Bucknellians help rejuvenate an economically depressed community 40 miles from campus
By Susan Lindt
Mayor Philip "Bing" Cimino is the consummate small-town mayor: filling roles in Mount Carmel when others won't, staying on in those roles longer than he really wants, figuratively cheerleading a town that hasn't managed to be "in the game" for years, living life around emergencies — because he's also a longtime linchpin of the volunteer fire company.
And yet he hasn't had luck turning around his once-booming town, which has carried a whiff of decay since the coal industry began dying in the 1950s. It isn't for lack of good ideas. Even something as universally appealing as a recreation committee stalled before Cimino could get it going.
"I tried for three years and got nowhere with it," Cimino says. "I couldn't get interest sparked. I get very frustrated. The majority of people have lost faith in town government."
So that was the backdrop for May's borough council meeting, when, against the odds, the Citizens Recreation Committee was formed — a seemingly minor event, yet eagerly anticipated 40 miles away at Bucknell University. Only weeks earlier, three Bucknell students had presented their report to council recommending the formation of the recreation commission. The report was the culminating project for a Managing for Sustainability class. "That's striking," says Professor Neil Boyd, management, of the borough's quick response to the students' recommendation. "That's not just a report — that's action. They were just in that class in the spring semester, and council already voted to put that committee in place. That doesn't normally happen in college classes."
Council's vote was a resounding show of faith in the project completed by Jacob Israel Hannah '17, his brother, Josiah '17, and Ben Schumacher '17, who used organizational-development concepts to find ways to improve sustainability and life in a town without hope. It was familiar territory for the Hannahs, who hail from Wilsondale, W. Va. — pop. 87 — where life boomed when coal was king and waned in its wake.
"Coming out of the coal regions of West Virginia, I've lived in the vacuum of hope," Jacob says. "Hope can create hope where it hasn't been before. That surprised some people in Mount Carmel because they've been living in this place without abundant hope. But everyone was willing to give us their time to produce this project. That's where I see the hope."
Building Blocks of a Partnership
Bucknell's community partnership with the coal region, including the towns of Shamokin and Mahanoy City as well as Mount Carmel, is an unwieldy thing. Enjoying a growth spurt just two years after it was formally created, the partnership flourishes even in summer. Three first-year projects multiplied in the second year, with more projects reaching into schools, libraries, social services and civic organizations. Projects targeted cultural and historic preservation, potential tourism, blighted properties and curb appeal.
Stakeholders refer to the partnership by a host of names, each bringing their own inspiration and angle. Its origin stemmed from different interests with a common goal: making a difference in coal communities. At Bucknell, Boyd was among several professors practicing socially engaged teaching and scholarship. Early efforts became the 40 Mile Project, a 2014 white paper announcing projects within a 40-mile radius of campus to which other professors and students could "chain" new phases to advance research and impact.
Meanwhile, Bucknell's former Catholic chaplain, the Rev. Martin Moran III, had just relocated to Mount Carmel's Divine Redeemer Church after seven years directing the nationwide Catholic Campus Ministry Association, based in Cincinati. Although he knew his new post was in a community weathering tough times, Moran was stouthearted. Fueled by what he witnessed students achieving across 4,000 campus ministries, he thought service learning might help turn things around in Mount Carmel.
Many people at Bucknell understood that Moran's intimate knowledge of the University and the coal region could bring the two together so well that his name would become as synonymous with the partnership as coal itself. Moran quietly pitched the partnership idea to Mount Carmel movers and shakers: the school district and public library; Downtown Inc., a nonprofit revitalization group; Cimino and borough council; and the Mount Carmel Area Ministerium.
The partners cut a deal for Bucknell to rent space for the Coal Region Field Station in a former convent in Mount Carmel, which reopened in April 2015 as the Mother Maria Kaupas Center, honoring a Lithuanian nun whose charitable work there was anchored by her words, "Always more, always better, always with love." Moran assembled a team to form the center's board.
"When Father Marty put the concept together, it did sound a bit out there, but I just said ‘Yes,' " says Kaupas advisory board president Herman Weimer '02, who knew Moran from his Bucknell days. "I was a first-generation college student. Rural America is where I grew up, so I know what it is up against. This was classic Father Marty. It's his gift to pull together divergent people with different backgrounds to do good work."
