Information Sciences and Technology

Outside of IST: Faculty and staff making a difference

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — This is the third segment in a series of stories that highlights how College of Information Sciences and Technology faculty and staff are making an impact in the community and the world outside of the classroom.

A lifeline to help keep the community safe

Though Nick Giacobe is an assistant teaching professor in the College of Information Sciences and Technology, he has always had an interest in emergency service and in serving the community. He practiced first aid on fellow Boy Scouts as a child, directed traffic and monitored crowds as a Student Auxiliary Officer while a Penn State undergraduate, and became a trained first aid and CPR instructor as an adult.

Then 9/11 happened. 

“Looking at what was happening in New York City and the 343 firefighters that we lost, I had a lot of respect for them,” he said. 

On Sept. 12, 2001, Giacobe, deeply moved by the previous day’s events, went to his local American Red Cross chapter offering to do anything he could to help in the aftermath of the devastation. This drive to serve — combined with the emergency training he’d had — inspired him to do more to help citizens in his own community.

Outside the classroom, assistant teaching professor Nick Giacobe serves as a volunteer firefighter with the Pleasant Gap Fire Co. He is pictured here after responding to an early morning house fire in his local community. Credit: ProvidedAll Rights Reserved.

Soon after he received a flyer in the mail from his local volunteer fire department asking for financial contributions and manpower, he took action. He volunteered to drive ambulances for the Pleasant Gap Fire Co. on nights and weekends.  

Since then, he has taken additional training for firefighting essentials, HAZMAT, vehicle rescue, rope rescue and, most recently, fire police — making him a cross-trained responder in his community. 

“I wear my pager 24/7,” he said. “When it goes off, and when I’m available, I go.”

Of course, Giacobe has a life outside of the fire department, including time with his wife and three children and his day job teaching cybersecurity in the College of IST. 

“Sometimes I’m committed to other events or am in the middle of teaching class,” he said. “But when the pager goes off, the assumption is that if you are able, that you will come and help. Because imagine if you didn’t…”

With dwindling numbers in volunteer services, Giacobe reiterates just how crucial it is for everyday community members  to consider giving their time to help others — especially considering that the staffing for an initial response to a single family house fire is 24 firefighters.

“There are times when you are short-staffed, but you do what you need to do to get the job done,” he said.  

While Giacobe has answered his share of emergency calls (and yes, he has run into a burning building), he said that many of those calls are not complicated emergencies. But to the individuals involved, they are a big deal.  

“When a person is having their worst day, you could make all the difference in the world for them,” he said. “It’s taken a little bit of rethinking about what that means.” 

The big incidents stick with him the most. One occurred in 2006, when he was walking across the University Park campus and saw the University Ambulance Service arriving on scene at an incident. It turned out to be a student who was in cardiac arrest. Giacobe joined in to assist the EMS crew.

“I threw my things down in the grass and ‘went to work,'” he said. “That’s just what you do.” 

Giacobe said that he is grateful for the chance to help save this student. “He survived, and eventually got a heart transplant,” said Giacobe, who still keeps in touch with the man.

“While you’re in the moment, it’s really easy to emotionally separate yourself,” he said. “But when you reflect on it later, sometimes you can’t help but get emotional about the role you played in helping someone in their worst moment.” 

In 2017, Giacobe responded to another critical situation while volunteering with the Penn State Office of Emergency Management at a football game. This time, he and others at the emergency operations center heard the dispatch over the radio system and realized they were much closer to the scene than incoming first responders. Giacobe and Penn State emergency manager Brian Bittner were critical parts of the chain of survival, applying the automated external defibrillator (AED) to an individual suffering cardiac arrest. That man survived, thanks in part to the quick response of Giacobe and others who arrived on the scene.

He explained that not all rescues have happy endings, but he tries to put his training to work in those situations, too. 

“When it’s the worst-case scenario, it’s not just about the victim, but about all the people around them,” he said. “Sometimes I take a secondary role and have a calming discussion with family members to help them understand all the things that are happening. There are times when you just have to do the job.” 

Giacobe brings the first-hand experience he’s gained from his volunteer work into his classroom by talking to his security and risk analysis students about personal security related issues. 

“I’ll ask them, ‘What if there was a fire or sprinkler activation in your dorm room? How long does it take for the fire department to get there and turn the sprinkler off? How do you mitigate that risk to you and your personal stuff?” he said. “We talk about risk management and risk transference. You can get renters’ insurance for a dorm room or apartment, which won’t prevent a disaster from happening, but it could mitigate the financial impact.” 

While Giacobe’s service is deeply satisfying to him in a personal way, he also enjoys the camaraderie of the department and the firefighters’ commitment to helping their neighbors and keeping them safe.

“I trust [my fellow firefighters] with my life, and they do the same in return,” he said. “We’re all trying to do the job to impact things in a positive way.” 

“I feel like I’m giving the community what they need, even on a person’s worst possible day,” he added. “I feel good about that and about being a part of that process.”

In the last several years, Giacobe has noticed that there has been a sharp decline in the volunteer base of local emergency services companies.

“Maybe it’s because the training requirements are more stringent, or the time commitment is too high for some people. Maybe it’s just that most people don’t realize that with a little time and a little training, they could volunteer with their local emergency services agency,” he said. “I try to encourage those who are interested to volunteer.”

Providing a temporary home for children in need

Erin Duckworth has a strong maternal instinct. But life’s circumstances haven’t yet positioned her to have a child of her own. 

However, she still has the desire — and the opportunity — to be a mom.

