And when this 1994 BU graduate makes a commitment, she doesn’t mess around — especially when that commitment is to help prevent child sexual abuse.
Conley is quick to credit her never-say-never attitude to the people around her, including her parents, husband, 9-year-old son, and everyone at Bloomsburg who influenced and inspired her. “I have been surrounded or made sure I have surrounded myself with good people,” Conley says. “I have consciously made decisions about working for people who I admire and respect and believe can make a difference.”
A member of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) Board of Governors and former BU Trustee, Conley has made a notable difference in each of her somewhat disparate endeavors. She has gone from politics to nonprofit administrator to the self-proclaimed “logistics queen” for a pilot project within PASSHE to prevent child sexual abuse in a career path she believes has been shaped more by accident than design.
“I never thought I’d go into politics,” Conley says. Yet following graduation, she dove into Pennsylvania politics, working as a fundraising and political consultant. This first phase of her work life had its roots in her years at Bloomsburg.
Conley recalls being asked to fill a vacant post in student government that eventually led her to run as part of a Greek slate in her senior year. “To be a college student and treated as part of (interim BU President) Dr. Curtis English’s team made a big impression,” Conley says. “And my Tri-Sig sisters were an extraordinary group of women. They were great role models.”
While she has a long list of accomplishments and good memories of her political work, in 2009 Conley decided to make a change. She was hired as director of the Children’s Miracle Network at Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital, which raises funds to purchase life-saving equipment and support vital patient programs, services and pediatric research at the hospital.
Three years later, another opportunity to make a difference presented itself when the family of legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, including his widow, Sue, tapped her to run their new foundation. “The Children’s Miracle Network provided a transition from years of politics to understanding the nonprofit setting,” Conley says. “That background was critical. The Paternos needed someone with a very diverse skill set.”
After the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal at Penn State, the Paternos commissioned their own report. “Out of that report, Sue Paterno realized that ‘nice guy’ offenders like Sandusky groom the community and their victims,” Conley says. “And what was needed was education, awareness and healing.”
The Massachusetts-based Stop It Now! program, which works to prevent child sexual abuse, was called in to adapt its training modules for higher education. Conley has used her connections at BU and within PASSHE to carry this project through from concept to implementation.
“Marie’s perspective is critical,” says Deb Donovan Rice, executive director of Stop It Now! “She brings the overview and passion that has helped us contextualize what we do. It’s been invaluable to have her on the ground. She understands the System and the needs.”
“The numbers speak for themselves,” Conley says. “As many as 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 7 boys will be a victim of child sexual victimization before age 18. That is something you can’t ignore.”
She adds: “To know that I have the ability, through the work of Sue Paterno, to help make even a small dent … I am all-in.”
“Could you please mention the Cushing’s Disease?” Conley asks during our interview. “If one person sees this and doesn’t have to go through three or four years of being undiagnosed, that would be great.”
As with so much in her life, Conley is facing her newest — and perhaps most formidable — challenge head-on.
In 2012, Conley was diagnosed with Cushing’s Disease, a rare endocrine disorder. The diagnosis came after two years of seemingly unrelated symptoms, including bronchitis, pneumonia, bone brittleness, a hump on her back, and an unexplained weight gain of 70 pounds in a little over a year.
She underwent a six-hour brain surgery, which was deemed medically unsuccessful and created a permanent condition called diabetes insipidus; had her adrenal glands removed; and made more than a dozen visits to the emergency room since October 2012.
“I am dedicating myself to raising awareness of this horrible disease and creating materials that will help educate the family and friends of those afflicted by it,” Conley says. “Now with a son, with my chronic disease, my work with the Paternos … I do what I can.” •
Willie Colón is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.
Stop It Now!
It’s a difficult topic often relegated to whispered conversations — or worse, enveloped in silence. But a new pilot program in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education is bringing child sexual victimization out of the margins, and Bloomsburg is helping to lead the way.
This October, Bloomsburg will host the third of four two-day training sessions for selected staff within PASSHE organized by Stop It Now!, one of the country’s leading organizations that works to prevent child sexual abuse by educating adults. The trainings include basic facts about child sexual abuse, exercises that help participants understand how they can prevent abuse, and the creation of action plans that are specific to each campus. The trainings could be a model for similar work at colleges across the nation.
“We provide each person with the facts and the tools that empower them to know what to look for,” says Marie Conley ’94, who helped bring the Stop It Now! training to PASSHE through Sue Paterno, who is funding the $234,000 pilot program. “They take what they learn back to their offices but more importantly to the schools and churches where they volunteer, the sports fields where they assist coaches, and in their everyday lives.”
“We don’t do sad stories,” explains Deb Donovan Rice, executive director of Stop It Now! “One of our tenets is to have people feel hopeful. We want people to feel that no matter how small an action, it can make a difference.”
At Bloomsburg, the McDowell Institute for Teacher Excellence in Positive Behavior Support will take the lead with work around the issue. “We want to be a resource for everyone on campus,” says Elizabeth Mauch, dean of the College of Education. “We’re creating a team of people who can talk to one another and assist with the training of other people to recognize what this is.” •