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Carlisle Community Action network honored as it continues its work
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Carlisle Community Action network honored as it continues its work

Margee M. Ensign

Margee M. Ensign

Carlisle Community Action Network isn’t resting after being recognized for its response to the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, it’s using the relationships and trust it’s built among leaders and organizations to launch new efforts to rebuild the community and address issues revealed during the crisis.

The network, known as Carlisle CAN, grew out of breakfast meetings of about 25 leaders from across the community that started about three years ago at Dickinson College President Margee Ensign’s house.

Attendance grew during the pandemic to include between 45 and 92 participants on Zoom calls, Ensign said.

Ensign said the network is unlike anything she’s seen before in that it brings together the town’s three major higher education institutions—U.S. Army War College, Dickinson College and Penn State Dickinson Law—together with leaders from politics, faith, nonprofits and business.

“I think it’s amazing what’s been accomplished. The groups involved are extraordinary, and it’s a platform now for doing all sorts of things,” she said.

When problems or issues arose throughout the pandemic, Ensign said members of the network volunteered to take on the challenges, whether it was finding bottles for hand sanitizer being made by Hook & Flask Still Works, finding ways to make sure summer camps happened, helping businesses fill out grant applications or more.

“It’s always, ‘Yes and how can we help,’ not ‘Yes, but I’m busy,’” Ensign said.


The work done by the network was recently honored by the Pennsylvania Humanities Council. The council presented the network, Ensign and Jennifer Love, Ensign’s assistant chief of staff, with a Pennsylvania Heart & Soul Hero award.

Lindsay Varner, community outreach director at the Cumberland County Historical Society, said the council launched an initiative during the lockdown as a way to highlight the good works that were being done in the community during the crisis.

“They wanted to show some positive community aspects across the state,” Varner said. “They were specifically focusing on some of the Heart & Soul communities in the area.”

As a past director of Greater Carlisle Heart & Soul, Varner was asked to nominate someone who embodied the spirit of the Heart & Soul project. Carlisle CAN came to mind immediately.

“I was just amazed at the Community Action Network’s ability to bring people together,” she said. “It was incredible to see the positivity coming out of this group.”

The network projected a “can-do attitude” that developed a sense that the community would get through the crisis and get through it together, Varner said. It’s allowed network members to think outside the box about ways to improve the community.

“There’s going to be a lot of good momentum going forward in what this group can do and how we can work with the community,” she said.

Carlisle CAN is still working on issues, discussing, for instance, how it can help with contact tracing to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

Alongside its work related to COVID-19, Ensign said the network is beginning to turn its focus to anti-racist issues by committing to asking how the community can be made more just by making sure Black people are getting access to education, health care and criminal justice.

The network is also continuing to look at the issues they were discussing before the pandemic began; issues like housing, food security, addiction issues and livable wages.

Through their work, Carlisle CAN has become aware not only of the issues in the community but also the resources that are there to solve them, Ensign said. Its members have also been able to develop a level of trust and strong relationships that will guide it through its work.

“With what the country’s going through, I believe this is how we rebuild—local communities with groups getting together. We have political perspectives all over the map on that group, but we’re solving problems,” Ensign said.

Email Tammie at Follow her on Twitter @TammieGitt.

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