Duckworth, administrative support assistant in the College of Information Sciences and Technology, serves as a foster parent with the Bair Foundation, a Christian organization that facilitates children’s foster placements and adoptions. She provides a temporary home to children that are in the process of reunifying with their biological families or are going through the adoption process.

Erin Duckworth has had a lifelong calling to nurture and care for kids, which is why she opens her home to foster children in need of temporary placement. She's pictured here (center) with the children of friends from her church community. Credit: ProvidedAll Rights Reserved.

“I really believe that God put the space in my heart,” she said of her desire to care for children on a temporary basis.  

Since she completed the rigorous training to become a foster parent, Duckworth has provided a home for a five-year-old girl, who stayed with her and her roommate for eight months.  

“I didn’t realize that I could do foster care as a single woman,” said Duckworth. “But it doesn’t matter as long as you can take care of a child.” 

Duckworth said she is strongly guided by her faith. She moved to State College from Illinois nearly six years ago, when her church established a congregation in Pennsylvania. She and nearly 40 others left everything they knew to help start a church hundreds of miles away. Thinking back, she knows that she answered a call to assist with that process and is now doing the same in her desire to help children. 

“I’m not married but I’m still called to take care of kids, so foster care is a way I can do that,” she said. 

While she can’t talk much about her experiences with her foster child due to confidentiality clauses, Duckworth recalled one of her most memorable moments with her foster daughter, when she witnessed her praying.   

“She would pray specific things about her friends, and also talked about how we loved her,” said Duckworth. “That was important. She never really felt that people loved her. For her to be asking God that people love her, that was heartwarming.” 

“It was rewarding to see her grow and learn how to trust people,” she added. “That’s hard for anybody, but really hard for a little kid who hasn’t known that.” 

Duckworth welcomed the child into her home in July 2017, just one day after getting the request to foster her. The sudden transition to becoming a parent of a five-year-old child was empowering for Duckworth. 

“I probably learned more about myself in the eight months that I had her than in my 35 years of life,” she said.  

The Bair Foundation ultimately found an adoptive home for the girl, who then moved out of Duckworth’s home and in with her new family. Duckworth said she wasn’t prepared for the emotional turmoil she felt when the child left. 

“Really, it’s a willingness,” she said. “I get that not everyone is cut out to do this. I somehow have the willingness to open my heart up to be broken.” 

“Saying goodbye is super hard,” she added. “But it’s worth it. Even if the placement is just for two weeks, there’s stability in those two weeks. Knowing that [a child is] safe for that time is worth it.” 

Despite the wide range of emotions she experienced, Duckworth hopes to foster — or even adopt — more children in the future. In the meantime, she is caring for others in a different way. She currently works nights and weekends as a senior caregiver, visiting elderly individuals and helping them with housework or yardwork, or just socializing.  

“I am a carer,” she said. “That’s something that God has given me and put in me.”

An advocate to combat sexual assault and domestic violence in Centre County

Katherine Hamilton, assistant teaching professor of IST, volunteers with Centre Safe in an effort to eliminate domestic, relationship and sexual violence for individuals in Centre County, and to help those who have been the victims of assault. Credit: ProvidedAll Rights Reserved.

For Katherine Hamilton, assistant teaching professor in IST, her volunteer work with Centre Safe (formerly the Centre County Women’s Resource Center) is extremely personal. 

“I had a few friends who were sexually assaulted,” said Hamilton. “I saw how it completely transformed them.”

Hamilton explained that she witnessed her friends endure secondary trauma in the aftermath of their experiences, from intrusive questions by service providers to insensitive comments by friends and family. 

“A lot of times people say things out of ignorance, which contributes to the difficulty of a victim coping with what happened,” said Hamilton. “I started volunteering because I wanted to help change the narrative. We need to focus on the aggressor, not the victim.” 

Hamilton began working with Centre Safe in 2012. The organization’s mission is to eliminate domestic, relationship and sexual violence for women, children, men and people of all gender identities and backgrounds.  

She started by volunteering as a counselor/advocate which involved taking hotline calls from individuals experiencing domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking. At times this involved providing in-person support and resources to victims as they undergo hospital exams and police questioning following a sexual assault. The organization also offers community education, including educating school students on healthy relationships, and sharing resources that connect victims to transitional housing in the community.

“Most people think that Centre Safe is just a shelter, but there’s a lot more that we do here,” she said.  

Today, Hamilton serves as chair of the board of directors. She was presented with the volunteer of the year award in 2013 and the emerging leader award in 2017. While much of her volunteer work is now at the administrative level, Hamilton personally gained insight during her direct work with victims—many of whom had harrowing stories. 

“It helps to put everything else into perspective for me,” she said. “If I have a bad day, and I hear some of the things that people are dealing with, it’s very humbling. It makes everything else seem less important.”

Hamilton also recognizes that the rigorous crisis counseling training she received as a volunteer has prepared her to handle a number of different scenarios.

“It makes you realize that you’re the light in a dark situation,” she said.   

But the most important thing she has gained is the knowledge that she is advocating for her friends who were assaulted and thousands of other victims worldwide.

“The most rewarding thing is seeing that I made some kind of a difference,” she said. “Centre Safe is trying to be more proactive and educate the community from a very early age. It’s good to know that the experiences my friends had are not likely to be replicated here.”

“There’s a lot that we do for the community,” she concluded. “I couldn’t imagine State College without Centre Safe. Knowing the stories I know, it fills a gap that this town and county needs.”

Last Updated December 13, 2018