Carlisle CAN—and Did! Looking Back on Extraordinary Success

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Community organization models effective emergency response

by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson

When President Margee Ensign invited 20 community leaders for breakfast one morning in 2017, she had an ambitious goal in mind. The recently installed president sought to bring local leaders in education, business, nonprofits, politics, religious and faith-based organizations, and law-enforcement together to jointly address complex communitywide issues, like hunger, housing availability, education, addiction, public safety, sustainability and public health.

That marked the launch of the Carlisle Community Action Network (CAN), and from the start, Ensign knew that this network of community leaders had big challenges ahead. What she couldn’t know then—what no one knew—was that an even greater challenge, one that exacerbated all of the already-existing community issues, lay ahead.

At the close of the academic year, we’re looking back at the ways that Carlisle CAN leaders joined forces to make well-informed decisions and launch impactful programs during a pandemic. 

Far-reaching work

Communication was key, particularly amid fast-changing conditions at the start of the pandemic, when little was known about the virus and how it spread. Forty to 50 CAN members met weekly via Zoom and by phone to share updates, resources and best practices within their fields. These meetings enabled local leaders to stay updated on and pitch in with emerging and new local initiatives and to better understand the impacts of the pandemic from multiple points of view.

This, in turn, allowed them to take thoughtfully informed action quickly, avoiding the procedural bottlenecks that so many local, regional and national organizations working in silos faced.

In April, CAN supported the Project SHARE food bank to address a sudden and dramatic increase in food and employment insecurity. That month, CAN also worked with Dickinson’s Center for Civic Learning & Action to build a community-resources website, This web portal is a one-stop-shop for all the resources available for those who need help, as well as a list of organizations that need assistance for those who wish to make a positive difference at a time of need. And at a time when vaccines were difficult to attain, Dickinson partnered with CAN member Sadler Health Center on a vaccine rollout for eligible members of the campus community. 

Recent CAN accomplishments also include:

  • launching a public-health initiative that encouraged Carlisle visitors, business owners, patrons and students to wear masks while in public spaces and distributing more than 4,000 masks and posters to 120 businesses that pledged to combat the spread of COVID-19 by encouraging mask-wearing by staff and customers
  • working with the United Way of Carlisle and Pennsylvania’s Cumberland County to launch a fundraising campaign for a COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund, which yielded more than $100,000 in grants to benefit area nonprofit organizations
  • organizing the bottling and distribution of hand sanitizer to local residents
  • rolling out a vaccine education campaign and supporting the Cumberland Co-Emergency Services Department on vaccine distribution
  • dispatching student-interns to work with local businesses and organizations needing assistance with grant writing
  • creating a civic engagement competition to generate new ideas for solving critical needs experienced by local students and their families  
  • providing academic enrichment programming for summer day camps
  • connecting local businesses with Dickinson students who could help set up online-sales systems for struggling small businesses
  • conducting focus groups with the local health and wellness, retail, and restaurant sectors, and developing a report on best practices and lessons learned by CAN’s coronavirus response, so other communities and businesses can better prepare for future emergencies
  • disseminating voter information ahead of the 2020 election
  • and launching a multifaceted guided learning journey about Race and Racism for Carlisle community leaders led by Amer Ahmed, interim executive director of equity & inclusivity and visiting lecturer in intercultural studies, to help equip Carlisle leaders to overcome and dismantle systemic racism and injustice.

Carlisle CAN's work drew headlines in every central Pennsylvania news network in 2020 and 2021. Last May, the congressionally mandated Pennsylvania Humanities Council (PHC) awarded CAN a 2020 Heart & Soul Hero Award in recognition of CAN’s remarkable community service during the current health crisis. The PHC also bestowed separate Hero awards to Ensign and to Dickinson’s Assistant Chief of Staff Jennifer Love for recent related work reflecting the college’s commitment to civic engagement.

Reflecting on the past year, Ensign noted that this extraordinary work in the face of adversity is testament to the profound power of cross-sector communication and cooperation. “If every community could achieve this sort of cooperation, build these sorts of links, just think of what we could accomplish together,” Ensign said. “I truly believe that Carlisle CAN will serve as a model for many communities across the nation. Here we have gotten to know and to trust each other. We have learned how best to help each other, drawing on our various skills, resources and talents in order to achieve the common good for us all.”


Published May 24, 2021