Meeting Needs Through SCRC
Shakir Alexander-Noah ’18 came face-to-face with a homeless, recently incarcerated man, but he was not intimidated. In fact, he welcomed the opportunity to help the man and put into practice the social work skills he learned as a Ship student.
Alexander-Noah had the encounter while completing an internship at the Shippensburg Community Resource Coalition (SCRC) last fall. The social service agency provides access to a variety of assistance and social services to Shippensburg residents. As part of his internship, he conducted intake assessments on clients seeking different types of support.
“I knew I needed to be sensitive with this man and try to help him as much as possible without judging or offending him,” Alexander-Noah said. He was able to match the client with short-term housing to keep him safe, and get him food from a local outreach program.
The SCRC has helped residents since its formation a decade ago. It started as an idea of Dr. Liz Fisher’s and has grown into a mutually-beneficial collaboration between the university, the Shippensburg Area School District, and the community.
“The resource coalition started with a few people talking about an idea, and has grown into the full program it is today,” said Fisher, chair of the Department of Social Work and Gerontology.
Fisher connected with Angie McKee, who knew firsthand of the overwhelming needs of students through her work as a guidance counselor for the Shippensburg Area School District. “We met over coffee, talked about our needs as a community, and discussed what we can do to help,” McKee said.
McKee cites poverty, homelessness, and unmet mental health needs as some of the school district’s biggest challenges. A recent survey by the school district identified thirty-six students and their families who qualify as homeless.
Shippensburg’s location presents another challenge for those seeking social services, because it is divided between two counties. “In Pennsylvania, many social services are offered by county,” said Stacy Yurko, an SCRC board member and the information referral coordinator for Franklin County. “Many people do not know which way to go for services.”
Even if residents know where to go, they may not have the means to travel, according to McKee. “We needed to bring the services to them.”
Fisher and McKee brainstormed the concept for the resource coalition and recruited the support of other Ship faculty, local churches, and social service organizations.
In 2011, the resource coalition found a permanent home at Katie’s Place, a gathering and distribution site for several human service organizations in Shippensburg. For emergency needs, clients can access a food bank, diaper bank, thrift shop, and emergency vouchers on site through Shippensburg Produce and Outreach and Christ Among Neighbors. For more long-term needs, such as counseling and employment, the SCRC and Tri County Community Action will connect clients with existing services in the community.
“We get a wide variety of people,” said Emily Greene ’18, who interned with the SCRC. “Poverty affects everyone. We see a lot of older adults who are struggling financially. Also, immigrants and disabled people who are unable to work. It was an eye-opening experience for me.”
“I meet a lot of people who are under-employed or unemployed,” said Laura Masgalas ’07-’11m, community youth mobilizer for the SCRC. “Also, the number of families that are considered homeless has increased.”
The benefits of the SCRC are enormous to the community as well as the university. Students in multiple majors gain valuable experience as interns and program volunteers each semester.
“Our campus gets to help the community, and our students gain real experience,” Fisher said.
“The partnership with Ship is essential,” McKee said. “We would never be able to accomplish what we have done without the student interns and the hours they put in.”
It’s hard to determine the exact number of students who participate in the SCRC. The center takes up to three interns per school year, but Fisher estimates that as many as 100 student volunteers support it annually through service learning and fundraising projects.
Responding to the Community
In addition to connecting community members with services, the SCRC has launched several programs in response to identified needs.
“We are planning and implementing programs to address the health needs of the community,” Fisher said. “Not just medical health, but social determinants such as income, history of trauma, family structure, and access to healthy food and mental health services.”
The Hound Pack program provides food insecure school students with backpacks of food on weekends. School counselors identify eligible students for the packs, so named for the school district’s mascot, the greyhound.
“There is a great need for this program in Shippensburg,” said Troy Okum ’18, who coordinates the Hound Pack program. Okum serves as an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) with the Office of Community Engagement and Service Learning at Ship. “I’ve heard from families that the packs help take a weight off their shoulders. Their child is fed, so they can focus on other things to help their family.”
According to McKee, 40 percent of school-aged children in the Shippensburg School District qualify for free or reduced school lunch. The Hound Pack program is supported by grants from the Summit Endowment in Chambersburg and the Partnership for Better Health in Carlisle, as well as donations from the community.
Volunteers, including Ship students, meet at a local church to sort the food and fill at least sixty packs weekly. Each pack contains meals and snacks such as canned soup, tuna packets, peanut butter, cereal, fruit cups, and when available, fresh produce.
When the school year ends, so do regular meals for some students. Based on a suggestion by McKee, the SCRC started a Summer Lunch Program to bridge the “summer food gap.” The program provides lunch and safe, supervised activities for children in Shippensburg for seven weeks during the summer. The program is free and open to all local students, regardless of their family’s income.
Dr. Laurie Cella, associate professor in the English Department and a member of the SCRC Board of Directors, oversees the program. Children meet at a local school for music, crafts, science, yoga, and other activities, and of course, lunch. Reading, an activity dear to Cella’s heart, is an integral part of the program. Each summer features a new theme centered on a children’s book.
