Arnold native, retired officer brings books, hope home to New Kensington

After seven years, Lillie Leonardi reached the point of having to grow or end her literary services and audio production business, Passages & Prose.

She has chosen to grow, investing what she had left and bringing it home to New Kensington.

“I wanted to bring it back here. Everything started here,” she said. “I want to leave a legacy behind in this community.”

Leonardi is moving Passages & Prose and an affiliated nonprofit, Books Bridge Hope, into an Olde Towne Overhaul storefront at 878 Fifth Ave. in downtown New Kensington. She’s planning to open Sept. 1.

“This felt like home,” said Leonardi, now of Oakmont. “The energy of the space feels good.”

A native of Arnold and 1974 Valley High School graduate, Leonardi, the third of 10 children in a Ukrainian-Lebanese family, was 28 years old and running her own pizza shop when she became Arnold’s first female police officer in 1984, serving there until 1992 .

She went on to be director of security at Carlow University from 1992 to 1994 and then chief of police at Chatham University from 1994 to 1998, when she started with the FBI.

She took a disability retirement in 2010, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and health issues linked to her experiences as a response at the Flight 93 crash site after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. As a community outreach specialist, she worked as a liaison between law enforcement and families of the passengers and crew killed in the crash near Shanksville.

“That kind of crushed me for a while,” she said. “I absorbed it all. It broke my mind and heart.”

But, “I’d do it all over again,” she said. “I miss it.”

Her first book, “In the Shadow of a Badge,” published in 2012, is her memoir of that experience, in which she says she saw angels at the crash site. Her second book of hers, “The White Light of Grace,” came out in 2014.

Passages & Prose was born as other authors would-be came to her seeking guidance.

Its mission is to help authors cultivate, navigate, publish and promote their work in print and audio formats. Services provided include editing, proofreading, copyrighting, illustrating, cover design and publishing through Amazon or Barnes & Noble Press.

“We’ll help with anything,” she said. “If it was easy, everybody would write a book. We help so the author’s only job is to just write.”

The space will house a small bookstore, host events with authors and be available to community groups, Leonardi said.

“We want it to be a community space, too,” she said.

Joyce Wilk of Indiana Township is the operations manager of Passages & Prose and board member of Books Bridge Hope. A romance novelist, she has known Leonardi for several years.

“I can’t think of anybody better qualified to be at the helm than Lillie,” Wilk said. “Through everything that she has been through, her former careers and everything and being an author herself, she knows the business. Ella she knows how to do things, and she knows how to get things done with professionalism and with compassion. ”

Having the storefront is a dream come true.

“It gives us a landing spot, a welcoming spot,” Wilk said. “Having a physical location where someone can come in and talk to someone is going to be important. It’s nice to know that when you’re talking to someone, you know how to locate them.”

Leonardi founded Books Bridge Hope in 2017 to promote reading, writing and literacy.

“I missed serving,” she said. “It almost broke me, that my occupation was done before I was ready.”

Working with Dr. Jim Withers, founder of UPMC Mercy’s Operation Safety Net, and Pittsburgh police, the nonprofit has distributed boxes to the homeless containing books, writing and art supplies, food, toiletries and clothing.

“We call it ‘essential resources,’ ” she said.

From her own experience with PTSD, Leonardi learned of its prevalence in the homeless community, many of whom are veterans.

“I was lucky. I had no mental health issues before it happened,” she said. “It’s hard even with wonderful family and health care to pull out of that.”

Gina Masciola is a board member of Books Bridge Hope. A resident of Crafton Heights, she is the managing director of the education department at WQED.

Masciola said she was introduced to Leonardi about six years ago when she was managing the station’s writing contest for kids.

“It really was about giving voice to the unsheltered community in and around the Pittsburgh area, giving them opportunities to tell their amazing stories that might not be heard,” she said. “Lillie is great at encouraging people to be able to heal through telling their story. That is how she began her healing journey and what made her a writer.

Masciola agreed that having the building is important.

“She’s got a great space for people to come in and use the media resources that she’s got in there to help tell their story,” she said. “She’s got the chops to provide all the guidance that the community will need. Ella she’s also created a really nice community space that I think they need, especially in that area, where people can come in, gather and connect. ”

Masciola said Leonardi is a survivor and a fighter who wants to make a difference.

“She’s very thoughtful in her work. She’s very introspective. Ella she’s learned a lot of lessons through her career de ella and through her life’s journey, ”she said. “That is what fuels her from her. She’s gone through a lot. She wants to help people based on what she’s learned and what she’s gone through.

Brian C. Rittmeyer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Brian by email at brittmeyer@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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