Lara Hamdan | St. Louis Public Radio

Lara Hamdan

“St. Louis on the Air” Producer

Lara Hamdan joined St. Louis Public Radio as the news intern in 2017. A year later, she became a producer for St. Louis on the Air. A St. Louis native, Lara studied journalism and international relations at Webster University. She's fluent in English and Arabic – and in eating falafel sandwiches and veggie burgers. She enjoys discovering new people and gems in the city throughout her work at St. Louis Public Radio.

Mike Ward is superintendent of the Gateway Arch National Park, but has been involved with the National Park Service since 1983.
File Photo | Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

When the Gateway Arch began undergoing renovation back in July 2015, Mike Ward moved back to St. Louis to become its superintendent — a role he’s held ever since. But his time with the National Park Service goes way back to 1983. 

A lot of his work at sites near and far over the years has had to do with the physical aspect of the NPS entities: repairing them, creating new spaces. But Ward loves historical digging and exploring the human interest stories to be found within the sites under his care just as much. 

Vikki Siddell (bottom right corner) on St. Charles performed in from of the "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" cast for the live singing contest: "Kimmy vs. the Music: A Live Singing Contest That's Live."

These days, Zoom calls are more likely to inspire grousing than gratitude. Who wants to make uncomfortable eye contact with their boss or professor — and themselves? But Vikki Siddell of St. Charles recently joined a very different Zoom call, one where she got to talk — and perform — in front of celebrities including Daniel Radcliffe, Tina Fey and St. Louis’ own Ellie Kemper. 

The occasion was a live singing contest: “Kimmy vs. the Music: A Live Singing Contest That's Live.” It celebrated the launch of the new interactive Netflix special "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs. the Reverend.” During the YouTube stream, the cast and creators raised awareness and funds for Crisis Text Line, which provides 24/7 mental health support to people in crisis.

File Photo | Danny Hommes

In the coming weeks, some day care facilities are set to reopen their doors after a hiatus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children are not at higher risk for COVID-19, but they can still pass the virus on to others who are high risk. Child care providers are setting reentry guidelines to limit exposure and transmission from parents and teachers.

While playtime might not be affected, day care centers will operate a bit differently: Parents will sign in virtually when dropping off their child outside the building, some kids will have to bring in an extra pair of shoes to switch when entering the building, and fewer kids will be admitted to programs. 

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page prepares to answer questions from reporters on April 30, 2019.
Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

St. Louis County officially opened for business today. But after nearly eight weeks of coronavirus-related stay-at-home orders, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page said it won’t be business as usual, much less party time. 

Reduced capacities, masks and barriers between customers and employees will be “our new normal,” Page previously explained. And for now, other St. Louis County businesses remain closed entirely, including gyms, swimming pools and bars that do not serve food. 

On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, Page explained that he believed the county was ready to reopen thanks to a 14-day dip in COVID-19 hospitalizations.

St. Louis-native Dajae Williams is a quality engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Los Angeles, California.
Dajae Williams

Dajae Williams boasts that she’s “the dopest person to ever work at NASA.” 

A quality engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Los Angeles, Williams is also one of the youngest people to work at the research facility. The St. Louis native started her career at NASA at such a young age through the company’s Early Career Initiative

She said the program allows engineers to kick off their profession without the pressure of being “geniuses” already. Not only is she one of the youngest people there, but she’s one of the few women of color. That sets her apart in some big ways. 

Dr. Mahrukh Khan (far left) and Malik Sims (far right) volunteering at the free, mobile COVID-19 testing spot in north Ferguson.
Provided by Malik Sims

Muslims observing Ramadan are now halfway into the holy month marked by daily fasting, increased religious observance, alms giving and self-reflection. Leading up to the month, which started April 24, the coronavirus dampened the spirits of many looking forward to all the festivities people usually have planned to help keep the momentum going throughout this period.

