Couple establishes fund in Child Study Center to combat child sexual abuse

Susan Burlingame
December 17, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Moved by their concern for victims of child sexual abuse and their hope to prevent it in the future, Penn State alumnus Donn Rappaport and his wife, Susan, have made a $100,000 commitment to create the Donn and Susan Rappaport Child Study Center Fund. The fund is intended to help the Penn State Child Study Center (CSC) identify factors that lead to child sexual abuse, as well as to lay the foundation for exploring strategies and practices for mitigating child sexual abuse risk.

The CSC is an interdisciplinary research center housed in the College of the Liberal Arts. It supports six interdisciplinary research initiatives, 54 major externally funded research projects, two federally funded graduate training programs, and a professional training institute, all of which share a mission of harnessing the power of developmental science to improve children’s lives.

Donn Rappaport said the couple was motivated to direct their gift in this way in large part because of the traumatic impact the criminal behavior of Jerry Sandusky — the former Penn State assistant football coach who was convicted of child sexual abuse in 2012 — had on the entire Penn State community.

“We thought we’d like to help Penn State turn something good out of something that was truly terrible,” he said.

“I’m not a Penn State alum, but I certainly was aware of how pervasive and devastating the whole situation was,” Susan Rappaport added. “The idea that we could play a role in helping the Child Study Center figure out ways to spare potential victims of child abuse was intriguing.” 

Parents of six and grandparents of two, the Rappaports said they decided earlier this year to make a philanthropic gift to Penn State. A conversation with CSC Director Karen Bierman, Evan Pugh Professor and professor of psychology and human development and family studies, and Jennie Noll, professor of human development and family studies and director of the Child Maltreatment Solutions Network, helped them crystallize the focus of their gift.

“We were very impressed with the work of the center and realized there is no better place than Penn State to do something to keep kids out of jeopardy,” said Donn.

The couple requested that their fund be directed toward studying the victims rather than the perpetrators of child abuse.

“What, if anything, makes one child more susceptible to becoming a victim than another?” asked Donn, noting that most research focuses on the predators rather than the children. “We wondered if there are certain characteristics of a child or certain environments or other situations that lead to a higher incidence of victimization. For example, what if we find out that children with no siblings are more likely to be victims than children from large families? Or are introverted children more susceptible than extroverts? Are there certain types of activities, such as participation in religious retreats, that are inadvertently problematic?  If we can answer those questions, we might then be in a better position to develop strategies to protect our kids. Our hope is that this research would also help parents understand risk factors and develop prevention strategies as well.”

Donn, who earned his bachelor’s degree in general arts and science in 1972, said he initially chose Penn State with the hopes of playing baseball there.

“It was a tough discovery to learn I wasn’t good enough to play college-level ball, but my disappointment wasn’t nearly as devastating as it might have been because my time at Penn State was filled with so many other adventures — scholastic and otherwise. I loved every single day I spent in State College.”

Touting the value of liberal arts, Donn said he believes college prepares one for both a career and for life. He is the chairman of the board of directors of Adstra, a Princeton-based data development company he founded in 1978. The company develops, builds, and manages customer and prospecting data bases, as well as provides a wide range of innovative data solutions, for major companies around the country.

“My liberal arts degree has been immensely valuable to my business career,” he said.  For the past 40 years, Adstra (formerly ALC) played a leading role as a ground-breaking pioneer in the emerging data industry.

“Dr. Noll and I are very excited about the focus and mission of the Donn and Susan Rappaport Child Study Center Fund,” said Karen Bierman. “This support will increase our capacity here at Penn State to move forward with innovations and research focused on preventing child sexual abuse. The funded activities will benefit our school and community partners, and beyond that, contribute to the national dialogue on best practices in sexual abuse prevention.”

“Our hope is that Penn State will become a leader in this field — that the University will shine some light on how we can reduce the occurrence of child abuse,” said Donn. “We know our gift is not enough to truly solve the problem, but we do think it should be enough to kindle a flame.  We are hoping it turns out to be the first step in positively affecting the lifelong health and well-being of future generations.” 

The Donn and Susan Rappaport Child Study Center Fund helps to advance "A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence," a focused campaign that seeks to elevate Penn State’s position as a leading public university in a world defined by rapid change and global connections. With support from devoted benefactors who believe in Penn State and its mission, “A Greater Penn State” seeks to fulfill the three key imperatives of a 21st-century public university: keeping the doors to higher education open to hardworking students regardless of financial well-being; creating transformative experiences that go beyond the classroom; and impacting the world by serving communities and fueling discovery, innovation, and entrepreneurship. To learn more about “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” visit greaterpennstate.psu.edu.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated December 18, 2020