Students For Justice service project

Committed To Changing The Narrative

An end of semester service project turns into a larger stepping stone to further relations between the underserved and local law enforcement, giving students the chance to make a positive difference in their community.

By: Rachel Olszewski

Overcoming addiction is a personal struggle, one that administration of justice student Jesse Ragugini knows all too well.

“My father was a recovering addict, so I know firsthand what it’s like to live with a family member going through the hardship of addiction,” states Ragugini. “Ever since I was younger I wanted to find my place in this world. I never wanted a job where I would sit in front of a computer screen all day from nine to five. I wanted to work in a career that would help others, not just benefit me. My past with my father helped me decide that I wanted to go into criminal justice.”

It was this experience that helped Ragugini, along with the other officers and members of the Students For Justice (SFJ) club, create and execute a successful service project to culminate the fall 2016 semester.

Students For Justice loading packages

Students For Justice club members load holiday care packages to transport to the Wilkes-Barre Police Station

Image: Penn State

“Our students put together care packages to include groceries, family activities, and children’s toys,” explains administration of justice professor Rick Dierenfeldt. “They then coordinated with local law enforcement agencies from the Wyoming Valley to help them deliver the packages to recovering heroin users and their families. In total, we were able to reach 27 families and 55 children with the help of a dozen agencies.”

Dierenfeldt feels very powerfully about the idea of community oriented policing, which focuses on collaboration between police, service agencies, and disaffected community residents to improve quality of life, and has passed this concept on to his students.

“Success of overcoming addiction is increasingly likely with strong community support,” says Dierenfeldt. “Through projects like this we are not only building bridges between this program, our campus, criminal justice professionals, and the community but we’re facilitating the development of meaningful, positive relationships between police and the communities they serve.  We must acknowledge the likelihood that any interactions between these families and the criminal justice system have revolved around negative contacts. Service projects like this change that narrative and demonstrate our commitment to community outreach.”

“While we’ll never really know how much of a difference this project has made, if it can make even just a few kids grow up with a better attitude towards police, I’d consider it successful,” states Matthew Caines, SFJ president.

Vice president, Katelyn Loscig seconds Caines’ thoughts, “To me, this community service project shows not only what we can do as students but the importance of the Penn State Wilkes-Barre campus to the community. Seeing the happy looks on the families’ faces and knowing that we made that happen was incredible.”

Police officers from agencies involved had similar outlooks to the students’ sentiments.

“This was an awesome idea,” Hazleton police officer Brett Green said. “These are not bad people, but they had a bad habit.”

Alan Gribble of the Wilkes-Barre police department agreed, “I looked forward to going to these homes for all the right reasons.”

Students For Justice club

2016-2017 Students For Justice Club

Image: Penn State

Penn State Wilkes-Barre’s Regional Chief of Police Lisa DeLaurentis felt very strongly about participating in the service project, “I’m local to the greater Wyoming Valley so of course it was important to me to see the community served by our students but more important than that, the SFJ club – these students, they are my jurisdiction and I wanted to make sure I could do everything in my power to support them in their tremendous efforts.”

DeLaurentis was not the only staff member on hand for the service project. Chancellor Charles Davis and Director of Academic Affairs Albert Lozano-Nieto also attended.

“This is a prime example of the University’s All In initiative, which focuses on a commitment to diversity and inclusion” explains Davis. “We, as a campus, are ‘all in’ for our local community.”

Lozano-Nieto agrees, “One of my favorite points in the day came when the students and officers came back following their deliveries. To see their eyes light up as they spoke about their experiences and showed off the selfies they took, it was a truly special feeling.”

SFJ media relations officer Daniel Deleo had a post-graduate view on the project, “I think relations with the public are of utmost importance when it comes to law enforcement. Many people today have a negative view of the police and law enforcement in general. The stronger relationships we can build now, the easier it will be for us to do the same once we are finally in the field ourselves.”

Dierenfeldt echos Deleo’s thoughts, “This was an excellent opportunity for our students to engage in service learning. As many of our SFJ students will be in the field within a few short months, I cannot overstate how important it is that they have organized and carried out such a project.”

“What the club ultimately wanted from this event is a continuation in the years to come,” says SFJ officer Ingrid Ritchie.

Penn State Wilkes-Barre clubs and organizations participate in service learning projects each semester. Planning for a spring 2017 SFJ service project along with next year’s holiday package delivery have already begun.