By Holly Farason
On a cross country course, Kirsten Johnston is all about speed. At the Next Chapter Book Club, she’s happy to take as much time as the other members like.
Social work student and TCU cross country athlete Kirsten Johnston has always been interested in advocating for individuals and finding ways she could help. Originally a movement science major, Johnston found she enjoyed working with individuals with disabilities and changed her major.
“I looked at social work and saw it was more than just about child protective service type things and that piqued my interest,” Johnston said.
One of the fields available to social workers is serving those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Johnston met with Aesha John, an assistant professor of social work, after hearing that she specialized in working with individuals with intellectual disabilities. John informed her of a unique learning opportunity where she could gain experience by helping others.
The TCU Department of Social Work partnered with My Health My Resources of Tarrant County, a local agency specializing in mental health and intellectual disability services, to bring the Next Chapter Book Club to the TCU campus.
Originally founded at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, The Next Chapter Book Club seeks to create a learning environment for individuals with intellectual disabilities. Since its inception, the Next Chapter Book Club has expanded to communities across the country.
TCU’s chapter consists of four to eight adult members of the local community, all with different types of disabilities. The book club meets once a week in the TCU book store and is co-facilitated by social work students like Johnston.
The goal of the book club is to provide an opportunity for social interaction and discussion, not to improve individuals reading levels – although that can happen.
“We want to give them some sort of opportunity to interact with each other because once they graduate from high school, there are no social opportunities to interact,” John said.
One book the club has read, Lucky Dogs, Lost Hats, and Dating Don’ts, was written by the founder of the book club. The book contains short stories about individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities and is written at a level that is easy to read and comprehend.
Participants take turns reading aloud, sometimes demonstrating echo reading – a technique in which the facilitator reads a sentence and an individual repeats after them.
John said the participants have varying abilities and reading levels, but echo reading helps them pronounce words if they are struggling. There is one high-functioning member with intellectual disabilities whose reading level is great.
“She is very high-functioning and has great relationships with the other members and shows them that they, too, are capable,” John said.
The books chosen for members to read are high-content, which means they talk about mature subjects, like dating or being late for a job, but the reading is at a second-grade level.
“We don’t want to give them juvenile things, we don’t want adults reading children’s books,” John said.
Working alongside John is Brandy Qualls, MHMR activities coordinator. Qualls helps train facilitators and makes sure the club is not just reading but thinking about the content in the book and sharing their ideas and opinions about what they read.
Qualls said she likes the book they are reading because it talks about people with intellectual or developmental disabilities doing things that some in the book club may never have thought about.
“One of the stories was about two cousins taking a road trip,” Qualls said. “They may have never even imagined they could go on a road trip, so this gives them that idea. It makes them think ‘This guy is like me and he went on a road trip, then why can’t I?’”
When leading the group, Johnston asks questions about the story like “How would you feel if someone did that to you?” or “What does that mean?”
“I have learned to be really patient with them in the readings because some of them struggle and can get down on themselves,”Johnston said. “But if you tell them ‘Good job,’ then it makes them so happy and gives them a lot of confidence.”
She feels the book club is a great way of getting participants out of their bubble while promoting inclusion on campus by hosting populations that might not otherwise be represented.
“I’ve learned a lot about accepting everybody and their differences and learning to be patient,” Johnston said.
As for right now, anyone is welcome and the club sees new faces each week.
“This is our first try, but we hope to expand and begin reading some of the classics like Little Women, Gulliver’s Travels or maybe even a biography,” said Qualls.
John and Qualls hope to create another book club on campus with the same individuals each week. They see the book club as a chance to connect and learn from one another.
“We can be advocates just by asking questions and listening,” said Qualls. “It’s all about taking turns and letting everybody have a chance.”