Musicals at Ave Maria Academy

A portrait of Jessica Balsom, Melanie Kutchell, and Sandra Ondriezek, gathered together, shoulder to shoulder.
Jessica Balsom (left) nominated her children’s teachers at Ave Maria Academy for free McDonald’s breakfasts and came away with a $25,000 donation to the school’s musical theater program. She’s pictured here with her award recipients—third grade teacher Melanie Kutchell and fifth grade teacher Sandra Ondriezek.

thought I was just getting them some Egg McMuffins,” said Jessica Balsom, Parkside Avenue, who tweeted about her children’s teachers at Ave Maria Academy to nominate them for free breakfast “Thank You Meals” at McDonald’s.

Her tweet read: @mcdonalds I would like to nominate Ms. Ondriezek & Mrs. Kutchell at @AveMariaPGH. They deserve more than a breakfast for their kind hearts, leadership, & professionalism this year and last but breakfast is a start! <3 #thankyoumeal #loveallourteachers

Little did she know that this one simple tweet would result in a $25,000 donation from McDonald’s, to help fund the school’s musical theater program.

The Diocese of Pittsburgh created Ave Maria Academy in 2020, when it merged four South Hills Catholic schools into one, with campuses at St. Bernard Church in Mt. Lebanon and St. Thomas More in Bethel Park. At that time, the musical theater traditions that existed among the four schools—including Nativity plays, skits and spring musicals—mostly ceased, as a formal program had not yet been established for the new school.

Balsom’s daughter, Natalie, is in Melanie Kutchell’s third-grade class and her son, Grady, is a fifth-grader in Sandra Ondriezek’s class at Ave Maria Academy. They attended St. Bernard School before the merger.

“Mrs. Kutchell had, in past years, helped lead our Christmas programs,” said Balsom. “She’s always doing creative things to make learning fun … and the same with Ms. O. She does a lot of community service projects with her kids, and she’s really creative as well. Both of them are the type of teacher that if the school needs help with anything, they always say yes.”

After sending her tweet, Balsom received a direct message from a McDonald’s representative, asking if they could speak with her further about Kutchell and Ondriezek. “I had no idea what I was building a case for,” said Balsom, whose goal was still free breakfasts. But when the representative asked about the school’s musical theater program and Balsom explained the situation, they were interested. Balsom reached out to some friends who are involved in theater to get some ideas about what a musical theater program could entail, and reported those ideas back to McDonald’s.

“We did not find out that they would be making a donation until the moment they announced it,” said Balsom. “They told us that they were going to come and present something to the teachers. The day before, they came and were checking out the campus. Then we found out that they had flown in a couple people from L.A. to produce a video, and we were like ‘OK. This is going to be something.’”

At the end of the school day, they called all the students in for an assembly and presented Ondriezek and Kutchell with a $25,000 check.

“It was wonderful to know that our school is getting that much money, because we’re just a little Catholic school that doesn’t have that much money to go on … It’s a wonderful opportunity for us all,” said Ondriezek.

Now, the principals and teachers at both campuses are laying the groundwork for a program, which they’re hoping to launch in the spring with a combined-campus musical. Seton LaSalle High School offered the use of their auditorium for the program, and Ave Maria Academy is seeking volunteers with experience in all aspects of theater to get the program up and running.

“We’re going to need individuals that are dancers, that know theater. Maybe people who do costuming. We’re going to have to tap our resources and really get the community involved,” said Leslie Kreuger, principal at the Mt. Lebanon campus. “And I think that alone is going to be a beautiful thing … It’s going to be a really prime opportunity to bring our campuses together and do something fun.”

To volunteer to help out with Ave Maria Academy’s musical theater program, email Leslie Kreuger at