OLLI’s Zoom Buddy Program sparks cross-country friendships

Participants at ASU, Penn State find new ways to connect

August 18, 2021

As the COVID-19 pandemic has worn on, feelings of isolation and depression run strong for many people. For members of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), a volunteer-driven organization open to members of the community who are 50 and older and where stimulating courses, trips and social activities are the mainstay, the sudden and limited social interaction left them at a loss.

The OLLI staff was challenged to find new ways to keep members connected. OLLI, ASU, Penn State, Zoom buddy, Aimee Shramko, Pat Stevens Aimee Shramko, who lives in Arizona, holds her phone showing her Pennsylvania friend, Pat Stevens, during one of their "Zoom Buddy" calls facilitated by the ASU chapter of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI). Photo courtesy of Aimee Shramko Download Full Image

Through many brainstorming sessions, a collaboration emerged between OLLI at ASU and OLLI at Penn State University to create a pilot program that connected a limited number of members from both organizations — while 2,000 miles apart. The “OLLI Zoom Buddy Program” quickly became the organization’s online social hub during spring 2021.

Pat Stevens, member of OLLI at Penn State, was one of the first to volunteer.

“The OLLI Zoom Buddy Program appealed to me because my life became pretty narrow because of the pandemic,” Stevens said. “The experience allowed me to meet someone from a totally different part of the country, and as it turned out, our lifestyles were very similar. We enjoyed telling stories, sending each other photos, and shared many of the same concerns about staying safe during the pandemic.”

Buddies met using Zoom, email, phone, Facetime and Google Meet and can continue for as long as they choose to do so.

“My favorite part of the program was that it had no structure, we could make it want we wanted it to be,” Stevens said. “I recently traveled to botanical gardens in Hershey, Pennsylvania, and sent my buddy photos while I was there so she could experience it as well. We usually don’t share as many details with local friends, so in a way — our buddies become our pen pals!”

Aimee Shramko, member of OLLI at ASU, is Stevens’ Zoom Buddy. She said she was surprised how easy it was to talk to a perfect stranger.

“I’m enjoying talking with Pat, and as things open back up, we have both talked about the travel programs OLLI offers,” Shramko said. “It would be wonderful if we were interested in traveling to the same location and could meet in person. We both would like to attend the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in New Mexico, so maybe we can make that happen!”

Ginnie Miller, community enrichment coordinator for OLLI at ASU, said she knew from the care and consideration poured into the project that it would be a success.

“When we had our Zoom Buddy Mixer, we had a very lively gathering even though all participants couldn’t be a part of it. Each member had a unique background that others in the group resonated with; it was a beautiful event — even online,” Miller said. “Ray Sol, known as the ‘OLLI at ASU Tai Chi Guy,’ was his usual charming self and had already expanded his Zoom Buddy into a Zoom family by adopting other buddies to join their group before the mixer had ended. We are thrilled to be able to continue this partnership into the upcoming fall semester so more members can join in.”

Spring Younkin, program specialist for OLLI at Penn State, said this experience adds a new dimension to OLLI.

“The OLLI Zoom Buddy program creates a new outlet for socialization and fosters new friendships by connecting members through different OLLI locations across the country,” Younkin said. “OLLI focuses on lifelong learning. The program adds another level for our members: lifelong friendships!”

Stevens said she and Shramko will remain friends beyond the pandemic.

“I like Aimee and we have a lot in common. We talk about our families; we are both interested in genealogy, travel, and as she mentioned — she is the only one in my life who is also interested in going to the hot air balloon festival in Albuquerque. Aimee encourages me to get out there more, so we may go!”

OLLI at Penn State and OLLI at ASU plan to continue the program. Based on participant feedback, updates to the registration process will be implemented, and additional members will be invited to participate.

For questions, please contact Ginnie Miller at vmiller5@asu.edu.

OLLI at ASU is a unit of the School of Community Resources and Development. OLLI at Penn State is a unit of Penn State Outreach.

Written by Christie Lee Black, assistant director of news and communications, Penn State Outreach and Online Education, Penn State University, cxb81@psu.edu.

