Celebrating the 28-year career of prevention educator Elaine Berrena

"My job was always a joy, even with the challenges."

Shown here at Berrena's retirement party (l-r): Karen Bierman, Elaine Berrena and Janet Welsh. Credit: Sara Brennen/Penn State / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- When prevention research coordinator Elaine Berrena reflects on her 28-year Penn State career, she thinks of other people first.

“I’ve made lifelong friends all over the world,” she said. “It’s amazing to think of how many people I’ve worked with to develop their skills.”

Berrena started in 1991 as the education coordinator for the Fast Track Project in Tyrone, Pennsylvania, where she coached teachers, led friendship groups and tutored students in reading -- all with the goal of helping at-risk students to flourish.

“I still hear from some of the kids I worked with in kindergarten through 10th grade, who are now in their 30s,” she said.

In 2001, she became a prevention coordinator for the PROSPER program, with duties including providing training and technical assistance on delivering evidence-based programs across Pennsylvania. Later, she co-developed the Mindfulness-enhanced Strengthening Families Program with colleagues from the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center (PRC).

Mark Greenberg, the PRC’s founding director, lauded her original work on developing new interventions on mindfulness for parents of teens.

“Elaine is such a fantastic colleague, and she has the ability to help translate ideas so that parents and teens could easily grasp them. Her open and compassionate presence made it comfortable for parents and professionals to take up new ideas and new ways of being.”

She served as research coordinator for Head Start REDI from 2003-08, and from 2013-16, provided support for PATHS and friendship groups for Barnardo’s, the oldest and largest children’s charity in the United Kingdom.

In recent years, her focus turned toward promoting mindfulness and compassion, developing curricula and teaching a variety of groups, including school-age children, teachers and staff in the Pennsylvania juvenile justice system.

Elaine Berrena, prevention educator with the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center, coached health educators as they implemented the Learning to Breathe mindfulness program for adolescents in the Central Dauphin School District in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. She served as the project’s curriculum technical advisor. Credit:

She also co-taught Penn State undergraduates “The Art and of Science of Human Flourishing,” and “Mindfulness Tools for Helping Professionals,” and assisted this May with the Human Flourishing Summer Teaching Institute.

An enduring legacy

Janet Welsh, PRC associate research professor, attested to Berrena’s impact as a mentor. “When I was a graduate student, Elaine was my role model. She helped me learn to work with kids, parents and teachers by being calm, patient and supportive. She's very good at de-escalating situations and I learned a lot by watching her do that."

“Besides being a great model, she had a large influence on me as a researcher,” added PRC senior research associate Sarah Chilenksi.  “One of the first stories she told me was about how it’s important to keep detailed records, because researchers may ask you to fill in more details regarding a particular interaction with kids during a program years after it has occurred. In the present, it's not always easy to know what is important versus what is not important, so documentation of all of those details is necessary. In some ways, she helped me learn to ‘expect the unexpected’ when it comes to data and research.”

“Many of the college students and young professionals I’ve worked with are really flourishing in the field of prevention,” Berrena said, while acknowledging her own mentors, Mark Greenberg and Karen Bierman, Evan Pugh University Professor and director of the Penn State Child Study Center.

Said Bierman, "Elaine is a natural helper with deep empathy for her fellow human beings and a passion for supporting vulnerable children and their families. I’ve been incredibly lucky to know her and work with her for the past two decades."

While she retired from her full-time position with the PRC as of July 1, she will continue helping college students, by co-teaching “The Art and Science of Human Flourishing” this fall at University Park.

When asked to sum up her career, she said, “So much of it was based upon relationships. My job was always a joy, even with the challenges.”

Last Updated June 08, 2021