Bob Cox photographs a train while rail watching with his wife Amy above a bridge three miles northeast of La Plata Missouri.
Bob Cox

Bird-watching and airplane spotting are classic observation-based hobbies. And then there’s train watching. Instead of keeping an eye out for something in the sky, “railfans” anticipate the chugging of cargo, passenger and freight trains on railroad tracks — making note of the cart styles, whistles and bells.

As CNN’s Stephanie Chen explained, “The obsession over railfanning often stems from historical and technological intrigue. Trains not only represent a romanticized era, they have been central to American economic growth and commerce across the country, historians say.”

The hobby has found new life in the age of social media. Virtual Railfan is a dedicated community of train lovers that digitally connect to talk trains: how fast they’re going, what they’re carrying, train jokes — and maybe what’s for dinner. 

Joanna Serenko sings the Bill Withers classic "Lean on Me" in her Kirkwood-home backyard during the Top 9 Performances on The Voice singing competition.

Around this time last year, Joanna Serenko won the St. Louis Teen Talent Competition at the Fabulous Fox Theatre. This year, she’s using her musical talents to win the hearts of a much larger audience. 

The 19-year-old Kirkwood native is representing St. Louis on NBC’s “The Voice” singing competition — and she’s made it to the top nine, having wowed viewers and the four celebrity coaches alike: Kelly Clarkson, Nick Jonas, John Legend and Blake Shelton. 

But with that comes a series of complications. Like all of America, the TV show’s plans were upended by the coronavirus. Rather than go into its live portion in April as planned, the show went on hiatus. 

Batá drums are a percussion instrument native to Nigeria, but now also heavily used in Latino countires.
Eric Panser | Flickr

Since 1996, Club Viva in St. Louis’ Central West End neighborhood has been the spot for locals to get their international music fix. It’s been a home to dance enthusiasts and partygoers alike, who attend themed nights for Latin music and reggae.

This music of the Caribbean and Latin America draws heavily on African roots. The layers of Latino identity reflect Latin America’s long, oppressive colonial history, when indigenous Americans, Europeans, Africans and Asians intermixed. 

More African slaves were sent to Spanish and Portuguese colonies — particularly those in the Caribbean — than to North America. Their music infused the culture around them, providing the building blocks for styles such as salsa, rumba, merengue and bachata, as well as serving as a major influence on jazz and pop.

Funeral homes are limiting guest visitations to 10 people or less in compliance with social distancing guidelines.
Daniel Fishel for NPR

Although St. Louis-area hospitals haven't been overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients compared to bigger cities, there are enough deaths to keep funeral homes busier than usual. Undertakers are among the essential workers that deal directly with bodies.

On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Sarah Fenske talked with Marcus Harrison to learn about how morticians are organizing funerals and treating people who have died during the pandemic. Harrison is the general manager and embalmer at Austin Layne in north St. Louis County and said the center has seen COVID-19 victims daily.

Mission Taco Joint's curbside margarita program is back on track after Missouri's government suspended laws preventing local restaurants from selling pre-batched cocktails.
Mission Taco Joint

Pre-batched drinks have long been a low-key strategy used by bartenders to serve patrons sophisticated drinks quickly. Made ahead of time, they allow bartenders to mix perfect proportions, shake them to the perfect temperature and serve them efficiently. 

With the coronavirus pandemic shuttering the restaurant industry, though, pre-batching isn’t simply a shortcut — it’s a necessity. In mid-April, the Missouri Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control began allowing local restaurants to sell pre-mixed cocktails, so long as they’re in a sealed container and accompanied by a food purchase. The relaxed rules that permit curbside cocktails are in effect through May 15.

Christina "Steenz" Stewart is now the new artist on "Heart of The City," a daily syndicated comic strip.

Christina “Steenz” Stewart initially studied studio art with a focus on illustration while attending Maryville University. Although she honed her visual craft there, she realized she didn’t quite get the tools to become a professional cartoonist. 