“It’s nice to see the students reading,” Cella said. “I love to make those books available to the kids.”
Fridays are reserved for field trips. “The kids love going off campus for field trips,” said Sonja Payne ’05, a current MSW student. “For some students, this is the only time they leave Shippensburg.” Payne works as the SCRC community health mobilizer.
Students have visited an equestrian center and a wildlife zoo. The Ship campus is a frequent destination. Students have attended events at the H. Ric Luhrs Performing Arts Center to hear an orchestra and met the Shippensburg University Marching Band and several of Ship’s athletic coaches.
“The field trips really broaden their experiences,” Cella said. She shared the story of one student who attended a trip to the local fire company and was so inspired, he later became a volunteer firefighter.
Ship students play an important role. MSW students conducted the initial research, prepared a budget for the program, and continue to participate each summer. Cella’s writing students helped author grants to obtain funding for the program. The Summer Lunch Program received support from The Foundation for Enhancing Communities (TFEC) in Harrisburg, and local service clubs and churches.
“This is a great opportunity to put into practice what we’re learning in the graduate program,” Payne said. “I’m learning about all the components that make a nonprofit run.”
The program component makes the SCRC’s Summer Lunch Program unique, and according to Cella, has increased participation. The program draws an average of forty children a day.
“I am passionate about addressing food insecurity, but we need to be creative in how we do it,” Cella said. “Many summer lunch programs just offer the food, and they have lower attendance due to the stigma this creates.”
Cella believes this can be a useful model for other programs, and soon she will have the research to prove it. Dr. Michael Lyman, associate professor of social work and gerontology, recently led social work and psychology students in conducting a formal study of the program.
“This program is an amazing lab space to provide opportunities to our students and faculty,” Lyman said. “Specifically, we are studying if involvement in this program connects people from different levels of socio-economic status. Because it’s more inclusive, we hope to see some crossover among participants, which can strengthen the community.”
Lyman’s group presented their findings at the Ethnographic and Qualitative Research Conference in Las Vegas, and are completing articles for two research journals.
In addition, several social work students are conducting a new formal community assessment of Shippensburg this year with faculty supervision. Students helped conduct a similar assessment five years ago.
“It’s difficult to find data specific to Shippensburg due to the county split,” Lyman said. “No one entity was speaking to the Shippensburg community’s specific needs.”
Lyman said the community assessment can help the SCRC determine how to use their resources in the most efficient way possible to have the greatest impact on the community. The SCRC also depends on data from the community assessment when seeking grant support.
Students Helping Students
Many students have the potential to be good leaders among their peers, but they need some help in perfecting their skills and confidence. That’s the purpose of the Teen Leadership Club, a group formed by the SCRC that meets on site at the Shippensburg Middle School.
“This group is for students who show leadership qualities and want to help others, but need a place to hone those qualities,” McKee said.
McKee co-facilitates the group with Masgalas and former interns Greene and Alexander-Noah.
“We try to help them develop qualities that will make them better leaders in school and in life,” Greene said.
The group meets monthly for sessions on public speaking, conflict resolution, communication skills, and other topics. Community service is an integral part of the program. Students spent time at The Episcopal Home for a game night with seniors, volunteered at Ship’s campus farm, and organized a community food drive for the Hound Pack Program.
“In the beginning, we had a lot of moments that were quiet, but their social interactions have improved,” Alexander-Noah said. “The students are coming out of their shells.”
Taylore Kerns, an MSW graduate assistant, is working to form a similar group for high school students.
“Peers tend to listen to each other, so we need to facilitate that conversation,” Kerns said. “We will match students who make healthy decisions with students who have the ability to do so, but may not be.”
The SCRC is committed to its mission of building a healthier community. Now the emphasis is on long-term sustainability, Fisher said.
The SCRC is now officially recognized as a center of the university, and operates with support from the Shippensburg University Foundation.
A recent grant from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency will help SCRC establish a Communities that Care in Shippensburg. This coalition-based program uses a public health approach to prevent problem behaviors among youth, such as school delinquency, substance abuse, and violence.
These efforts continue to strengthen the bridge that the SCRC provides between the university and the community, Fisher said.
“We need to realize that when even one person is struggling, it’s a community issue, not an individual one,” Okum said. “I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for all people of all backgrounds to come together and help.”
Hard Work Pays Off
Their dedication to the community hasn’t gone unnoticed. Last year, the Shippensburg Community Resource Coalition (SCRC) received two significant grants—$64,200 from the Partnership for Better Health via the Shippensburg University Foundation and $148,392 from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency (PCCD) via Shippensburg University.
The funding through these grants allowed SCRC to establish positions for a community health mobilizer and a community youth mobilizer that will provide ongoing community assessment and service to the Shippensburg Area School District. The PCCD grant also helps the SCRC to launch a Communities that Care site in Shippensburg.
This past December, the SCRC received formal recognition as a university center.