A group of Penn State alumni, distraught over the child molestation scandal that has engulfed their alma mater, has launched a fundraising effort to help victims of abuse.
Jerry Needel, a marketing professional, said that after the news broke of the arrest of former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky for molesting eight boys, he put his 3-year-old daughter to bed and wondered how he could protect her from sexual predators.
"I have a responsibility to do what I can not to let this stuff happen again," he said.
That's when he and his wife Jaime, as well as a handful of other friends who were Penn State alums, decided to raise money for the nation's largest anti-sexual violence organization, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.
Many of them were in the social networking field and quickly launched Twitter and Facebook accounts and created a website -- #ProudPSUforRAINN.
In the first day, the site has already raised $110,000 (and climbing) with a goal to reach $500,000 -- $1 for each of the 557,000 Penn State alumni.
"We wanted to see if we could do something good in all of this," said Needel, of Hoboken, N.J., who graduated from Penn State in 1998.
"My wife and I were huge Penn State fans and Paterno was our personal hero," said Needel, 35, "We learned from the way he conducted himself, but when this started happening, it shook our beliefs and a big part of our identity."
As Needel stepped outside his home to walk the dog this week, he said he thought, "Can I wear my Penn State sweatshirt outside? I didn't know what to feel."
"Everyone forgets about the victims, talking about whether Paterno should stay or go," said Needel. "We were sitting around watching this and feeling helpless."
"Penn Staters are some of the proudest people out there and some of the best people in the world to support causes," he added. "[The college] has the largest student-run philanthropy in the world for pediatric cancer [THON]. We also do leading research in breast cancer and climate."
Their goal is twofold: to put the focus of the scandal back on its victims and to help the broader university community, "get its pride back," he said. "All of us Penn Staters want to make sure this doesn't happen again anywhere."
On Saturday, Penn State's football team will face archrival Nebraska, and students have already planned to wear blue shirts, rather than the school's famous "white out," at the home game. T-shirts that read, "Stop Child Abuse, Blue Out Nebraska," are on sale with proceeds going to Prevent Child Abuse Pennsylvania.
Needel hopes those athletes and fans will support their efforts as well. One of Nebraska's fan sites, HUSKERMAX even agreed to reach out to their online fans in support of RAINN.
RAINN spokesman Katherine Hull said that alumni donations will go directly to support the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline, an instant-message based crisis intervention website. Traffic on the site has jumped 36 percent this year and 20 percent since the Penn State alumni campaign, she said.
This year alone, 116,649 people have been helped by the online and telephone hotlines, up 12 percent since last year.
"The reasons for this are pertinent," said Hull. "Victims tend to be young -- over half are under 18 and they prefer to communicate online. It's a safe place for them to get help from a trained professional. The hotline does not capture IP addresses or record transcriptions of sessions, so it's a truly safe place for victims to get the help they deserve."
Rape and Assault Victims Seek Help Online
The hotline provides one-on-one contact with a trained staff member, who counsels victims on computer safety protocol, safety planning, support and advice for seeking help.
"In some cases, victims have never told anyone before," said Hull. "It's such a sensitive issue, they may not have even been able to say the words out loud yet. We tell them how to start the conversation and tell an adult to get help."
One of the most important messages is: "It's not their fault and they didn't do anything to deserve this," she said. "We also tell them this doesn't have to define you. You can go on and live an incredibly healthy life."
These Penn State alumni who are teaming up with RAINN stand out in sharp contrast to an estimated 5,000 students who rioted on the State College, Pa., campus Wednesday night, protesting the firing of head coach Joe Paterno.
Needel said he understands their anguish about losing their coach, but he is disillusioned. Experts say that is a normal reaction.
"Idealizing people is really a basic human need, to put them on a pedestal, especially in childhood," said Michael Diamond, professor of psychiatry at UCLA, who specializes in male development.
"We make that person all good and we elevate them," he said. "When they come off the pedestal, we see them as a whole person and in that process there is a disappointment and often a reaction against the person."
Americans tend to idealize their heroes, especially in sports, he said.
"It's harder for these football players or guys who are connected to the team to handle the disappointment in a mature way," Diamond said of the student protesters. "But it sounds like [Needel] has a healthy response to deal with his own feelings -- trying to reach out and get money for victims."
Needel, himself, said he was never a football player at Penn State -- "just a guy with a wife and some friends that just got tired of feeling helpless over this."
"I learned that Joe Paterno wasn't perfect 100 percent of the time," he said. "He built a program based on doing the right thing, but clearly some mistakes have been made. This changed my view about him and his legacy."
"Like everyone else in this country," said Needel. "We are learning from his mistakes as well."
If you need help, more information or want to report a crime, contact RAINN's National Sexual Assault Hotline or call 800-656-HOPE (4673).