"Because the community partners come up with the projects themselves, we thought our students could have a real impact, particularly when there's so much synergy working in a town," Barnhart says.
Achieving Maximum Impact
The notion that university-community engagement teaches students more and better is not a fresh one. Neither is the idea that universities have a responsibility to address needs of nearby communities.
Bucknell's three-pronged approach to the partnership — student/faculty research opportunities, volunteer projects and classwork — was designed with interconnections in mind and clear goals. Professors of management, the humanities and social sciences especially brought the partnership into their classrooms, with students piggybacking internships onto earlier class work. Thanks to Bucknell-funded, one-time research grants, success and national attention came quickly, especially via two early projects: a forthcoming book, Pain and Politics in Small-Town America, by Professor Jennifer Silva, sociology; and The Kubek Project, a website by then-visiting professor Nick Kupensky '07, comparative humanities, devoted to research and translations of writings by the Rev. Emil Kubek, a noted Mahanoy City priest, journalist and poet.
The partnership has shown incredible reach, blossoming into summer sports camps led by Bucknell students and coaches for coal-region kids, plans for community gardens, and another class project by Jacob Hannah and a team of students who researched the feasibility of protected status for Centralia, the ghost town turned urban-explorer mecca.
If Moran laid the partnership groundwork in Mount Carmel, Kaupas Center Director Jake Betz oversees the connections that make things happen. Betz also volunteers at Mount Carmel Food Pantry, where he saw pantry volunteers working longer and harder to overcome disorganization.
"I knew about a Management 101 course at Bucknell where students form a company and work with a select community partner to improve the organization," Betz says. "Our major need was a robust storage system and efficient distribution for our abundant food supply. Early in the semester, I actively promoted the project to the class because they only could choose one project, and they all had to agree on which it would be. The food pantry won out over four or five others."
Management Professor Jamie Hendry's students examined all aspects of the pantry, interviewed volunteers, worked the food lines to identify inefficiencies and sold T-shirts to raise capital for improvements.
"They were here almost weekly, and they were painstaking and professional," Betz says. "They [organized] where all our food should be so it was efficient and we'd know what we have. There were bottlenecks that made food-line distribution cumbersome and lengthy. They figured out how to streamline it and cut distribution time by half an hour. They came up with ideas about how we could market ourselves. They left no stone unturned."
This is where Suzanne Domzalski, Bucknell's assistant Catholic campus minister, stepped in with her student volunteers, who make regular trips to the region to lend a hand.
"I knew about the class project, so I asked Jake if there was any way we could help during our upcoming trip," Domzalski says. "Our students went through all the food, threw out expired things, scrubbed shelves and reorganized them. It looked amazing. It was almost a miracle."
Academics and volunteerism don't have crisp boundaries, but the blur is intended. Diversity has long been on Bucknell's agenda, and the coal region partnership adds an unexpected dimension: That a mere 40 miles away is a mostly white, rural community in which nearly one in four people live below the poverty divide is not lost on Bucknell students.
Chris Esernio '19 was working the food pantry produce station for Hendry's class when a man in his 30s came in, saw the massive stack of produce and gingerly asked how much he could have. Esernio told him he could take as much as he liked.
"Tentatively, maybe a little in disbelief, he asked for a head of lettuce, which we gave him," Esernio says. "He stuttered for a second, looked me in the eyes and said, ‘God bless you.' It hit us in that moment that what we were doing was right. In the car ride home, we talked about that interaction and how humbling and gratifying the project was."
To Moran, Bucknell students have replaced the energy base lost when the homegrown 18- to 35-year-olds regularly leave the region for greener pastures.
"The shakers and movers in Mount Carmel are in their 60s, and we're missing the young people to get to that next level," Moran says. "Now our base is Bucknell students. In small towns, you have people who want to step up to leadership, but they don't have the end all to do it. Bucknell has given us professional development."
"It's a diversity experience, and it's fantastic for students to get to know the working class of these towns," Milofsky says. "I haven't met a student yet who doesn't love it. I'm pleased my colleagues like working there. This program is being embraced. It sells itself."
