Planning grants support researcher-community collaborations

Matthew G. Solovey
February 20, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute's Community-Engaged Research Core awarded three planning grants to faculty and community-based organization teams. These planning grants are laying the foundation for projects that affect a variety of communities. 

“We are delighted to support these collaborative community-faculty partnerships in developing research programs to address relevant community issues,” said Dr. Jennifer Kraschnewski, co-lead of the Community-Engaged Research Core. “By bringing together the real-world expertise from our outstanding community partners with the research expertise of our Penn State faculty, we are laying the groundwork for future solutions.”

The three funded projects exhibited a strongly defined researcher-and-community organization connection to address community-identified research questions. Two of the three projects started through the core's Better Together Community-Engaged Research Day, held in Harrisburg in June 2019. The day brought together Penn State researchers with Harrisburg community organization leaders to explore ways to address community issues through innovative programs and research projects. Planning grants support meetings to discover mutual interests, research question development, leader identification, literature reviews and pilot data collection. 

“Each of these awards exemplifies the spirit and intent of the Better Together event, which was designed collaboratively by community organization leaders and the Community-Engaged Research Core to bring health researchers and community leaders together to address community-identified health needs,” said Martha Wadsworth, core co-lead, a professor of psychology and Better Together event organizer. “We are thrilled that the event inspired so many new collaborations with great promise to improve lives in Dauphin County and beyond.” 

This year's Better Together event is May 20 at Harrisburg Area Community College, Midtown 2, 1500 N. 3rd St., Harrisburg. For more information, email

The three awarded projects are: 

'HIV in African American and Hispanic men'

Winnie Adebayo, assistant professor of nursing, is partnering with Alder Health Services to better understand how African American and Hispanic men who have sex with men approach HIV testing, treatment and disease management. Adebayo is collaborating with Brittany Wardecker, assistant professor of nursing.

Alder Health Services addresses the needs of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community in Harrisburg and ten surrounding counties. It provides services including primary care, behavioral healthcare and support services, including a food pantry, clothing, exercise and wellness and support groups.

“I was introduced to the CEO of Alder Health, Rosemary Browne, through my affiliation with Penn State’s Parents and Children Together initiative,” Adebayo said. “I was immediately drawn to Alder Health’s mission to improve the health of LGBT individuals. Rosemary Browne and her staff are so committed to serving this vulnerable community and my similar research interest made it easy to form a collaborative relationship.”

Adebayo and team are using the planning grant to continue to build the collaboration with Alder Health Services, to explore how open men who use Alder Health Services are to participating in a research study and to develop a potential survey for use in a study.  

“This planning grant is very important to further strengthen our partnership by aligning our needs and resources in preparation for a robust research study to address the current challenges in the HIV/AIDS disparities among the target population,” Rosemary Browne, president and CEO of Alder Health Services wrote in a letter of support. 

“Our project is particularly important given the significant disparities in HIV diagnoses and treatment outcomes among men who have sex with men,” Adebayo said. “While HIV diagnoses have decreased by 16 percent among whites in this group, it has remained stable among blacks and increased by 18 percent among Hispanics.”

'Social-emotional learning in schools'

James DiPerna and Leah Hunter are partnering with School City of Hammond in Indiana to better understand how the school maintained and expanded a universal social-emotional learning program that the researchers introduced last year. Self-awareness, self-control, building positive relationships and managing emotions are some of the skills that social-emotional learning develops. 

DiPerna is a professor of educational psychology, counseling, and special education, and Hunter is a project coordinator, Social Skills Improvement System-Classwide Intervention Program.

DiPerna introduced the universal program into first and second-grade classrooms in four states as part of a research trial testing the effectiveness of such a program without direction or assistance from researchers. This project is called Positive Engaged Achieving Kids, known as PEAK. 

DiPerna and Hunter have partnered with Gladys Ullstam, a district instructional coach at Harding Elementary School. 

“Our district staff developed positive relationships with the Penn State team through the PEAK project during the 2018-2019 school year,” Ullstam wrote in a letter of support. “I reached out to PEAK project staff after our positive experience this past school year and expressed interest in collaborating beyond the scope of the original project. This community-research partnership seems a perfect match to extend on the foundation we built together.”

DiPerna, Hunter and team are using the planning grant to work with the school district to determine questions of mutual interest, to conduct visits to the school district to understand its program better and to analyze data and provide results to the school district. 

“We are thrilled to be working with Gladys and the staff at Harding Elementary again this year,” Hunter said. “When they initially became involved with the PEAK project a year ago, their strong commitment to social-emotional learning was readily apparent. Our community partners are helping us to conduct research that is practical and relevant for schools, and we hope that our grant resources will inform social-emotional learning practice in Harding, and potentially at the larger district-level as well.”

'Community gardening in an urban setting'

Susan Veldheer, assistant professor of family and community medicine and public health sciences, is partnering with KING Community Center in Harrisburg to develop a gardening program for families in the Hall Manor neighborhood. The gardens will be incorporated into an existing summer program for girls age 6-12 and the curriculum will include cooking and nutrition components.

KING Community Center encourages the development of enrichment programs to promote positive family values and community alliances. By embracing racial, social, religious and cultural diversity, it works to transform its neighborhood’s moral compass toward success, growth and achievement. Lavette Paige is the founder and CEO of the center.

“I met Lavette at Community-Engaged Research Day and we discussed how difficult it is to access fresh fruits and vegetables in some parts of Harrisburg, especially for those without transportation,” Veldheer said. “We are planning to develop a gardening, cooking and nutrition education program that can be integrated into the girls’ summer program and be shared with their families. Our goal is to use hands-on experiences to demonstrate how to grow food in an urban setting and how to prepare our garden bounty in tasty and nutritious ways.”

Veldheer and team are using the planning grant to install raised garden beds, develop a gardening curriculum for the KING Community Center’s Girls’ Summer Enrichment Program, and test the feasibility and acceptance of the curriculum with both the girls and their caregivers.

Paige said she also hopes a cookbook will be created from the project.

“This project is essential to teach the community about the importance of having fresh fruits and vegetables available to every household regardless of what neighborhood or household you are from,” Paige said. “It also teaches our students and parents the healthy, as well as financial, benefits of having your own vegetable garden.

Last Updated February 21, 2020