About one year ago, the Penn State community was forced to pay attention to a very prevalent crime that exists in more places than we’d ever like to admit: child sexual abuse. Many of us have heard the numbers, but it’s difficult for those numbers to truly hit home until they have a face. For Penn Staters everywhere, that face soon became the crooked smile of Jerry Sandusky.
As the tragedy unfolded, all many of us could do was watch and listen to the horror. As the number of victims increased, as the grand jury presentment was read, it was surreal to think that this could happen in a place that many of us in the Penn State community always held so dear.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, State College has always felt like a town where you could leave your front door unlocked and wave to your neighbor before heading out for the day. It was Americana personified, a small bucolic town that could have fit in many Norman Rockwell paintings.
So, as many of us in the Penn State community have asked, how could it happen here, where many of us would happily visit on weekends and walk directly back into our pasts?
Sadly, this is exactly where such horrible crimes could happen, because they can happen anywhere.
Instead of trying to understand what occurred and how it could happen, the focus quickly turned instead to finding someone to blame. Everyone seemed so anxious to prove that they were horrified and disgusted — as if any other reaction was possible. The narrative quickly focused on who knew about it, who was to blame, and how to penalize them. The narrative quickly moved away from where the focus should have been all along: helping the victims.
With that in mind, our community rallied together behind the Proud to be a Penn Stater campaign for RAINN (Rape Abuse Incest National Network). This noble undertaking by a few Penn State graduates was able to raise over $500,000. Our Metro Washington DC Chapter of the Penn State Alumni Association joined with other alumni chapters and groups around the country throwing a national RAINN fundraiser in January 2012, and we couldn’t have been prouder of the way our community was able to organize. We have happily continued our support throughout the year, and plan to hold another RAINN fundraiser in 2013. This is a charity that we wished we’d supported before, but sadly it took this scandal for us to give RAINN the attention it deserved.
It has admittedly been a very long year for friends of Penn State. With the NCAA sanctions and the passing away of beloved coach Joe Paterno, it seems as though Penn State has been a constant subject in the bad news cycle. Sadly, again the attention has turned away from victims everywhere.
As life goes on, our chapter has also focused on other endeavors such as raising money for THON, the largest student-run philanthropy in the country. THON was able to raise over $10M for pediatric cancer research last year alone. We also fundraise for our annual scholarship fund for incoming Penn State freshmen, awarding over $20,000 last year.
While our interests are many, we will never forget the debt of gratitude that we owe RAINN for the people that they help every day, and for raising awareness for such an important cause.
If there is a silver lining to all of this, it’s that RAINN reports that usage of their National Assault Online Hotline has increased 47% since the Sandusky story first broke, as thousands of survivors have come forward for the first time. So more people are hopefully closer to finding peace.
Our university’s reputation may be tarnished in the public eye right now by this scandal, but most Penn Staters are good people who were never a part of anything that happened. This is exactly why we will emerge from this stronger than ever before. Almost every cloudy day, you can still see the sun if you look hard enough. Just as RAINN helps the victims come back into the light, so too will Penn State emerge and help lead the way to prevent such tragedies from occurring again.
Our chapter will continue to support RAINN in its endeavors in the future and hope we can learn from our past to improve the future. We hope that you consider supporting them as well.
David Fites is president of the Metro Washington Chapter of the Penn State Alumni Association.