Projects tend to uncover more projects, so Milofsky is flush with ideas, and people with problems know where to find him — an inmate at Coal Township's maximum-security prison wrote asking for help developing college classes. Milofsky is eyeing connections with Geisinger Shamokin Area Community Hospital.
Highlighting early local research, as well as international projects, Coal Collections, Bucknell's yearlong series on the importance of the coal-mining culture to central Pennsylvania, exposed campus and community alike to music, art and history, all born of coal's legacy. Barnhart hoped bookend events highlighting student/faculty research would encourage more faculty to use the partnership in their courses.
"Trying to draw a bridge between Bucknell and the community was part of our intent," Barnhart says. "The field station was already in existence, so we were hoping from the place- studies side that awareness and engagement might be spurred."A May faculty partnership workshop was well attended with first-time representation from art, art history and political science faculty. That could mean more options to collaborate for Professor Eric Martin, management, who emphasizes interdisciplinary problem-solving. Martin even sees a place in his students' work for Kupensky's research on Father Kubek.
"Students could learn about tackling problems from different perspectives: political, managerial or organizational," Martin says. "Some folks are looking at history, literature and culture — I want students to exchange projects over time and across disciplines, but there's also great room to exchange projects with other universities."
Boyd says Bucknell's emergent university-community partnership could become one of the nation's best with stakeholder commitment and the right resources.
"This is probably one of the greatest returns on investment the University ever had," Boyd says. "It's an awesome way to learn. Students love the experiential stuff — especially millennials. They're bringing consultancy skills to play. Even from the beginning, students have been invested and hopeful."
Restoring Community Pride
If anyone knows that hope can waft into a desperate community and dissipate just as quickly, it's a newspaper reporter. The News-Item has been the Shamokin/Mount Carmel newspaper for 49 years, and before directing the Kaupas Center, Betz worked there for 40 of them, witnessing a lot of hope in the form of grants, business deals and plans that never quite gelled.
"They were well-meaning, positive things, but we didn't have any systemic change that renewed hope of something better happening someday," Betz says. "This partnership has renewed my hope, because it's different; it's people-centered. It's not tax breaks to provide jobs. It's not a plant relocating here and creating 500 jobs. It's addressing how our community can be better inch by inch."
At age 12, Cathy Besser began washing dishes in the family business, Academy Sports Center, where you could buy a new rifle, shoot pool and down an egg sandwich in a single stop.
Sixty-five years after opening, Academy thrives and Besser is still surrounded by family co-workers, but the luncheonette and pool tables are gone, and so is Cathy's mother, Catherine Welker. Hailed as "Mother of the Downtown," Welker founded Downtown Inc. in 2009, an effort to keep hope afloat in her dying town.
"We've lived in the Mount Carmel bubble for so long, that when the bubble broke and the real world came in, we weren't equipped to handle those problems," Besser says, listing among them slumlords and property blight, addiction, lack of pride and people's unwillingness to work hard and save for what they want.
Besser has taken her mother's place as president of Downtown Inc. and, like her mother, she's an optimist. She backed Moran's idea from the start, so when some old-timers rolled their eyes at a plan to leverage Bucknell students in the sustainability fight, Besser bristled.
"You always have those few negative Nellies who say something's not going to work," she says. "But most people realized we had a great opportunity in front of us and wanted to take advantage of it."
Now Besser is enjoying a small victory. Because of the Hannah brothers' work with Ben Schumacher, there's a rec committee with "a good nucleus of people" attending meetings.
And something else is happening: Mount Carmel folks are talking — to one another. Most everyone in Mount Carmel hunts, so naturally, archery came up. Someone mentioned a nationally ranked archer who travels all the way to Lancaster to access an indoor range. That got people thinking about developing their own indoor range. A businessman offered space in his building — once home to the now-vanished JCPenney.
"The more they talked, the more it snowballed," Besser says. "We could do tournaments there, get the schools involved — there's a multitude of things that could come out of this."
Perhaps without even realizing, she says, "The Bucknell kids gave us the OK to try these things. We're not afraid to try things anymore," Besser says. "Those students, they might not think they made an impact, but they gave us our second wind. This is progress," she insists. "This town is not a lost cause. This town is worth fighting for."
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