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A Look at the 2021 PPCA Conference

Tags: DOC
September 29, 2021 12:00 AM
By: Rev. Tami Hooker, SCI Greene

A chaplain lights a candle in front of other chaplains

The Pennsylvania Prison Chaplains Association is an independent entity which includes state, county and federal chaplains, volunteers and organizations that participate in prison ministry in our state. Included in its list of purposes are the desire to improve the effectiveness of its chaplains and to provide a forum for fellowship and support among correctional chaplains. In support of those aims, the organization holds an annual conference each fall. This year's conference was held Aug. 31-Sept. 2, and 46 DOC chaplains were able to be among the 69 who attended.

A reverend lights a candle in front of other chaplains

Rev. Darlene Johnson, chaplaincy program director at SCI Cambridge Springs lights a candle in remembrance of Fr. Daniel Perez during the Memorial portion of the banquet.

Training

This year's conference was developed around the theme of Cross-Cultural Competency for Correctional Chaplains. The keynote speaker was Dr. Latinia Shell, who is a licensed counselor with more than 20 years of experience. Her areas of expertise include racial identity development and multicultural counseling. In addition to Dr. Latinia's presentations, a panel of experienced chaplains spoke to the group on issues of diversity that they had experienced in their chaplaincy careers. There was also a presentation by Mary Friedline, attorney with the Governor's Office of General Counsel, and Tara Wikhian, assistant counsel for the DOC, in which they highlighted legal issues surrounding equal treatment of inmates and how to avoid practices that could be perceived to be discriminatory.

Fellowship

This year, many chaplains were attending a PPCA conference for the first time due to a higher-than-usual chaplaincy turnover rate and the fact that last year's conference was held virtually. To support the newer chaplains and provide fellowship of those who have been around for a while, time was built into the schedule for religious groups to gather and share information specific to their faith groups. This, along with worship time for all faith communities present, meal times, breaks and the traditional "non-official ice cream run" for all interested attendees, gave chaplains an opportunity to network and fellowship. This is often cited by attendees as one of the most valuable benefits of attending the conference.

Celebration

One of the highlights of the conference each year is the Wednesday evening PPCA banquet. During this event, the work and lives of those chaplains who have died in the past year are remembered and celebrated by their colleagues, chaplains of the year are honored and attendees are blessed by speakers who are invited to address them.

Chaplains of the Year

Two people hold a certificateEach year, the PPCA selects one DOC and one county chaplain as Chaplains of the Year. This year, the DOC chaplain selected was Deacon Ralph DeCecco, SCI Albion (pictured). Deacon DeCecco first served Albion as a contracted chaplain in 2000. During his tenure as a contracted chaplain, he was also asked to serve in various supportive roles at SCI Cambridge Springs and SCI Mercer. In April 2014, he was the unanimous choice to become the chaplaincy program director and served there until his retirement in April 2020. When approved, Deacon jumped back into prison to serve in a contracted chaplain capacity. In his nomination of Deacon DeCecco, Rev. Abner Garcia, SCI Albion, stated that Deacon DeCecco is a perfect example of what a chaplain is, has a real devotion to the men and is dedicated to serving them. He also noted that Ralph's care extends to those who work with him. Deacon DeCecco was ordained by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Erie in June 1999. He is pictured here with his wife, Janet, holding the plaque he was presented. Congratulations, Deacon! An honor well-deserved!

The county chaplain selected for Chaplain of the year was Rev. Jack Crans, administrative chaplain at the Chester County Prison since 1973. Rev. Crans also serves as a chaplain for the Pennsylvania State Police and continues to direct and serve "County Corrections Gospel Mission" based in Coatesville, Chester County.

Because last year's conference was virtual, the 2020 Chaplains of the Year were also honored during this year's banquet. Pastor Phil Maust, SCI Somerset, and Rev. Cokelia Dunn, who was nominated for her work at the George Hill Correctional Facility but also serves as a contract chaplain at SCI Chester, were acknowledged along with the 2021 honorees. 

Banquet Speaker

The speaker at this year's banquet was the DOC's own Daniel D. McIntyre, Director PA DOC Bureau of Reentry Coordination and JRI PA DOC.

McIntyre shared thoughts with the chaplains on the unprecedented challenges they faced in the past year and a half and the unprecedented ways the chaplains reacted with so many positive and creative responses to those challenges. He also reminded attendees to keep looking for and responding in new and positive ways to the opportunities that always arise in the midst of challenges. In addition to his uplifting speech, McIntyre took time to speak individually with numerous chaplains in attendance, asking about their work at their specific facilities, listening to their concerns and continuing to provide encouragement, support and affirmation that their work makes a great impact at their institutions. His words and spirit were well received by those in attendance. In fact, one of the feedback forms turned in remarked, "Enjoyed the …guest speaker. He was unprecedented."

DOC chaplains who attended express thanks to their institutions and to the DOC administration for giving them an opportunity to attend the conference. Rev. Aaron Reitz, SCI Rockview, who was installed as the President of the PPCA at the conference stated, "This year's conference felt like a family reunion. It was so nice to see many familiar faces and meet new attendees from around the state. We are grateful to all of those whose effort and leadership brought us all back together again." 

Anyone interested in more information about the PPCA should contact Rev. Reitz or visit the organization's website.


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