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Town&Gown Salutes People Who Make a Difference in Centre County

by on December 01, 2017 10:50 AM

Town&Gown takes pride each December in profiling a few of the truly extraordinary Centre County residents who make a difference in our community. This year, we focus on three people – Jamie Jones, Alex Dyakiw, and Barbara Palmer – with different backgrounds and experiences who have one big thing in common: they have given tirelessly of themselves to help others.

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Alex Dyakiw is a deacon who makes war against loneliness and acts as a shepherd for the struggling and the dying.

Loneliness is a component of both of his current major volunteer efforts, at Centre Crest and the Centre County Correctional Facility, he says.

People fear dying alone, and those struggling with addiction can feel as though they have no one to talk to, or that they’re not worthy enough to fit in with society.

Ordained in 2007 with the sponsorship of his church — St. John’s Episcopal in Bellefonte — he keeps his schedule packed with service hours, responding to the needs of the community or individual as they pop up.

The tall Brooklyn native for the last 24 years had been giving his time to be at the bedside of those on the precipice of passing from this life at Centre Crest and Mount Nittany Medical Center. He calls it “midwifing.”

“There's a hard point when we're at a certain age — young or old — where we're just fearful of death,” Dyakiw says. “I think I try to help people make that transition. I try to help people to know that it's going to be OK. We talk about end of life, we talk about afterlife, we talk about what it must be like, and we try to take the fear out of dying. For a lot of people in nursing homes, that fear of dying is being alone. They want to know that someone is going to be there, and I try to be that person.”

That term, midwifing, was first spoken to him in that context by a nurse whose hand he held as she lay on her deathbed and told him “I’m ready.”

He also spends time with those who have been affected by injury or other ailments such as a stroke or infectious disease, which can also bring on feelings of loneliness and helplessness.

He conducts monthly nondenominational services at Centre Crest each week and spends time with residents who don’t get a lot of visitors, says Bobbi Salvaterra, director of therapeutic recreation.

“You know when Alex comes in the building he has a big voice,” Salvaterra says. “He’s a big hugger. He’s extremely affectionate to all the residents. That’s helpful for residents who don’t have a lot of visitors. Alex comes and gives them a big hug and remembers their name.”

Dyakiw is their man on call when a resident is nearing the end of life. That sometimes means a midnight call, and he’s there within minutes. Salvaterra says he doesn’t just show that dedication to residents, but staff as well. That was evident when last year a staffer was killed in an auto accident, and Salvaterra says Dyakiw was there within minutes providing support for coworkers.

“He’s just everywhere in the community,” she says, adding, “He gives love freely and doesn’t ask for anything in return.”

At the county jail, inmates voluntarily come to him for his 12-step program. Though 12-step is inherently faith-based, Dyakiw says the people in the programs don’t respond well to preaching.

It’s more important, he says, to try to equip them with some tools to return to their normal lives when they’re released. An inmate at the county jail is there for only a short time. Two years is the maximum. So when they return, if they were addicted to drugs or alcohol, there’s a high chance they’ll return to the same lifestyle with the same comrades.

Like with those who fear death, Dyakiw tries to listen to them and hear their pain.

“I've heard horror stories,” he says. “I don't excuse them for what happened, but it happened.”

Inmates who return to society face huge obstacles, he says. He tries to build them up and teach them that they can be whatever they want to be if they work for it, and that they are worth it.

Dyakiw says he revels in the success stories. People he mentored while they were in jail will approach him on the street or in a restaurant and show him their new family or tell him of their new home or job.

“It’s a hard struggle but they got their life back.”

Dyakiw, 68, a retired New York City carpenter, has lived in Bellefonte since the early 1990s, when he and his wife were seeking a simpler, cheaper place to live. He tells a story that when they were looking for somewhere to live, the first three people they met in Bellefonte said “Hello,” and right there the decision was made.

Dyakiw credits St. John’s with providing him with excellent support, allowing him to put about 90 percent of his effort into community work. The congregation is generous with donations when a need arises.

Frequently, people ask Dyakiw why he gives so much of his time or why he’s chosen this path.

"I say because it has to be done. What are we to live for?”

He’s big on face-to-face contact, something he calls “divine intimacy.” He expressed skepticism at the world of social media and digital communication for means of connection.

“Try holding the hand of a dying person or a senior citizen, or shaking the hand of an inmate when he’s out.”

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Jamie Jones is a mediator and neutral party, perhaps even a referee, in situations where tensions are high and the safety of children is of the utmost concern.

Jones is the director of the Centre County Child Access Program, which operates a safe custody exchange program in Bellefonte.
She’s responsible for ensuring that families under her purview safely exchange the custody of the child between parents, or conduct supervised visits at her facility. All told, 130 families have made successful exchanges under the program’s roof.

Most of these families are sent from the courts, Jones says, and in every case there is one parent who is a safety concern. The courts may have reason to believe there has been or will be violence against the spouse or the child. That’s sometimes a hard thing for families to admit.

