The annual Relay for Life and Empty Bowls Banquet. The Scranton Commons Food Recovery Program that packages leftovers destined for the Bloomsburg Food Cupboard. The thousands of hours students, staff and faculty donated to help with the clean-up effort after the devastating flood of 2011.
There’s no doubt about it: Bloomsburg University is a giving place. Students, staff and faculty have a deep commitment to community and volunteer service.
“When you go through the Warren Student Services Center, there’s always somebody there raising funds,” notes Tim Pelton ’03M, BU’s civic engagement coordinator. “There are a million things like that going on.”
All this civic-minded activity has not gone unnoticed. Bloomsburg’s commitment to volunteering, service learning and civic engagement has been honored with the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll designation, as well as the Carnegie Community Engagement Classification, which requires a particularly rigorous application process.
“They want to know: How much does this stuff matter in the organization? Is it part of the DNA?” Pelton says.
For many, that spirit of giving continues long after their diplomas have been framed and hung — as is the case for four alumni who prioritize making a difference in other people’s lives. Why? It’s in their DNA.
Five years ago, Pamela Mitchell Ulicny ’91/’99M went global with her volunteer activities.
Ulicny is a life science, biology and environmental science teacher at Tri-Valley Junior Senior High School in Hegins. She loves her job, and she makes time for community activities including her church, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and the local watershed association.
In summer 2011, she traveled to South Africa as part of a program funded by the Toyota International Teacher Program and the Institute of International Education. At one point, the group traveled to Soweto, and Ulicny says the extreme poverty she witnessed “shook me to the core. I was in disbelief as to how people managed to make a living. I was very moved.”
During the trip, Ulicny met Mark Gamble of the South African nonprofit Educo Africa, a youth development organization. “He was inspirational,” Ulicny says. “Sometimes you feel like sitting down and crying. But here’s this man who has such a positive outlook. He has hope.”
The two stayed in touch and in fall 2012 Gamble came up with an idea that addresses both the fundamental energy and educational needs of impoverished South Africans: making low-cost, solar-powered lanterns out of simple glass jars.
With the help of Sundance Solar, a New Hampshire-based solar energy company, a do-it-yourself educational solar lantern kit was developed. Ulicny designed the curriculum at three instructional levels, and soon after some of her Tri-Valley students produced an instructional “how-to” video about assembling the lanterns. The kits have been a hit with students across the U.S. and internationally.
Mark Snyder, superintendent of the Tri-Valley School District, isn’t at all surprised by Ulicny’s focus on using this project as a learning opportunity for students. “She’s very committed to environmental issues, and she wants to share her love of science and nature with everyone,” he says.
But there is another side to the project. Last year, Ulicny received a grant from the Fund for Teachers to travel to South Africa again to help launch the business component of the project. Young South Africans are being taught the technology and benefits of photovoltaics while concurrently launching the sale of pay-as-you-go solar lanterns.
“My big dream is: Can one teacher create a change?” Ulicny says. “I know we can’t solve everything, but I feel I’ve made an impact.”
When he was in his mid-20s Greg Hedler ’02 helped care for a close friend with cancer during the last year-and-a-half of her life. “That was a life-shifting moment,” he says. “It was the catalyst for the next chapter of my life.”
A former Americorps volunteer, Hedler also worked as a counselor at a camp for HIV/AIDS infected and affected children, and ran a mentoring program for at-risk youth. “My time at Bloomsburg helped to cultivate this desire and passion to serve,” he says.
It was the experience of caring for his friend that set him down his current career path. As an oncology social worker, Hedler combines his love of working with children and his urge to help others with his educational and professional training. At Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), Hedler, a licensed clinical social worker, pulls together all those strands to provide emotional and therapeutic support to children with relapsed and refractory neuroblastoma, a rare form of childhood cancer, and their families.
He’s well equipped for the task. With a master’s in social work and trained in yoga and reiki healing, Hedler recently received training and certification in infant and pediatric massage from the Liddle Kidz Foundation, which provides touch therapy education and certification to help infants and children internationally. The connection with Liddle Kidz led to an opportunity earlier this year that he couldn’t pass up.
The foundation was sponsoring a 21-day outreach trip to the Philippines to provide hands-on pediatric massage and nurturing touch for infants and children in a variety of medical and care settings, including orphanages. It was another life-shifting moment.