After leaving Maryville University, she picked up various jobs in editing and retail, eventually landing a job at Star Clipper, a local comic book store. It was there that she decided to try her hand at making comics. She would submit to Ink and Drink Comics, a local monthly gathering of comic fans releasing semi-annual themed short story anthologies, and collaborate on projects with friends.

It wasn’t until she saw comic artist Brittany Williams’ name on a Samurai Jack comic that Stewart realized she could make being a comic artist a career.

Michael Turley is the fourth generation to operate his family's dairy farm.
File photo | Virginia Harold | Sauce Magazine

The closings of schools, workplaces and restaurants have shuttered the work of dairy farmers across the country. Before the pandemic, milk prices had already dropped roughly 40% over the last six years due to corporate farming and the popularity of plant-derived milk alternatives. The current sharp crash in milk prices is leaving farmers with very few options other than dumping the milk down the drain. 

But a small dairy farm in Greenville, Illinois, is still pumping and delivering fresh milk to locally owned grocery stores daily. In some cases, Rolling Lawns Farm is producing more than ever, from making its largest batch of chocolate milk last month to creating new flavors hitting shelves soon.

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Sarah Fenske touched base with Michael Turley, owner/operator of Rolling Lawns Farms, to hear how the farm is faring.

"Extra Helping" is a digital PDF cookbook and donation platform to benefit hospitality industry employees affected by the COVID-19 outbreak.
Alaska Adams

In time for the holidays last year, R.J. Hartbeck and Mary von der Heydt launched a series of short cookbooks titled “Small Circle,” each showcasing about 10 recipes from noted chefs around St. Louis. 

Watching the coronavirus pandemic dwindle the local restaurant scene this past month left the duo brainstorming ways to quickly help the chefs that were greatly impacted. While they had an idea, they needed a collaborator that had reach. Enter Feast Magazine — one of the two local food publications highlighting the region’s culinary scene.

The two entities came up with a new community-sourced cookbook, "Extra Helping." It’s a digital PDF cookbook and donation platform to benefit hospitality industry employees affected by the COVID-19 outbreak.

Jean Ponzi is the Missouri Botanical Garden's EarthWays Center program manager.
Jean Ponzi

Today marks the 50th year since efforts to conserve planet Earth have been celebrated. First recognized in 1970, Earth Day now involves events coordinated globally by the Earth Day Network in more than 193 countries.

For those into gardening, they might be familiar with Missouri Botanical Garden’s “plant doctors.” But the organization also focuses heavily on ways to sustain the planet via their EarthWays Center, where their “planet doctors” help people find green products and services, evaluate green claims or plan green-home or lifestyle projects. 

Safe Connections reports that the number of hotline calls that have to do with abuse of children, elders and those with disabilities across the state is down by 50%.
Grant Hutchinson|Flickr

More than a month has passed since officials enacted stay-at-home orders for Missourians. And for organizations that deal with domestic violence, it’s been an incredibly anxious time. 

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Sarah Fenske checked in with Safe Connections, a local entity that works to prevent domestic and sexual violence. 

Joining the conversation were Safe Connections CEO Susan D. Kidder and the organization’s director of crisis and prevention, Brigid Welch. They discussed how they're navigating helping victims who are more in contact with their abusers as of late.

Doulas are trained professionals who provide physical, emotional and informational support to a mother before, during and shortly after childbirth.

Pandemic aside, giving birth is already a time of high stress and anxiety. Expecting women need all the physical, mental and emotional support they can get. But now they’re forced to make a difficult decision regarding who will accompany them in the delivery room. 

Some area hospitals are restricting patients to only one support person in the delivery room and cutting off all other visitors because of COVID-19. Some hospitals across the country have restricted any and all visitors. And for women whose birth plan includes a doula, midwife, or even just a sister or mom, that can be a major complication.

Music and visual artist 18andCounting hosts a daily "Midnight Special" show to provide entertainment for fans stuck at home.

To get through rough times, people turn to music. A good song can uplift your mood, soothe anxiety and enhance a feeling of community. But musicians are among those bearing the brunt of the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. 

