MONACA, Pa. – It is noon on Penn State Beaver’s campus, and a small crowd of social workers, lawyers and activists have gathered around a conference table in the Student Union Building to hear Matt Morgan speak.
At the table, Lynne Morgan silently passes a box of tissues to the front of the room. She knows her husband is going to need them before his speech – typed on a sheet of white paper that is now trembling in his hands – is over.
Matt Morgan is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. It took him decades of alcoholism and therapy to admit that. But once he did, he made a decision. He wasn’t going to keep it buried any longer. He was going to talk about it, no matter what people in his small Idaho town thought about him, no matter how many times the media knocked at his door.
It was that decision to keep talking that brought Morgan to Beaver County. LaVarr McBride, an administration of justice (AOJ) instructor at Penn State Beaver and a tireless victim advocate, urged the Morgans to conduct a series of community conversations across the country that would help to guide the mission of their nonprofit, Building Hope Today.
“The only hope for change is to publicly share,” Matt Morgan said.
So there he stood on the Beaver campus, talking about his abuser, touting Building Hope Today and asking the experts to weigh in: How can we more effectively help victims heal?
Standing in the back of the room was McBride. He had an idea for the Morgans. It involved some dedicated students, a grant from Penn State’s Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence and a trip to Indiana.
Part of what makes Matt Morgan’s journey so excruciating is that his abuser – his uncle – has never admitted responsibility for the pain he inflicted.
That acceptance of responsibility is considered a crucial piece of healing for victims and offenders alike, so crucial that an entire program has been built around it.
That program is called Bridges to Life. It began in 1998 when a Texas man named John Sage decided that he not only forgave the men who murdered his sister, but that he wanted to help all offenders.
Bridges to Life connects communities and prisons. For 14 weeks, crime victims and volunteers go into prisons to talk with offenders about accountability and responsibility. Victims tell their stories and offenders complete curriculum-based worksheets and tasks. The result, according to two evidence-based research projects done on the program, is a dropping recidivism rate.
McBride, having worked with Bridges to Life in other states, thought it would be good for his students – and good for Western Pennsylvania – to implement the program in Beaver County. So he applied for a $5,000 Schreyer Institute teaching project grant to take five students to Indiana for Bridges to Life training.
He got it.
The students will begin training in October and then return to Beaver County to share their knowledge with other Penn State students from the Beaver, New Kensington and Shenango campuses.
The goal is to recruit AOJ and psychology majors who want to volunteer, partner with the Beaver County Jail and implement the Bridges to Life program in the spring.
“It’s an opportunity to involve our students in hands-on criminal justice,” McBride said.
And then McBride had a kind of epiphany. What if this grant was more than an opportunity for his students? What if he could find a way for the Bridges to Life program and Morgan’s Building Hope Today nonprofit to work together?
The problem with sexual abuse, with victimhood, says Matt Morgan, is that “it’s so vast and enormous and complicated.”
So one organization is unlikely to create rapid, widespread culture change. (So far, Bridges to Life operates in 95 prisons in 11 states.) But multiple people and organizations working together towards a common goal could grow a movement.
The idea is also likely to please coordinators of the Schreyer Institute. During the grant approval process, they asked McBride how he planned to continue the work after the grant was gone. In other words, would their $5,000 be funding a one-time training or a longtime commitment?
If McBride’s vision for collaboration works the way he thinks it can, the commitment would be lasting, and effective.
“A lot of victims that go through the program completely changed their view of offenders: Yes, they need to be held accountable, but they’re people. They’re human beings,” McBride said. “The more important piece to me – offenders realize the impact of what they’ve done.”
And that’s exactly what victims like Matt Morgan are after.