UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State alumni Victor and Dena Hammel have committed $5 million to create the Hammel Family Human Rights Initiative at Penn State. The gift will provide permanent endowed funding to support the University’s Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education (HGHRE) Initiative. The couple formalized their commitment at a signing ceremony Wednesday, Aug. 17, at Old Main, attended by Penn State President Neeli Bendapudi.
“The Hammels’ visionary philanthropy will be truly transformative in our efforts to help new generations understand the past, prevent future atrocities and honor the dignity of all peoples,” said Bendapudi. “We were already delivering programming unlike any other in the nation, but with the Hammels’ ambition and support to drive us forward, we can greatly increase the number of teachers the Initiative reaches, refine and enhance its programming and eventually expand its reach beyond Pennsylvania. The Hammels’ leadership positions us to become the national leader for human rights education, and I could not be more grateful for their generosity.”
The HGHRE Initiative — a partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Education and several state and national entities — provides training and resources to help K-12 educators across the commonwealth teach their students about a wide range of difficult topics, from the Holocaust and other genocides to trauma inflicted by the COVID-19 health crisis. It was launched in response to Pennsylvania’s Act 70 of 2014, which called on educators across the state to develop programming about the Holocaust, genocides and other human rights violations in an effort to “provide children with an understanding of the importance of the protection of human rights and the potential consequences of unchecked ignorance, discrimination and persecution.”
“As Pennsylvania’s land-grant university, Penn State has a deep commitment to improving the lives of people across the commonwealth,” said Bendapudi. “The Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Initiative is doing that in unique ways as it strives to realize the goals of Act 70. In a nation rife with division, the initiative is preparing K-12 teachers across the state to empower their students to think critically, to communicate across cultural and ideological barriers, to become engaged citizens who know that it is everyone’s responsibility to help defend human rights.”
The HGHRE Initiative launched in 2019, and in 2021, the Hammels gave $450,000 to create an Eastern hub for the initiative at Penn State Berks.
“We have been very impressed with the progress we’ve seen with the initiative so far,” said Vic Hammel. “We’re also energized by the remarkable vision that drives it. There are 123,000 public school educators in Pennsylvania, plus the many teachers in the state’s 3,000 private schools. The initiative hopes to eventually reach all of them, and to also become a model for human rights education nationwide. That’s a big job, and we knew a major investment was needed to help take this to the next level. We firmly believe that Penn State, more than any other institution we know of, has the resources, the culture of interdisciplinary collaboration, and the institutional will necessary to make these aspirations a reality.”
The Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Initiative draws on faculty expertise from units across the University, including the colleges of Education and the Liberal Arts, the Bellisario College of Communications and Penn State Law. It offers a growing menu of training programs and resources for K-12 teachers, including year-long and semester-long professional-development programs; shorter-duration workshops; the state’s first Trauma-Informed Practice online course, which trains teachers to identify signs of trauma among their students and then help them cope with it; and free online learning resources for teachers and parents.
The endowed funding from the Hammel Family Human Rights Initiative will establish a solid financial foundation for the HGHRE Initiative. In the coming years, it will enable the initiative to hire a full-time outreach coordinator and additional part-time faculty and to further develop and expand its programming, including the launch of programs for school districts outside of Pennsylvania. Through these developments, the initiative can significantly increase the number of teachers it trains and, in turn, the number of students it impacts.
One of the reasons the Hammels were drawn to the HGHRE Initiative was its unique approach that emphasizes human rights in a broad sense. “Our family was directly impacted by the Holocaust, with some fleeing Germany before it happened and others losing their lives to it,” said Dena Hammel. “So we feel awareness of the Holocaust and other genocides is crucial, but awareness alone is not enough. Young people must be taught to understand the root causes underlying those tragic events — the hatred and bigotry and closed-mindedness — and how to counter them with empathy and communication. That kind of educational approach creates the conditions for justice and equality to thrive and, in turn, helps to prevent genocides from happening.”
“Vic and Dena care deeply about human rights for everyone, excellent education for every child and a brighter future for our society,” said Boaz Dvir, the HGHRE Initiative’s founding director. “We’re eternally grateful to them for their passion, vision, support and leadership. Vic has served as a leader on our development team and as a mentor to me on the business and marketing aspects of our work. The Hammels are extremely humble and have told me that we’ve thanked them enough. Yet we’ve only just begun. We plan to thank them every day by realizing their vision for giving children the tools to make the world a better place.”
Vic and Dena Hammel, of Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, first met as undergraduates at University Park, where Vic earned his degree in accounting in 1967, and Dena earned her degree in speech pathology and audiology in 1968. Vic is chairman emeritus of Rentokil Pest Control, North America, and the retired co-owner and CEO of Ehrlich Pest Control. He is a past board chair of the Reading Health System and past president of the Jewish Federation of Reading. Dena is a retired dialysis social worker and an active volunteer in the Reading community. She has served on the board of GoggleWorks Center for the Arts in Reading since its inception.
Their previous support for Penn State has included gifts to create the Cohen-Hammel Fellows Program at Penn State Berks in partnership with the late Irvin and Lois Cohen, to create the Lee M. Hammel Memorial Scholarship in memory of Vic’s brother, and to support Berks and Penn State Hillel. They served as co-chairs of Penn State Berks’ efforts in the recently completed campaign, “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence.”
“Dena and I are at the point in our lives where we are thinking about the legacy we want to leave behind,” said Vic Hammel. “My parents believed strongly in the idea of ‘tikkun olam,’ which is Hebrew for ‘repair the world.’ It means you should try to leave the world in a better position than when you entered it. We believe this Initiative really has the potential to do that, to make a profound, positive, transformational difference that carries down through the generations.”
“We’re proud to work with Penn State to help realize the potential of this initiative, but our gift is only a beginning,” added Dena Hammel. “We know that many people share our vision of a world where respect for human rights is paramount, and we hope that our gifts will inspire others to support this initiative in the future as well.”