Most tours and gigs have been canceled for the foreseeable future, so they’re coping with sudden and dramatic income loss. As a result, many are experimenting with reaching audiences in different ways — from dropping new projects while self-isolating to putting on free virtual concerts.

St. Louis artists are no exception. On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, we touched base with five area musicians to see how they’ve responded to the coronavirus pandemic. All of them have had shows and tours cancelled abruptly.

Daria McKelvey is the supervisor of home gardening information and outreach at the Missouri Botanical Garden.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

April 14 marks National Gardening Day, and the hobby seems more relevant now, as it’s one of the few remaining activities people can still partake in while stuck at home. Many local nurseries are even doing curbside pickup or delivery to accommodate the uptick in interest. 

The rejuvenating activity allows people to go outside for fresh air after staring at screens all day. Itching to get back into a gym? Gardening also provides some aerobic exercise

Not sure how to start a garden? Or, perhaps you’re set as far as how to grow flowers but want to expand to planting herbs and vegetables? 

"St. Louis on the Air" production assistant Joshua Phelps' work-from-home setup.
Joshua Phelps

Stay-at-home orders have many employees packing up their work equipment and figuring out a way to mimic their office space and routines at home. But the adjustment can be tough: Add partners, kids and pets to the mix, and it’s not an average workday at all.

But for some, that was reality long before this pandemic. And they’re making it work. 

The Collective Thread trains immigrant and refugee women at its sewing school. They recently shifted to sewing cloth masks to donate to hospitals, jails and local health clinics.
The Collective Thread

The CDC reiterated this week the need for people to wear masks, even a simple one made at home. The use of simple cloth face coverings can slow the spread of the virus and help keep people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others.

The voluntary public health measure paired with social distancing is crucial, as recent studies show that a significant portion of individuals with coronavirus can transmit the virus to others before showing symptoms by speaking, coughing or sneezing in close proximity. The cloth masks also help keep the N95 masks for the health care workers and first responders who work in direct contact with COVID-19 patients.

The Sichuan takins enjoying a bubble party at the St. Louis Zoo.
St. Louis Zoo

Things have been pretty quiet lately at one of the region’s most visited attractions — the St. Louis Zoo. On March 17, it closed its doors to the public to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

While the organization is operating under unusual circumstances and with limited staff, zoo fun continues on its social media feeds. Their #BringTheStlZooToYou initiative involves photos and videos of the zoo’s residents from its animal care teams. 

Since the Humane Society of Missouri implemented a curbside pickup model (March 25), it's coordinated more than 150 adoptions.
Humane Society of Missouri

The current coronavirus pandemic has left many homebound — mostly around family, addictive snacks and pets. What’s a true virtual work meeting if a pet doesn’t end up making an appearance?

For those without pets, this might be the ideal time to add a new member to the household. Pets provide something for a family or an individual to care for and can be a source of fun and pleasurable activity. And during frightening times, they create a sense of constancy and comfort. 

The Humane Society of Missouri has adjusted its efforts to connect people with furry companions. While its shelter doors are closed to comply with the region’s efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19, they’ve implemented a curbside pick-up model.

Michael-John Voss is a co-founder and special projects director with ArchCity Defenders.
Michael-John Voss

In 2015, a cohort of lawyers sued the city of Ferguson to stop municipal court abuses widely publicized after the killing of Michael Brown the previous August.

ArchCity Defenders, the St. Louis University School of Law Legal Clinics and the Campbell Law Firm filed on behalf of Roelif Carter, a Ferguson resident charged with court fees that the suit argued were illegal. In the class-action lawsuit, Carter stood in for nearly 10,000 people harmed by the city’s revenue-generating practices. 

Rev. Matt Miofsky of The Gathering preaches to an empty church at the McCausland site. The congregation was tuned in, however, to an online worship service.
The Gathering

Over the past few weeks, local sites of worship have had to recalibrate how they serve their congregations during a time when coming together can do more harm than good.

