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Ellen Campbell: She Works Tirelessly for State College’s Disadvantaged

by on May 06, 2019 5:00 AM

Four of us met for coffee just a few days ago at Good Day Café. We were there to talk about someone — but not in a malicious way. We met as an informal admiration society, comparing notes on a marvelous woman named Ellen Herman Campbell.

Maybe you’ve never heard of Ellen since she’s not the type to fly her own flag. But our foursome knows her well. Three of us have enjoyed her friendship for more than five decades, and the other member, Jim Campbell, has been married to her for 48 years.  

Having logged all that time with Ellen, none of us felt an iota of surprise when she was named a 2019 honoree by the State College Area School District Education Foundation’s “Maroon & Gray Society.”  After all, she’s worked tirelessly for the things the Society promotes: progress for the school district and for the overall community. Not only did she teach English at State High from 1993 to 2011 — bringing all her energy and heart into the classroom while raising three kids of her own — but she’s also served tirelessly as a board member with Strawberry Fields since 1997, launching its creative reuse store called “Scraps & Skeins” and helping to create the coffee shop in which we now sat. To us, her service with Strawberry Fields is amazing; to her, it’s simply a way to repay a debt she feels to those who have helped lift her mentally disabled son to a truly meaningful life.

So there we were in Good Day Café. And how fitting that location seemed for us to toast (or roast?) Ellen in absentia for her service to those who face special struggles.


Patty Condo was the first of our Good Day group to meet Ellen. Then Patty Hopkins, she shared a third grade classroom at Easterly Parkway Elementary with our heroine in 1960. What did she first notice about her new friend?  “How pretty she was,” says Patty. Now, decades later, she calls Ellen her “anchor” and adds, “She’s always there when I need her. She understands and never judges.”

Patti Wilson Spicer came on the scene at Easterly Parkway a year later. Says Patti, “Ellen was always such a caring person. She didn’t want anybody to ever feel bad and she didn’t like tension between people.” Today, says Patti, “Anything she believes in is going to happen. And if she believes in you, everything is going to be OK.”

As for me, I met Ellen in the fall of 1966 when we were high school freshmen. Anyone named “Horlacher” was going to encounter people named “Herman” or “Hopkins” since home rooms were determined by alphabet. I quickly noted the friendship between Ellen and Patty and after all these years, such an enduring bond says something great about each of them. As for my greatest memory of Ellen: whenever a new student moved into town, she seemed to be our teacher’s top choice to give the newbie a tour of the school and a sense of belonging.

Jim Campbell spoke last about his wife but, as you might expect, most passionately. “I met Ellen in January of 1970 when we both worked at the HUB. I was just overcome. It was like there was a glow around her. She was the prettiest girl I ever saw.” Still clearly in love after all these years, Jim admires his wife’s dedication to service.

“She has such a heart for people who are under-served and disadvantaged. It’s incredible.”    


Ellen’s concern for others certainly got its start from the example she saw in her parents and in her paternal grandmother—a woman of German stock who didn’t say a lot but was constantly giving to others.

But as she moved into adulthood, life began to deal some tough cards to Ellen. Would she become bitter or better?  

“I was one of those disadvantaged people,” says Jim. “I came out of a foster family — the Hostermans were incredible to me. But I had gone through the breakup of my family. So when Ellen married me (on December 11, 1971), she also inherited an alcoholic father-in-law. At one point, somehow we found out he was at the Red Horse Tavern; maybe his landlord called us. Ellen said, ‘We’re going to go get your dad.’ And I said, ‘I’m not doing that.’ But Ellen said, ‘We’re going to get your dad.’

“Well, she’s not a big person but she barged into the Red Horse Tavern and basically pulled my father out of there. And later he came to live with us. He was in Matt’s room before Matt (the Campbell’s oldest child) was born. We were living in a little apartment on Nittany Avenue. We basically said, ‘You have to leave because Matthew’s coming home soon.’ And that’s when he decided to go to rehab to take care of his alcoholism. To my knowledge, he never drank again. Ellen was the key—letting my alcoholic father stay with us for several months while she was pregnant.”

Shown here when they were dating, Jim and Ellen Campbell have been married for 48 years.


Great joy came to the Campbells on October 13, 1972 when Matthew made his appearance. But soon that joy was mixed with a deep burden as the Campbells worried about his delayed development.

“We were hopeful every time we had a doctor’s appointment,” says Jim, “that he would catch up. It just didn’t happen, so we ended up taking him to Johns Hopkins and got the diagnosis. I remember driving home, and Ellen was heartsick. But I was looking in the rear view mirror at Matt sitting in his car seat and just thinking, ‘He’s the same person he was when we drove down here. But all of a sudden he’s got this label.’”

