Penn State Berks establishes Office of Community Engagement

Written by Lisa R. Baldi, Director of Strategic Communications at Penn State Berks.

Penn State Berks truly is ‘One Community, Impacting Many.’ Whether it’s hosting and participating in the United Way of Berks County’s ‘The Big Cheese,’ their largest meal-packaging event in the country, or working with the Olivet Boys & Girls Club to clean up a section of the Schuylkill River Trail, the college is actively engaged in the Berks County community. In response to an increasing need, Penn State Berks recently established the Office of Community Engagement (OCE). Its mission is to build relevant and meaningful relationships within the community and to connect to the community through service opportunities.

Todd Migliaccio, interim chancellor of Penn State Berks, stated, “We here at Penn State Berks take to heart our role as a land-grant institution as we work to provide resources and support for our local community, whether it’s opening our beautiful campus to community programs, or supporting local entrepreneurs at Berks LaunchBox, or participating in local community service events, such as the first Reading Pride Parade and the Walk for No More with Safe Berks. All these efforts enhance our students’ learning experiences.”

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Working to form strategic partnerships and to streamline the process of community engagement initiatives – both on and off campus – the OCE connects community partners with students, faculty and staff to coordinate all types of community engagement initiatives. The OCE also advises faculty and staff on the development of community engagement and/or service-learning projects.

Donna Chambers serves as the interim coordinator of the OCE. She works closely with the OCE advisory council, which includes several Penn State Berks faculty and staff members.

”Collaboration between campus and community is always a win-win situation,” stated Chambers. “When each group inhabits the space of the other, a sense of empathy, understanding and open-mindedness blossoms. When barriers are broken and bridges are built, campus and community form enduring relationships of respect, inclusion and belonging toward one another.”

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The OCE works to host more than 100 community events each academic year. Some of the larger events include the United Way’s ‘The Big Cheese,’ Girls on the Run of Berks County 5K, and the Guts & Glory Digestive and Wellness Expo, just to name a few. College facilities are available free of charge for nonprofit organizations and businesses are able to rent space for reasonable fees.

Tammy White, president of the United Way of Berks County, commented, “Penn State Berks is an incredible partner in hosting and supporting United Way’s Big Cheese event for seven years to help fight hunger in Berks. The event is both fun and impactful, as it draws 500 volunteers packaging 250,000 nutritionally-fortified meals – mac-and-cheese and apple-cinnamon oatmeal. The meals are distributed through Helping Harvest’s Weekender program to provide nourishment to kids who rely on school meals during the week. In addition, a supply is also distributed to Reading School District to help students facing hunger. When you consider one in five people in Berks County are food insecure, or at risk of being food insecure, the event addresses a critical need.”

History of Penn State Berks community engagement

Penn State has a long history of serving Berks County. As early as 1914, Penn State was offering agricultural extension and evening courses to county residents. In 1927, Penn State instructors helped to establish a formal education program at Textile Machine Works, named The Wyomissing Trade School. In 1933, the school was awarded a state charter and renamed the Wyomissing Polytechnic Institute, the forerunner institution of Penn State Berks.

Today Penn State Berks is home to many initiatives that combine community engagement with the Penn State’s world-renowned academics and research.

Center for Academic and Community Engagement

Born from the efforts of faculty members to involve their students in impactful work with community partners, the Penn State Berks Center for Academic and Community Engagement was formed in 2010. Nearly 50 college-community projects have been completed through the center. In 2018, the center was honored with the Penn State Award for Community Engagement and Scholarship, which recognizes an initiative that best exemplifies Penn State as an “engaged institution.”

Transforming the lives of youth in Reading and beyond

Beginning in the early 1990s, Penn State Berks began offering the Penn State Educational Partnership Program (PEPP), an early-intervention collaboration that has served thousands of at-risk high school students through education-related after-school programs and activities. The program is offered at Reading High School and the goal is to motivate and prepare youth for higher education. Graduates of the PEPP program have gone on to become successful students and alumni of Penn State Berks.  

Penn State Berks is committed to inspiring future generations in their academic efforts throughout the community. Two such programs focus on promoting Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) subjects to female middle-school students to instill confidence to pursue traditionally male-dominated fields, such as engineering. The Careers with Math Options Conference and the Futures in Engineering: Role-models Can Empower (FiERCE) programs help generate excitement and engagement in STEM subjects.  

Enhancing wellness in the city of Reading 

Penn State Berks has a unique collaborative partnership with Penn State Health St. Joseph. The Veggie Rx program at Penn State Health St. Joseph Downtown Campus is one such joint initiative. In 2018, the United Way of Berks County helped launch the pilot program which provided patients with chronic obesity and diabetes with nutrition education and vouchers for fresh fruits and vegetables. Through a study conducted by the Penn State College of Medicine, researchers found that voucher redemption was significantly related to a decrease in A1c, suggesting that vouchers paired with education helped some patients to better manage their diabetes.

Berks LaunchBox serves early-stage entrepreneurs in Reading

The Berks LaunchBox is celebrating the fourth anniversary of its expansion from Penn State Health St. Joseph’s Downtown Reading Campus to the GoggleWorks Center for the Arts in downtown Reading.  An innovation hub of the Invent Penn State initiative, the Berks LaunchBox mission is to assist early-stage entrepreneurs and startup companies with accessing the tools and resources they need to launch and grow in Greater Reading. Throughout 2022, the Berks LaunchBox supported 148 entrepreneurs with startup ideas, hosted 10 co-working companies, taught more than 400 community members a new skill in the makerspace, impacted 280 students (elementary school through college), and welcomed more than 1,100 people to free classes and webinars. 

Other community service initiatives

In addition to the initiatives listed above, students, faculty and staff embark on many other community service initiatives throughout the year. Alternative Spring Break takes students around the country and the globe to help communities touched by natural and manmade disasters. Berks Benefitting THON, a student organization, supports the Penn State Panhellenic Dance Marathon known as THON to raise funds and awareness for the fight against pediatric cancer. Students volunteer at Opportunity House, the Reading emergency shelter, once a month to serve dinner to the clients. Berks students, faculty and staff partner with the Olivet Boys and Girls Club of Reading for Schuylkill River Trail cleanups.

The campus community also rallies around victims of disasters. A group of faculty and staff recently raised over $3,000 to help the victims of the Palmer Chocolate Factory explosion that occurred on March 24, 2023. Other fundraisers have been held for victims of natural disasters such as the earthquakes that recently affected Turkey and Syria. Additional efforts include bike rides to support pediatric cancer, pet food drives, support of the PA Migrant Education Program, and many more.

All these efforts reflect Penn State Berks’ commitment to the University’s land-grant mission of teaching, research, and service, as well as the college’s commitment to supporting the citizens of the Greater Reading and Berks County areas. Penn State Berks is ‘One Community, Impacting Many.’

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