Alumni couple's gift creates eastern hub for Human Rights Education Initiative

WYOMISSING, Pa. — Penn State alumni Victor and Dena Hammel have committed $450,000 to support the University’s Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Initiative. The gift will fund the establishment of an eastern hub at Penn State Berks for the interdisciplinary effort, which draws upon the strengths of multiple Penn State colleges and campuses.

Victor and Dena Hammel photo

Victor and Dena Hammel

Credit: Provided

The 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.

“The Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Initiative has made a great deal of progress, and this generous gift from Vic and Dena Hammel is going to propel its growth and its impact in a powerful way,” said initiative leader Boaz Dvir, assistant professor of journalism in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications. “Through their support, we will be able to deliver our programming on a larger scale, allowing us to positively affect more lives. We are deeply grateful for their generosity, vision and leadership.”

The Hammels’ support was inspired partly by their family’s own connection to the Holocaust.

“My father fled Germany in 1937 with other family members because they could see that something awful was going to happen, but some of his family stayed behind, and they perished,” said Vic Hammel. “So, I do think it’s vital that the Holocaust be remembered.”

Yet the Hammels stressed that the initiative goes beyond Holocaust remembrance.

“The key point that made us eager to support it was its focus on human rights more broadly,” Dena Hammel said. “It will help students understand the underlying conditions that lead to bigotry, hatred, and in the most extreme conditions, genocide. That knowledge is transferrable to the time and place we’re living in today, and that’s what makes it so powerful.”

Vic explained that the initiative seeks to achieve this by preparing teachers to address such issues in age-appropriate ways. “With young children, for example, it starts with discussions of bullying on the playground and similar issues that they can relate to,” he said. “And that’s crucial: if we can help children to avoid those patterns of distrust and othering early on, then the kind of hatred and bigotry that leads to atrocities like the Holocaust can’t take root.”

“We’re really hoping that this education can be transformative in how we view ourselves collectively, regardless of race or religion or political viewpoints,” Dena added.

Vic and Dena Hammel, of Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, are co-chairs of Penn State Berks’ efforts in “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence.” In 2018, they joined with Penn State alumni Irvin and Lois Cohen to create the Cohen-Hammel Fellows Program at the Berks campus, and they have made other major gifts to support Berks and Penn State Hillel. 

The Hammels 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. Victor Hammel 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.

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. This past summer, it launched two intensive year-long professional-development programs, one of which allows participants to earn the maximum number of professional-development points allowed in a school year. It is piloting 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. The initiative is also developing free online learning resources for teachers and parents, the first of which were made available in 2020.

The Hammels’ support will allow the Initiative to establish an eastern hub based at Penn State Berks to coordinate operations in eastern Pennsylvania. A key element will be the creation of a new full-time educational program specialist position. This staff member will take a leadership role in a wide range of activities, to include developing and delivering programming in response to school districts’ educational and professional development needs; establishing working partnerships with public school districts, private and parochial schools, and other educational entities; and contributing to the Initiative’s strategic planning.

“The eastern hub and the new educational program specialist will be crucial in building out the Initiative across nearly half of the Commonwealth,” Dvir said.

“Penn State Berks is proud to partner with the Hammels and the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights Education Initiative to host this eastern hub,” said Penn State Berks Chancellor George Grant Jr. “A key part of our campus’ mission is to engage our community. This initiative is an opportunity to bring Penn State and the Greater Reading community together to lift each other up, empowering people to understand historical wrongs, to address current wrongs, and to try to prevent future wrongs. Vic and Dena Hammel are really committed to their community, so this is an exciting partnership for all of us.”

“Vic and Dena are not just donors but leaders,” Dvir added. “They’re working closely with us to make connections that build awareness of and enthusiasm for the Initiative.”

“We really want to see this succeed,” Vic Hammel said. “Given the deep discord in our nation today, we feel the timing is perfect. We’re eager to see Penn State take the lead on this kind of education, and we hope that the Initiative will be an example for the rest of the country to follow.”

The Hammels’ gift will advance “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” a focused campaign that seeks to elevate Penn State’s position as a leading public university in a world defined by rapid change and global connections. With the support of alumni and friends, “A Greater Penn State” seeks to fulfill the three key imperatives of a 21st century public university: keeping the doors to higher education open to hardworking students regardless of financial well-being; creating transformative experiences that go beyond the classroom; and impacting the world by serving communities and fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more about “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” visit To learn more about how to support the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Initiative, contact Heather Winfield at [email protected].