How did Ellen come to terms with Matthew’s intellectual disability?  “Well, it really wasn’t what I signed up for,” she told me in a post-Good Day conversation. “You don’t expect that’s going to happen.” But the Campbells had moved to York and they leaned heavily on their pastor there, the Rev. Tom Webb. “Matt was completely diagnosed,” recalls Ellen, “and I remember saying, ‘I can’t do this.’ And Pastor Webb said, ‘Is it that you can’t or you won’t?’”

In time, Ellen not only accepted the challenge of raising Matt, but she flourished. “She has a depth of love for him that I can’t replicate,” says Jim. “It’s amazing. And she chose a path of doing what she can to help anyone who helps Matt. That drives a lot of what she does.”


By the early 1990s, Ellen had established herself as an outstanding teacher at Lake-Lehman High School near Wilkes-Barre while Jim oversaw continuing education at several northeast Pennsylvania campuses of Penn State. Meanwhile, the two kept busy encouraging Matt’s development and raising two other kids: Barbara was born in 1975 and Robert came along in 1979.  

In 1993, Jim was selected for a Penn State position that entailed working at the University Park campus and moving the family to good ol’ State College. Not only did Barbara thrive as a Penn State freshman and Robert as a freshman at State High, but Matt, still in school because of his disability, benefited greatly from the school district’s resources. And Ellen found a teaching job at her own beloved alma mater.

Then, in November of ’93, a bizarre event took place that once again challenged hearts, especially Ellen’s. Recalls Jim, “Matt was with an aide, crossing from the South Building to the North Building at State High. And there was a student who was trying to skip school, I think. I think a security person saw him, so he put his car in reverse and drove all the way across the parking lot in reverse. Matt got hit.”

The situation was extremely serious. Matt was rushed to Hershey Medical Center by Life Flight.  He lost sight in one eye while experiencing bleeding in his brain.

“When he had the accident,” says Ellen, “we didn’t know if he would walk or talk and, oh my gosh, we had spent 21 years in getting him to where he had gotten.” But, says Jim, “He made a terrific recovery,” and the loss of sight in one eye was the only permanent loss from the accident.

Meanwhile, close friends and relatives watched Ellen move ahead in her career and family life with even greater faith and resolve.

“When life threw her a curve ball or even a hard, high inside fastball,” says her only sibling, Dr. Richard Herman, “she didn’t step away from the plate but stood in there to ‘hit them where they were pitched.’ Adds the retired Presbyterian pastor, “Persistence and commitment to make a difference emerged with every difficulty. She makes me proud to be her brother.”

The Campbell family includes Jim and Ellen in the front with grandchildren Rosemary Campbell and Jamie Thomas.  In the back, from left, are grandson Alex Thomas, daughter-in-law Alexis Campbell, daughter Barbara Thomas, son Matt, son-in-law Chris Thomas and son Robert. 


Firmly committed to helping those who face struggles, Ellen served as a reading specialist for her last five years before retiring in 2011. Heather Dinsmore, still a teacher at the school, first served as a student teaching intern under Ellen in 2006-07. “She worked with some of our most struggling learners,” says Heather, “and was a constant source of hope for them. She always celebrated even their smallest victories and truly inspired these students to do great things.”

Shawna Mukavetz, another current teacher at State High, worked with Ellen on an interdisciplinary team during the late 1990s. “We had a particularly rough group of ninth grade boys one year,” recalls Shawna. “The ninth grade English curriculum includes ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ I’ll never forget the time I walked into Ellen’s classroom to find that group of boys reenacting the Capulets’ party scene, dancing the Moresca complete with curtsies and masks! She could convince students to follow her anywhere and try anything.”

State High teaching colleagues, from left, Heather Dinsmore, April Whitbread, Ellen Campbell, Deb Hagg. 


Much to the joy of his parents, Matt has made steady progress over the years. And that makes Ellen offer the deepest of thanks to Strawberry Fields, the non-profit agency that serves people of all ages who struggle with intellectual disabilities or mental health challenges.  

“We owe them everything because of what they are for Matt,” she says. “The people who work with him, the direct care staff, are just wonderful. Alan Sidwar has been a direct care professional for 30 years, and he is just magical with Matt.

“It’s a debt that we can never repay because he has a life in this community that I thought he would never have. They told us when he was diagnosed about all the things he wouldn’t do, but now he does them.”

