When looking into Alvernia University as a place of interest for higher education, prospective students often search for different opportunities for involvement in their community. In late 2005, these opportunities were not as accessible to students. The concern of this matter was shared amongst many community members, and thereafter, a potential solution emerged.
Alvernia’s previous president, Thomas F. Flynn, first spoke of these centers in his Inaugural Address in 2006. He announced two separate centers first: The Center for Community Engagement and The Center for Ethics and Leadership. The Center for Ethics and Leadership was created in 2007 and held a few different directors: Gerard Vigna, professor of theology; Spencer Stober, professor of biology; and, just recently David Myers, director.
Senator Michael O’Pake, former Board of Trustees member and candidate for state of attorney general garnered funding for many community-based projects such as building the baseball field in Reading. Alvernia’s O’Pake Science Center was also named after O’Pake in addition to the Institute that is now geared toward developing a new atmosphere for growth in the City of Reading: The O’Pake Institute for Economic Development & Entrepreneurship.
At the age of 70, O’Pake suffered complications during his heart bypass surgery. It was no surprise when students, faculty and invited guests heard that he had left a bequest in his will to the University, as O’Pake was a beloved community member. O’Pake left $1.5 million, becoming the largest bequest in Alvernia’s history.
Early in 2010, the Reading Eagle published an article detailing the ceremony honoring O’Pake. Reading like a time capsule, the writer, Tim Leedy, asked the president at the time, Dr. Thomas Flynn for his take on the memorial. His response, “we had two emotions, extraordinary appreciation on the one hand, but also great sadness because, of course, we would much rather have him here with us.” There is no doubt that O’Pake would want to jump aboard and help if he could as the institute ventures into new projects to shape the community.
From the beginning stages of the center’s development when David Myers became director, there was a commitment to to include public service in O’Pake’s mission. Myers worked with the Counsel of State Governments to develop a program in Harrisburg for state legislatures on civil discourse and civility.
Myers also engaged early on with Berks County Community Foundation to develop a series of reports on Berks County such as a general report, then others on crime, education, poverty and employment. Four follow-up reports were also executed to highlight non-profits, brain drain versus brain gain, etc. These reports provided leverage to both O’Pake & Alvernia. Some organizations are still using those reports to this day due to their impact.
From these reports, Myers was able to curate other opportunities for the community including working with Reading Health and St. Joseph’s Medical Centers on their community health needs assessment, launching the Berks Community Health Center in Oakbrook- the center of Poverty in the city and creating opportunity for Alvernia students to engage in interacting with the community and providing health care service.
He also assisted the Reading Housing Authority and the Community Health Foundation lead the Mission Leadership Task Force. He also set up forums and brought in outside speakers to discuss anchor institutions and community engagement such as former mayor of Pittsburgh, and other speakers from Cleveland (Education and Healthcare Institutions), Massachusetts (National Anchor Institutions Task Force).
These efforts led to the creation of the Berks Alliance where all of the major anchor institutions in Berks County were able to collaborate. This facilitated the development of a one-year funding program to help lead community engaged internships with the O’Pake Institute, downtown Reading revitalization, the Greater Reading Immigration Project, scholarships for DACA students, and microlending companies: KIVA, Bicycles Against Poverty and many other substantial initiatives.
Now, with the rebrand and development of The Reading CollegeTowne strategy, the O’Pake Institute is paving the way for the future of Alvernia and the City of Reading. Alvernia has entrusted the O’Pake Institute for Economic Development and Entrepreneurship to be the main catalyst for CollegeTowne and oversee the partnerships and collaborations that will strengthen the local economy downtown.
Alvernia leads by example with the purchase of a vacant building, 401 Penn Street, and hope that other Higher Education Institutes and community members will follow suit and collaborate. While the Reading Area College is already downtown, 401 Penn St. is Alvernia University’s first physical presence in downtown.
Under the leadership of Dr. Rodney S. Ridley, Associate Provost, Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the O’Pake Institute for Economic Development and Entrepreneurship, the O’Pake Institute will act as driving force for economic redevelopment in Downtown Reading and spread the spirit of entrepreneurship throughout campus and the community.