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page and St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson announced a 30-day stay-at-home order last weekend. The restrictions require people to remain in their homes whenever possible as part of an ongoing effort to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. There are a number of exceptions to the stay-at-home order, city and county officials said, but religious centers aren’t one of them.

C-SPAN's national 2020 StudentCam competition partners with local middle and high school students to produce short documentaries about a subject of national importance.

A homework assignment turned into cash and national recognition for some area high schoolers. Clayton High senior Lila Taylor and Kirkwood High junior Zach Baynham were both among the top winners in C-SPAN’s 2020 StudentCam competition.

Since 2006, C-SPAN has invited middle and high school students across the U.S. to produce short documentaries on subjects of national importance. This year, students addressed the theme "What's Your Vision in 2020?” In their submissions, they explored issues they’d want presidential candidates to address during their campaigns.

The STLMade is movement is a three-year effort set to highlight the region's innovative community and to retain and attract talent in the area across industries.

March 14 marked the one-year anniversary of a grassroots effort that set out to highlight the stories of the people and businesses that make up the St. Louis region. Over the past 12 months, STLMade has featured regional staples ranging from Skate King to the Wildey Theatre, profiling those who boost the local economy, including Tony’s Family Farms and Vega Transport, along the way. 

The multi-year initiative was started by civic, business and university leaders across the region, including St. Charles and Belleville.  

Paige Alyssa's latest single, "What's the Move," is the artist's first time releasing new music in two years.
Paige Alyssa

Paige Alyssa Hegwood is back — in St. Louis and in music. After spending approximately two years in Los Angeles and doing some soul searching, the singer-songwriter, who goes by Paige Alyssa, is expressing that growth both musically and individually. 

Through up-tempo pop and vibrant vocals, Alyssa is releasing music on their own terms. Their just-released single, “What’s the Move,” features mixing and mastering by Shock City’s Sam Maul. 

On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, Alyssa joined host Sarah Fenske to talk about their time in Los Angeles, how they overcame artistic struggles and the new music they have in store. 

A St. Paul sandwich at Chinese Express in Richmond Heights.
Julia Calleo | Sauce Magazine

St. Louis has an abundance of unique culinary creations that locals don’t care to convince outsiders to embrace: If newbies don’t like this stuff, it just means more for the rest of us. We’ll happily keep our fried ravioli, Provel cheese to ourselves, along with gooey butter cake’s havoc on the arteries. 

But one creation that really perplexes the masses is the St. Paul sandwich: It’s an egg patty topped with lettuce, tomato and pickles, and held together by white bread smothered in mayo. Regional eaters can now find variations of the sandwich that include pork belly, ham or shrimp. 

Tenelle Winmore (at left), Sierra Brown (center) and Ryan Escobar curated "STL Exchange," a 314 Day celebration. This year's theme is "It's Bigger than the Area Code."
Jaelin "Curry Street" Collier

Updated March 13 with revised event details

In light of the recent developments concerning the coronavirus (COVID-19), the Contemporary Art Museum has postponed public programs and events through April 5 until further notice, including "STL Exchange." Visit for updates.

Original story from March 12:

314 Day is this Saturday, and that means St. Louisans near and far are gearing up to show up and out for their city. The local holiday began as an informal celebration by residents — particularly in the black community. Within that community, people often gather for block parties, neighborhood barbecues and club events when the last numbers of their ZIP code or street number correspond with a date on the calendar. A day named for St. Louis’ main area code was a natural way to take the party city-wide.

St. Louis natives Ryan Escobar and Tenelle Winmore set out to formalize the celebration they grew up loving. The two make up the hip-hop duo Souls of Liberty, and last year, they teamed up with event coordinator Sierra Brown to throw a 314 Day party that takes things to the next level. To them, 314 Day is not only about celebrating St. Louis, but also the artists, musicians, businesses and products with roots in the city.