Members of the PACT Community Advisory Board held their first virtual monthly meeting in April 2020.
Published on: Jun 15, 2020

Parents and Children Together (PACT) was formed in 2007 as a partnership between Penn State researchers and people who live in the greater Harrisburg community. The mission of PACT is ultimately to enhance the lives of children, youth and families of racially, culturally and economically diverse backgrounds.

Much of PACT’s work involves face-to-face interaction for data collection, meetings and more. However, the COVID-19 pandemic forced its members to rethink how they would continue to make an impact — especially since so many residents in the greater Harrisburg area have been disproportionately negatively affected by the pandemic.

“We did not let COVID-19 stop us,” said PACT director Dawn Witherspoon, McCourtney Family Early Career Professor in Psychology. “What makes PACT unique is that we have a community advisory board (CAB) made up of stakeholders in the greater Harrisburg region. We meet bi-monthly, so rather than cancel our regular in-person meeting in April, we communed via Zoom. We used the time as a supportive community space to share resources and announcements and to connect despite social and physical distancing.”

The PACT CAB has 39 members, including individual community members as well as representatives from local educational institutions, social service agencies, health agencies, daycare facilities and other community organizations.

“CAB members have an equal voice with Penn State investigators in the crafting, refining, implementing and disseminating of research projects,” Witherspoon said. “Our work is bi-directional, and the CAB helps shape our research projects. We give back by sharing our findings and conducting family workshops, teacher training, and community events.”

“Since the beginning, PACT has always been about building trust,” said Carmen Henry-Harris, PACT’s community engagement coordinator. Henry-Harris’s office is in Harrisburg; she grew up in the area and sits on several community boards. In her role, she works with community partners to change attitudes about research.

“We want people of color and people from different cultures to know that they have a voice, that they are not merely treated like subjects,” explained Henry-Harris. “We help reduce the stigma surrounding research, and we always give back to the community.”

The Reverend Doctor LaVette Paige, chief executive officer of the Martin Luther King Community Development Center, has been on the PACT community advisory board since the beginning. The King Center encourages the development of enrichment programs that promote positive family values and community alliances. Paige joined the CAB because she felt a meaningful partnership between Penn State and people of greater Harrisburg needed to include “leaders who understand the community and are not afraid to ask the tough questions.”

“We [members of the CAB] make sure people in the community know what the studies are about and know that they won’t be taken advantage of,” Paige said.

Paige works closely with PACT and often serves as a co-investigator on research projects. One such project, “Parent Regulation, Engagement, Stress, and Health” (PRESH), seeks to support parents who have young, hard-to-manage children. Also with the input of the CAB and the Penn State investigators, Paige is making plans for the future, including the King Center’s annual summer enrichment program for girls, which had to be canceled due to the pandemic.

Other CAB organizations are finding creative ways to continue to meet the needs of their audiences while also partnering with PACT for information and support. For example, to build community and increase physical activity, Black Girl Health, led by Porcha Johnson, is scheduling a virtual 5k walk/run. Latino Connection, led by George Fernandez, is sponsoring webinars to address how COVID-19 is impacting communities of color. Several PACT investigators will serve as presenters.

“We want people to know that we won’t let the pandemic or any other external factor dampen our commitment to our mission,” concluded Witherspoon. “We are committed to elevating the voices of our community partners and using our experience and collective research to help advance and promote positive development and well-being for children and families in the greater Harrisburg area.”

Part of the Child Study Center (CSC) in Penn State’s College of the Liberal Arts, PACT is a multi-disciplinary initiative funded by CSC, the Social Science Research Institute, the College of Health and Human Development, the Department of Psychology, and the Department of Human Development and Family Studies.