State College Highlands residents, fraternities partner in Neighbor to Neighbor program

jvanderk@centredaily.comSeptember 28, 2013 

— One day last year, some of Dave and Elaine Schuckers’ neighbors complained about noise they thought was coming from a nearby fraternity house, but the couple knew that wasn’t the case.

Because the Schuckerses partner with Alpha Kappa Lambda through the Highlands’ Neighbor to Neighbor program, they knew it was a campus event from which a west wind carried loud music to Waring Avenue.

“We’re not very close, but close enough that we can hear music,” Elaine Schuckers said. “It enabled us right away ... to be able to tell them, you know what, it isn’t the fraternity, it’s happening on campus.”

Neighbor to Neighbor started in 2010 with five Highlands households and five fraternities. The informal program encourages positive interactions between the families and frat brothers, helping them get to know each other and create a better connection between students and full-time residents.

The Highlands is roughly bordered by South Atherton Street, Beaver Avenue, University Drive and Easterly Parkway, and is home to 44 fraternity houses. This year, 23 households are participating in the program and working with fraternities.

“It’s such a loosely organized thing that I was afraid it might die on the vine, but it didn’t,” organizer Peg Hambrick said.

A meeting among residents and fraternities on issues of mutual interest in fall 2010 gave Hambrick the idea. Until that time, she’d never set foot in a frat house.

“Most of these students didn’t really know much about our neighborhood and really didn’t get a chance to talk to residents,” she said. “When I went home, I thought we could start pairing families, and the fraternities really got on board.”

The university wasn’t directly involved in the program at first, but Roy Baker, director of Penn State Fraternity and Sorority Life, said that officials “stuck our nose in it” to collaborate with Hambrick and other residents.

“We love meeting these families,” he said. “They know they can pick up the phone and call us if they have a question.

“Now we’re all a person to each other.”

And that’s the key to the program, they said, putting names to faces, learning about each other and understanding that the entire neighborhood is a community, not a situation of residents versus students.

Elaine Schuckers said it’s important for the students to know they’re part of a larger family.

“Whoever was here this summer, we invited them down for dinner, and it struck me as pretty special when they turned around as they were leaving and said, ‘If you ever need anything, call us, because that’s what we’re here for,’ ” she said. “I think the benefit is that they understand that they’re not in isolation. They’re not just plopped down, and they can do anything they want.”

Dave Schuckers added that he’s learned the fraternity men are nice people.

“Contrary to some opinions, these are very bright, articulate, pleasant, concerned citizens of our neighborhood,” he said. “There’s a sense of satisfaction in knowing them.”

Those feelings, an “essence of community,” as Hambrick puts it, are what she hoped would come from the program. While she initially envisioned a lot of activities, such as potlucks and volleyball games, everyone’s busy schedules don’t make that practical.

“However, the essence of the program is that we want to ‘be there’ for each other in time of need,” she said.

And that includes the full-time residents. Hambrick said she only knew about a half-dozen of the 23 resident volunteers before the program started.

She and her husband are paired with Sigma Phi Epsilon, and attended a parent/brother dinner at the house last year.

“When we introduced ourselves to the parents and said that we were the neighbors, most of them were shocked that we wanted to be neighborly with their sons,” she said. “We were able to convey that sometimes it’s a challenge, but it’s a really good opportunity to get to know the students and vice versa.”

And those involved think the 3-year-old program has made a difference. Hambrick said that one fraternity had a loud party and ended up writing an apology letter to its family. One family helped a brother with career advice. Some families drop off cookies.

The neighbors can have as much or as little interaction as they wish.

Hambrick communicates most often by email, after learning that’s the best way to reach the students, and she now takes photographs of the families so the fraternity brothers will know them by sight, because they won’t see each other all the time.

Residents said anecdotal evidence indicates student behavior is better. Because Neighbor to Neighbor isn’t a borough program, staff don’t have data that tracks success, but Police Chief Tom King said that his department and the borough support such efforts.

“It is the type of community engagement that we encourage, where citizens take responsibility for their own community,” King said. “Neighbor to Neighbor represents a grass-roots program that is connecting student and nonstudent residents in a positive relationship.”

Since 2006, the borough has produced the F8 Report, which evaluates and addresses behavior in several borough neighborhoods during the fall semester. In the Highlands, total offenses increased from 2010 to 2011, but decreased again from 2011 to 2012. The latter decrease was nearly 30 percent in Highlands North and nearly 20 percent in Highlands South.

King said it’s too early to draw conclusions this year, but that preliminary data show noise is up this year while other data areas continue to trend down.

“It is a way to provide communication so we can understand each other more,” Hambrick said. “It’s just better to live here.”

Jessica VanderKolk can be reached at 235-3910. Follow her on Twitter @jVanReporter.

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