“Most people wouldn't identify themselves as being in a domestic violence situation,” Jones says.

Jones was a special education teacher at Bellefonte Middle School before she applied for the post, despite lacking a background working with victims of domestic violence.

What she did have was experience working with families and their children, and a love for the community.

“I grew up here in Bellefonte,” she says. “I went away to college, I came back, taught here at the Bellefonte Middle School. But I've always just wanted to give back to Bellefonte. I really liked growing up here. So this was an opportunity, I thought, to give back in another way.”

The program was spun from organizations and leaders in the community after the death of Jodi Warshaw-Barone, a State College mother who was murdered by her estranged husband in April 2007.

Warshaw-Barone was meeting Benjamin Barone to make a custody exchange of their 3-year-old daughter at a Sheetz, probably with the hope that a public place would prevent the worst.

Benjamin Barone killed his wife and took his own life despite her precautions.

So here in Jones’ sanctuary, the two parents will never meet face to face during a custody exchange. The parent who is a security concern is ordered to come early and stay late to prevent them from trying to follow the other parent.

Obviously, this generates resentment, even though Jones says she tries to be neutral with all involved. She says it is a process to gain trust from both parents in these situations and she doesn’t expect any at the start.

The nature of the supervised visitations and exchanges generates a defensiveness in the parents, who feel judged for the turns their lives have taken, she says. Jones does what she can to defuse this, but it’s a long process, sometimes stretching over years. Jones and her staff are always listening in, always keeping a watchful eye on the interactions that take place in their office. In Jones’ house, a parent can’t badmouth another parent or ask the child where they’ve been staying.

For seven years Jones has helmed the program, and those seven years have been relatively quiet.

It’s hard to measure success in this business, as Jones points out that her job is to keep incidents from happening, and it’s hard to measure a lack of something.

Bellefonte police are in the neighborhood, and she says local law enforcement has done a good job keeping an eye on the front doors.
There are tense times, of course, and much frustration is directed at Jones and her staff, but she says she believes in the importance of the work, of keeping families safe during exchanges.

“I’ve been accused of being a prison guard,” she says with a chuckle. “There’s been all sorts of not nice things said over the years.”

The program is now under a funding threat as the grant it had been relying on wasn’t renewed this year. She says they’re trying to piece together sustainable funding through both public and private sources and are looking for more generous donors to keep it going. There’s no cost to those who make use of the program.

Its administrative support comes from the Centre County Women’s Resource Center. The director, Anne Ard, praises the work of Jones and her staff and says numerous counties have copied the model for a similar exchange program.

“I take a lot of pride in that,” she says, and their successful program comes from Jones’ excellent community advocacy.

What makes Jones special, Ard says, is “her ability to really blend the awareness of domestic violence for everyone involved, the parents and the children.”

***

If there is a local effort having to do with children, art, or theater, the odds are Barbara Palmer has been involved somewhere along the way.

She and her late husband, James, gave the name to the Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State, a free-admission gallery for the university and surrounding communities.

In late October, Palmer established a fund for women in leadership for her friend Mimi Barash Coppersmith.

Barbara and James for decades helmed the communications companies C-COR and Centre Video, and from their efforts they were able to give millions over the course of their lives.

Coppersmith, founder of Town&Gown, says for most of Palmer’s life, even before being blessed with a business windfall, she was giving of her time and talent.

“You can look behind almost any outstanding service or philanthropic effort in this community and see in some way the hand and love of Barbara Palmer,” Coppersmith says. “It's all around us. People never stop asking and she has never stopped giving. It's part of her DNA.”

Palmer says she’s gotten to meet a lot of people in her career as a philanthropist and volunteer, and that it was a good way for her to get involved. As for her heavy focus in the arts, “Art is a way to enjoy life as well as become aware of the value of the finer things and interesting things in our world,” she said last month. “We can all enjoy more in our lives if we can open up to other ways of seeing and doing.”

Palmer has supported dancers looking for a break to get into theater, and has worked to help minorities achieve their theater dreams.
She’s supported chairs and professorships at Penn State in the engineering and communications colleges. Palmer has also been a long-time supporter of the Park Forest Day Nursery School. She started a stewardship fund for Centre Foundation in 2005 to aid the organization in its mission. She was the first female president of Centre County United Way, was once the vice president of Hemlock Girl Scout Council, served on the steering committee for the Grand Destiny Campaign at Penn State, has supported Centre Volunteers in Medicine, and served on boards and committees at MountNittany Medical Center.

Palmer has also given generously to her alma mater of Iowa State, most notably donating $1 million in 1996 for the construction of what became known as the Palmer Human Development and Family Studies Building.

At 92 years old, she faces a number of challenges and needs a lot of love, Coppersmith says.

“She is unbelievably generous and kind. Beyond definition, really.”

 

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