“Working at CHOP is high-paced. On this trip I quickly recognized the beauty of being able to focus solely on one individual,” Hedler says. “I also have a whole other ‘language’ [massage] to offer parents that they can use with their children in times of crisis. It’s so powerful and empowering.”
One of Hedler’s favorite moments in the Philippines happened when he met a young boy who loved stickers at a center for children with cancer.
“His use of stickers enabled us to offer him nurturing touch and massage therapy as he covered my face a few times over,” Hedler says with a laugh. “It was remarkable to see him slowly get comfortable with me, which allowed us to do healing work together.”
“Greg approached the work we were doing in the Philippines very thoughtfully and professionally,” says Kerri Padgett, a licensed massage therapist and Hedler’s roommate during the trip. “He has a unique gift and approach on how to help people.”
For almost 20 years, Christie Van Horn Livengood ’97 put her accounting degree to the expected use at a series of firms before she took a break from the corporate world to raise a family and do seasonal tax preparation. But something was missing from her work life.
The Lancaster-based nonprofit provides weekend food and nutritional information to families who don’t have enough food when school lunch programs are not available to them. The weekly packs are distributed to 45 schools in 12 districts and include nutrition tips and a recipe plus three or four of the ingredients necessary to make that meal. Each month, families also receive fresh produce and milk, and staples like cereal and peanut butter.
As the distribution manager, Livengood is in charge of the core warehouse, which serves 26 sites and four school districts. She creates the recipes and nutrition tips, orders all the food items from the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, oversees the inventory, makes sure that all materials are delivered, and deploys the hundreds of volunteers who package and deliver the packs. All this on a part-time, 20-hour-a-week schedule.
“I’m amazed at her abilities, to put all these moving parts together every week,” says Lori Roscoe, the community engagement manager at Power Packs. “She could be making a whole lot more money at a job that’s a whole lot easier.”
Livengood took a pay cut to work for Power Packs, but she has no regrets, and notes that her two children and husband, Matt ’97, a nurse practitioner, have been extremely supportive of her career change. “If you don’t love your job,” she adds, “it doesn’t matter how much money you make.”
Randy Welsch ’93M has deep, long-standing ties to the nonprofit world, having served on numerous boards and helped with leadership development efforts in Africa. From his experience in the developing world, he noticed how poorly many groups fared at solving a critical problem: providing clean, affordable and sustainable drinking water to underserved communities.
So in 2012, Welsch co-founded Jibu (Swahili for “Solution”) with his son, Galen, who had just finished serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. “We were both interested in finding business solutions to poverty,” Welsch says.
Jibu is a hybrid enterprise, a for-profit business organized as an “L3C” that must prioritize its charitable mission alongside profit-making. Its mission: to provide safe drinking water to poor urban areas of Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya using a franchise model.
Approved franchisees invest a start-up licensing fee. Jibu then provides a water filtration system, bottles, build-out of their store, operating manuals, marketing and branding, continuous training and technical assistance, and any other support they need to run a successful water purification business. Jibu went from two franchises in 2015 to more than two dozen now, with hundreds more coming on line in the next year or so.
Welsch’s path to creating Jibu has been an interesting one, to say the least. He was pastoring a church in Lewisburg when he decided to enroll in evening classes at Bloomsburg to earn his Master’s in Instructional Technology. Eventually, he ended up in Colorado Springs, Colo., with a successful software company that he sold in 2010. At that point, Welsch says, he felt the urge to integrate the nonprofit and business sides of his brain.
“When Randy talked to me about Jibu, I thought it was a great idea,” says Jeff Cooper, who serves on Jibu’s board. “I had cofounded a tech incubator, so I was familiar with the notion of applying incubation principles. That was a core of Randy’s idea.”
Last year, Cooper took his first trip to East Africa, where he got to see Jibu in action. “Jibu is walking its talk, doing what it said it would do — helping to solve the water crisis in small ways and helping to educate people about entrepreneurship and small business,” he says.
For Welsch, Jibu is also a means to another end. “My passion is in finding a path for Western capital to be co-invested in emerging markets with local peers who can create business that grow through organic profit,” he says.
With Jibu, he’s taking an important step toward that ambitious goal. •
Willie Colón is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.