Howard Center investigation examines child sexual abuse cases in Indian Country

Data analysis finds that only a small percentage of defendants went to trial

August 18, 2021

Child sexual abuse is a major problem in Indian Country, yet federal government data suggests hundreds of cases may be falling through the cracks, according to a new project from the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism, a national reporting initiative at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

The FBI and U.S. attorneys are responsible for investigating and prosecuting major crimes in Indian Country, such as child sexual abuse. But a Howard Center analysis of Justice Department data shows that the FBI has “closed administratively” more than 1,900 criminal investigations of child sexual abuse in Indian Country since 2011. Such cases are not referred to federal prosecutors because, the FBI says, they fail to meet evidentiary or statutory requirements. Child sex abuse investigations accounted for about 30% of all major crimes on reservations closed by the FBI each year — more than any other type of crime, including murders and assaults, the Howard Center found. Alice Watchman and brother Leonard Watchman at her farm near Sawmill, Ariz., on the Navajo Nation on July 8, 2021. Alice Watchman’s nephew, convicted child rapist and registered sex offender Ozzy Watchman Sr., took his 15-year-old daughter from the Watchm Alice Watchman and brother Leonard Watchman at her farm near Sawmill, Arizona, on the Navajo Reservation on July 8. Alice Watchman’s nephew, convicted child rapist and registered sex offender Ozzy Watchman Sr., took his 15-year-old daughter from the Watchman farm and went missing for nearly two weeks. Photo by Brendon Derr/Howard Center for Investigative Journalism Download Full Image

In addition, an analysis of Justice Department case management data showed that U.S. attorneys pursued charges less than half the time in child sexual abuse cases from Indian Country. That’s about one-third less often than they filed charges in other types of crimes. Only a small percentage of child sexual abuse defendants from Indian Country went to trial, the analysis showed. Most cases ended in plea bargains, which typically involve lesser sentences.

There is little good data on the extent of child sexual abuse among Indigenous communities, but some researchers estimate it could be as high as 1 in every 2 children.

Dr. Renée Ornelas, a veteran child abuse pediatric specialist working in the Navajo Nation — the largest and most populous tribe in the United States — said practically every family she sees has a history of child sexual abuse.

“They’re just little victims everywhere,” Ornelas said.

Combating child sexual abuse is difficult anywhere. The crime is often committed by a relative or family friend, increasing the pressure on the victim to stay silent. Physical evidence is rare, and conviction can hinge on the testimony of someone barely old enough to describe what happened. But in Indian Country the problem is complicated by what one former U.S. attorney calls “a jurisdictional thicket” of tribal and federal authority spread across wide swaths of territory, making communication and coordination difficult.

"There are a lot more child sexual abuse cases than are being reported,” said child psychologist Dolores Subia BigFoot, who directs the Native American Programs at the Center on Child Abuse and Neglect at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. “There's a lot of child sexual abuse cases that are not being investigated, and there's a lot of child sexual abuse cases that are not being prosecuted.”

Rylee Kirk, one of the Master of Arts in Investigative Journalism students who worked on the project, titled “little victims everywhere,” said the skills she gained doing this investigation will serve her well as a professional reporter.

“My time at the Howard Center has given me the ability to enter the journalism world with amazing skills, strong confidence and the knowledge that my work is important,” said Kirk, who grew up in Georgia. “By bringing this issue to light, it is my hope there can be work done to ensure that child sexual abuse cases are not slipping through the cracks.”

The Howard Center at the Cronkite School and another at the University of Maryland were established in 2019 under grants from the Scripps Howard Foundation to advance deeply researched watchdog journalism and train the next generation of investigative reporters. The centers honor the legacy of Roy W. Howard, former chairman of the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain and a pioneering news reporter.

Maud Beelman, executive editor of the Cronkite School’s Howard Center, said she believes this investigation has the potential to change lives: “By shining a light on a problem that few knew existed or wanted to talk about, I hope the students’ reporting will lead to justice for the most vulnerable among us.”

“We are indebted to the families who were willing to share their stories,” added Howard Center Executive Producer Lauren Mucciolo. “The resilience and strength they exhibit is deeply inspiring.”