And what does Matt do? Well, he works part-time at Penn State’s White Building, and when he gets his paycheck he often states with delight, “I’m a rich man, just like my dad.” Matt also serves as a volunteer sexton at the Campbell’s church, Grace Lutheran. He has friends throughout the community, causing Jim to declare, “He knows more people than I do.” And, since 1997, he’s been living in one of Strawberry Fields’ 13 group homes, which gives him a sense of adult independence.


Prompted by her gratitude, Ellen joined the Strawberry Fields board in 1997 — a role she still embraces.

Says Cindy Pasquinelli, the agency’s CEO since 1985, “I don’t have enough words to describe what she has meant to me and Strawberry Fields. She has taught us how to support families and individuals with disabilities with the grace and optimism that is uniquely her. Staff have described her as ‘the light in the room.’’

Ellen, of course, has done much more than “sit” on the board. When Jim took her on a well-deserved trip to Ithaca, New York about six years ago, her passion for sewing and knitting prompted a visit to “Sew Green,” that city’s store for sale of reused fabrics. Ellen was thrilled by what she saw.  But as Jim observes with wry humor, “Ellen can’t merely admire something; she has to replicate it.”

Indeed, after significant board deliberations, Strawberry Fields decided to act on Ellen’s vision, and a new State College store was opened in January of 2015. It has been so successful that I’m sure Ellen’s baseball-minded brother would describe “Scraps & Skeins” as a home run. Located at 3054 Enterprise Drive, behind the offices of Strawberry Fields, the attractive little boutique now provides jobs for five adults who are recovering from mental illness. Not only that, but Scraps & Skeins provides affordable products to knitters and quilters, and it has saved some 30 tons of textiles from being thrown into local landfills. This June, the store which has been open Thursdays, will add Tuesday as a weekly sales day.   

Ellen appreciates her Scraps & Skeins colleagues—volunteer Jeannie Shuey (center) and store manager Dottie Ewing (right).


Meanwhile, the success of Scraps & Skeins led to the launch of another Strawberry Fields enterprise. Chiropractor Roy Love is the man who keeps my spine in tune, and he’s a Strawberry Fields supporter. During a trip several years ago to Wilmington, North Carolina, Dr. Love saw “Bitty & Beau’s,” a fabulous coffee shop that is run by people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Dr. Love brought the idea back to State College, and the board of Strawberry Fields saw the opportunity. At the request of Cindy Pasquinelli, Ellen helped to write a grant proposal, and that led to a $100,000 start-up grant from the Centre Foundation. As Ellen and others told that foundation, “We can do this because we’ve done it before — with Scraps & Skeins.”  

With its first anniversary due to arrive in August, Good Day Café is already employing 13 people with disabilities and a handful of support staff.  “What we have learned from Scraps & Skeins,” says Ellen, “is that having a job, even a part-time job, is integral to building self-esteem, confidence and well-being in people with disabilities.”  

*  *  *

Yes, Ellen Campbell—a 1970 graduate of State High, a retired faculty member, a mother of three and grandmother of three, a pillar of Strawberry Fields — is a fitting honoree for the second annual Maroon & Gray Society banquet. She and a set of other distinguished leaders will be honored at The Nittany Lion Inn on Saturday, May 18. And she is especially thrilled by the project to be funded by this year’s dinner: the “Mental Health Matters” Fund, which has been launched by the State College Area School District Education Foundation.

Now approaching the end of its fourth year, the foundation expects to significantly surpass last year’s total gift commitments of $179,000. And with its growing proceeds, more non-budgeted initiatives like “Mental Health Matters” can be funded. With money coming from this year’s Maroon & Gray Society banquet, mental health will be promoted through two primary means. First, additional training will be provided to teachers, administrators and staff members in how to recognize mental health issues among students. Second, students who need outside counseling but lack the necessary finances can be provided with such help.

“It’s such a need now,” Ellen says. “I was talking to some of my former colleagues, and they said the biggest change since I retired is that the mental health needs of students are much greater. There are so many pressures on kids these days with social media, bullying, the influence of drugs.”

Although tickets are selling quickly, spaces are still available for the May 18 banquet. More information is available about the dinner at or direct contributions can be made through that site.

Bill Horlacher is a native of Happy Valley, a 1970 graduate of State College High School and a 1974 graduate of Penn State (journalism). He has spent his last 30 years in service to international students, helping them with personal, cultural and spiritual adjustments to America. After 39 years of living in California, Maryland and Texas, Bill returned to State College in 2013 along with his wife, Kathy.
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