10 Questions: Vigil Organizer Kyle Harris
Kyle Harris felt a lot of disappointment and confusion when the news of Jerry Sandusky’s abuse rocked Penn state. What really struck him about the whole story was that the victims were not being recognized and were not the focus in the media. It was the victims who took a back seat to the Penn State football organization.
Although many of us may have felt saddened and confused in the wake of such a scandal, few of us have actually put those feelings into motion, in a positive way.
Harris, along with his friend, Jess Sever, were able to do just that. I’m sure many of you reading this had attended the candlelight vigil, held on Friday, November 11, on the Old Main lawn. Through the vigil, we as students were able to channel our feelings in a more constructive way. Jess and Kyle created a vigil that all of us desperately needed, but more importantly, they brought the focus back to the victims who were the ones that were really hurting from all of this.
Kyle Harris is senior, majoring in public relations from Northborough, Massachusetts. He is a member of the Blue band, and a second year drum line captain. I had the opportunity to speak with him about his role in planning the vigil.
Onward State: Planning something as large as the vigil seemed to be a huge undertaking. What made you want to plan it personally? Were there others?
Kyle Harris: Jess Sever helped me plan it. We both are taking comm 471. We walked into class on Tuesday before the vigil and we were both angry and upset. We had read the grand jury statement the night before. We were disappointed as Public Relations majors because they weren’t communicating with the students or media, and nothing was happening with the victims. We noticed that everything was about football and Joe Paterno, and nothing was about the victims. We were shocked and frustrated. We wanted to do something that would bring the attention to the victims. Nothing was being done for them, especially by the university. We wanted to do it to show our support. We also wanted to unite the Penn State community. It was really tough for all of us. Doing something like the vigil would not only be beneficial to the victims, but would also act as a positive outlet for students at Penn State.
OS: How much time went in to planning the vigil?
KH: It’s kind of tough to say. All the real programming work that was done we all did on Tuesday for the most part. After our class, we went and registered the event around 11:30 a.m, at the HUB. And then we didn’t even know if we were going to be able to do it. We had no idea who was coming or how we were going to get them to come. Jess and I sat down and we started talking and throwing around ideas. We wanted to see the entire Old Main lawn filled with candles but we didn’t actually know it was going to happen. Being in the band, I wanted the Blue Band to perform. I knew the exact songs I wanted them to play as well, and the Blue Band did come and play. We also knew we wanted to have speakers and a moment of silence. That was the core of the event, but we didn’t know how it would work out. There were a lot of unknown variables. We then started to promote it. We kind of figured it out as we went along. We had a Facebook page and a twitter account, which helped us to tailor our ideas and make them more concrete after we started advertising.
OS: Did you expect such a large turnout at the vigil? Were you at all surprised when you saw how many people attended?
KH: Throughout the week we had been seeing a lot of response on Facebook. We were getting about 3,000 a day saying they were coming, and then the day of the event there were 11,000 who attended. A lot of people were saying that they were attending but couldn’t be there, and were lighting a candle from home. When we showed up, and started setting up, it was over an hour before the vigil and people started showing up. It seemed like out of nowhere everyone showed up around 9:30. There were so many people, a sea of people. All of the candles just blew my mind. We were really emotional the whole time.
OS: There were some speakers at the event. How did you go about reaching out to these people? Did they approach you?
KH: T.J. Bard, the student body president, is the only person we reached out to. There was also a woman, Sheffy, Dustin Yenser, and an anonymous letter. The letter was from a victim of sexual abuse, and she wanted us to share her story. A girl typed her story and sent it to us. And Sheffy, who was a sexual assault victim, also asked us to speak. Dustin Yenser also spoke, and Jess met with him. She kind of took the responsibility of organizing the speakers, and they all ended up doing an incredible job. And LaVar Arrington, that was cool. Jess’s uncle does advertising on his radio show in D.C., and she knew him through that. She texted him while he was doing his radio show. I was at practice and I get a text from Jess about LaVar Arrington coming to speak. At 5 p.m. on Friday of the vigil, we locked in LaVar as a speaker. I lost it. I was freaking out. He was phenomenal and we were so happy. Both of the a capella groups reached out to us as well. All of the speakers contacted us. I was excited that people were contacting us. That was a testament to what Penn State is really about.
OS: Is PSUHope planning any more events?
KH: We’ve talked about it a little. We don’t have anything planned. We don’t know yet. A lot of groups reached out to us about helping their cause financially, and we didn’t know if we wanted to get into that because we aren’t a sanctioned group. It’s only the two of us, Jess and me. We don’t have any specific plan. If something came up, we would both be down to do it.
OS: How did you advertise the vigil?
KH: We both reached out to the media. We made a media advisory and printed out 100 copies and walked around. Any time we saw any press, we would hand them a media advisory. They all said they would come. Once we started handing them out, we saw that the press was interested. The press would interview us about it. From that point on, the media kept calling. Everyone tried to talk to us about it. The majority of planning happened Tuesday because the rest of the time was basically all promotion of the event. We wanted to get the word out and present a positive statement to the media. After the riots we got a lot of negative attention. We wanted to show the positivity of Penn State. I saw so many kids yelling and fighting with the media. It doesn’t solve anything. We both thought it was way more constructive to use the media. We saw the value of what the vigil could do not only for the victims, but for Penn State. We did interviews with basically every major network. It was pretty chaotic. It was worth it. We wanted to get the word out as much as possible.
OS: Did you receive any feedback from the University about the vigil?
KH: Professors were thanking us for it. They appreciated it a lot. Rodney Erickson was at the vigil and he came up on the steps and introduced himself to us, and thanked us. That was cool. Other than that, no one has contacted us. I don’t need to be thanked. We weren’t expecting praise; we just sort of did it. I give more credit to the student body. This is what everyone wanted, we just put a few plans into action and the rest took care of itself. To me that’s way bigger than anything me or Jess did.
OS: How do you feel now that you have secured a spot in the University’s history?
KH: I’m going to be fully honest, it’s weird. I keep thinking back on it, and thinking, “That vigil was crazy.” I went back to Massachusetts and all these kids from my high school I haven’t seen in years came up to me and told me how great it was. It’s been really shocking. My roommate told me that Sports Illustrated did a story on Penn State and there’s a two page spread on the vigil. I was really happy I could just give back to the University. This is my home and how everything happened, I felt as though my home was being destroyed. It’s just been interesting. I’m so proud of everyone who came out to the vigil. It’s difficult still with everything going on; I’m still sad about it. There’s still a long road ahead. From the response I have been getting, it seems to have helped a lot of people. My friend said to me, he didn’t think that the Saturday game after the vigil would have been as strong and emotional if it hadn’t been for the vigil. I don’t know if that’s true, but I’d like to think it is.