackson, who celebrates her 80th birthday this year.

In the late 1960s, Ronna was a single mom living with daughters Michelle and Kelli in public housing in the Hill District. Michelle was eight years old when Kelli was born. The girls were close despite the age difference. When Kelli was seven, everything about their lives changed. Kelli began complaining of knee pain. Ronna took her to Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, where she was diagnosed with osteogenic sarcoma. The diagnosis was a shock: It’s a rare cancer and rarer still in Black women and girls.

Kelli underwent amputation of her right leg to her thigh. The procedure was grueling, but the family was hopeful: U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy’s son, Edward, then 12 years old, was in the news for surviving the same cancer. A year after her surgery, just as she was learning how to walk with her prosthesis, the cancer came back and, in 1975, it claimed Kelli’s life at age eight.

Ronna and Michelle moved through their grief by focusing on education.

“Seeing what my sister dealt with made me feel like I had to be really tough,” Michelle says. “You never know how much time you’ll be given and when your time will come.”

Ronna, then 32 years old, enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve with a plan to become a licensed practical nurse. The Army funded her education. “Her dream had been to become a doctor and take care of people, but then I came along and derailed that. Becoming a military nurse got her closer to that dream,” Michelle says.

Shortly after her mom shipped out to Camp McClellan, Pennsylvania, Michelle began her freshman year at Penn State main campus to study journalism and speech communications. She was a natural: A year after graduation, she became the first Black news writer at KQV-AM. By the late 1980s, she was co-hosting the WAMO-FM morning drive show.

Michelle got the surprise of her life in the late ’90s: After being told she may never conceive or be able to carry a child to term, she learned she was pregnant. Her daughter, Jourdan, was born March 28, 1997.

“I had health issues of my own, so becoming a mom, after doctors told me I wouldn’t likely have a child, was just phenomenal,” Michelle says. “Jourdan reminds me of my sister. She loves to make you laugh, and play games. She, like my sister, always plays to win.”

The women in my family passed on their legacy of resilience, caring and courage.

Michelle Sandidge Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh

Michelle Sandidge (left) with her daughter, Jourdan Washington (right), and mother, Ronna Jackson (center), gather on the porch of Jackson’s home. Michelle established the Jourdan Kelli Fund at The Pittsburgh Foundation in 2022, honoring her sister, Kelli, who died of a rare childhood cancer, and her daughter, Jourdan.

Image by Kitoko Chargois

Today, Jourdan is 26 and carries the family’s love of learning. A classically trained pianist since age three, she attended Berklee College of Music in Boston after graduating from The Ellis School, an all-girls college prep academy. While at Berklee, she met both the college marketing representative and the vice president of RCA Sony Records and asked them to create a record industry–focused internship. She held that position for two years and was then hired full-time. She is now an associate director at RCA Sony, where her musical training serves her well as she assists artists.

Meanwhile, Michelle took the advocacy skills she learned from her career in broadcasting to the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh, where she became the first and only female deputy executive director and has led community affairs and resident services for over 34 years. She attributes her passion for this work to her mother’s example.

“My mom’s health center was in public housing,” Michelle explains. “She started a young mother’s group for teen parents. She made volunteering at the women’s shelter and helping others a regular part of our lives.”

Their extended family gathers the women and girls at least once a year, in a spirit of gratitude and celebration, for “Ladies Day.”

“Behind every significant effort, there is a mother, an aunt, a sister, a daughter, keeping those traditions going,” Michelle says. “Watching Mom over these years and my sister, I see their traits are present in my daughter. They are my examples of giving, of faith, of resilience, caring, courage and love.”

Her vision for her fund is that it will provide emergency money for students pursuing higher education who might need a boost to pay for necessities such as textbooks, lab fees or even bus fare home.

“Not everyone needs college,” Michelle says, “but I think everyone benefits from education beyond high school. Education gets you ready for the real world, to become an adult.”

Kitty Julian was director of Communications for The Pittsburgh Foundation until leaving in July 2023.