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Service coming from the heart can touch a life for an hour or a day – but when caring is powered by data and analytics, it can transform entire communities.

That’s the thinking behind a multi-partner initiative that engages the academic prowess of four institutions of higher learning with partner agencies already engaged in service from the heart.

The program, dubbed Colleges Building Community, brings Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine (GCSOM) together with Keystone College, Lackawanna College and University of the Sciences in Philadelphia (USciences) to design “living case studies” that place students at the center of data-driven service projects.

The first such project will take place on Thursday, Aug. 23 at GCSOM. On that day, more than 220 students from the four institutions will assemble 10,000 meals on behalf of Scranton nonprofit, Here For A Reason, which will then deliver them to students at three Scranton School District elementary schools, where as many as 85 percent of the students live at or near poverty level. Educational activities begin at noon with the actual packaging event commencing at 2 p.m.

“Every year at this time, the Scranton area experiences a huge influx of young people pursuing higher education – that’s also a huge influx of intellectual curiosity, idealism and energy. Our idea is to seize the great opportunity teaching provides us to apply science and academic rigor to things that might be considered ‘service projects’ in a way that will transform our communities,” said Scott Koerwer, Ed.D., GCSOM vice dean for graduate studies and vice president of strategy, planning and communication. “In effect, our projects become living laboratories to test and measure the impact of things we do to address issues like food insecurity that are harming the health and wellbeing of our neighbors.”

Rather than duplicate efforts already underway, Colleges Building Community intends to work with partner agencies to bolster and expand existing services. For the Aug. 23 event, students will work with Here For A Reason.

“After packaging meals last fall, Here For A Reason began distributing those meals in the spring,” said Mike Hauser, director of Here For A Reason. “McNichols Plaza, Adams and Bancroft were the pilot schools for our program.  These were identified by the school district administration as schools where many families struggle with food insecurity.  Each family was offered the opportunity to opt in to our meal delivery. Distributed by the teachers on Fridays, right before the weekend, the packages we provide have everything necessary to make a healthy, nutritious meal for everyone in the student’s family.”

Here For A Reason found several local donors willing to fund the project, but the focus was necessarily on the immediate need to feed hungry people, not on measuring impact or using metrics to shape future projects. “Partnering with academia will provide the information we need to know how to serve the community more effectively going forward,” Hauser said.

“We are incredibly proud to be a founding partner of this service and research project.  Because the Scranton community – and in particular, our school district — suffer overwhelming consequences of poverty and all that comes with it – food insecurity and lack of proper nutrition – academics are often not first on the priority list.  Making this project a living case study will allow us to understand the opportunity for a profound impact to our community.  As members of the higher education community in our area, we have a responsibility to do something and not just talk about this problem, but take action together to help solve the issues of poverty in our region,” said Jill A. Murray, Ph.D., executive vice president and chief innovation officer, Lackawanna College.

Brian Ebersole, senior director, Geisinger’s Springboard Health, said it is important to get the community active and involved in addressing issues like food insecurity that affect everyone – regardless of socioeconomic status. “When all children are well fed and able to focus on academics, the entire community is better off – everyone wins,” he said. “That’s why an engaged community is so important. College and university students are an important part of that engagement. Mobilizing them to learn about and help solve pressing problems in our neighborhoods is a welcome development.”

“The project also teaches Keystone students, and all students involved, the importance of helping those in the community.” ~Fran Calpin, Keystone College senior director of college relations

“Service is an integral part of the USciences student experience as so many are preparing for careers in the healthcare and science fields, so we are proud to partner with Colleges Building Community to amplify the impact of our students,” said Patti Vanston, vice president for business development and enrollment management at USciences. “This partnership will help put service into perspective by taking our students out of the labs, classrooms, and clinics to redirect their analytical skill toward finding solutions to the real problems impacting families in our region every day. We look forward to the evolution of this partnership and the opportunity to support many more communities in the years to come.”

Dr. Koerwer agreed, saying that students are not just packaging meals. They will learn about the problem of food insecurity from multiple perspectives and the impact that delivering meals to families provides. Follow on projects are planned to continue to the experiment. Impact will be measured and tracked over time to create a “living case study” based upon Colleges Building Communities’ community interactions.

“Colleges Building Community brings together four outstanding educational institutions for a common purpose to help young people and their families enjoy much-needed healthy and nutritious meals they otherwise may not receive,” said Fran Calpin, Keystone College senior director of college relations. “The project also teaches Keystone students, and all students involved, the importance of helping those in the community. Finally, the data that’s collected and analyzed will help with future community projects. Keystone College is honored to be involved with Colleges Building Community.”