Breaking Down Barriers Through Books

It’s a Wednesday afternoon in a Meadville bakery. Five adults sit around a table, each with a book open, reading “The Phantom of the Opera.”

Some of the individuals enjoy reading aloud. Others prefer just to follow along, but still taking part in the conversation.

The setting may seem like a typical book club. But what’s different is that it’s part of an Allegheny College faculty-student research project, aimed at making a positive impact on individuals’ lives and the community.

The project, called the Next Chapter Book Club, is for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) and other mental health conditions. This is the first summer that Assistant Professor of Psychology Monali Chowdhury and two summer research students, Ian Dempsey and Noelle Lemons, have facilitated the clubs. And it’s the first time a project like this has been done in Meadville.

“The Next Chapter Book Club began in 2002 at the Ohio State University, where I finished my graduate work. Now there are more than 250 clubs nationwide, in more than 100 cities and in 29 states,” Chowdhury says. “With Meadville being a smaller community, I felt there was a real opportunity to bring support like this here. Although we have several goals for the program, our main one is to make a meaningful impact on the lives of community members with IDD.”

Primary Objectives of the Next Chapter Book Club:

  • Develop a model program for literacy learning, social connectedness and community inclusion
  • Enhance social experiences
  • Increase the inclusion of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities
  • Optimize lifelong learning opportunities

The First Chapter
Chowdhury and Dempsey began the project in fall ’14 by reviewing scientific literature on setting up community engagement projects and establishing partnerships with local Meadville organizations that work with individuals with IDD.

Based on this groundwork, they made a presentation in April ’15 at “The Next Chapter Book Club and Beyond: A Conference on Literacy for Adults with IDD.” This national conference hosted Next Chapter Book Club members from across the country, professionals from the field of psychology, special education and social workers, and book club facilitators, as well as parents of individuals with IDD and other advocates. Chowdhury and Dempsey not only served as presenters, but also participated in and co-facilitated onsite book clubs.

Lemons joined the project this summer. Funding for their summer research came from the Shea Family Fund and the Dr. Barbara Lotze Fund for Student-Faculty Research.

Chowdhury, Dempsey and Lemons now facilitate two, 90-minute clubs for adults 20 to 50 years old referred from Child to Family Connections, a nonprofit agency providing adult direct support, among other services to community members with IDD. The book clubs meet weekly at Confections of a Cake Lover in Meadville.

Teen NCBC clubIn addition, the group facilitates two book clubs for teenagers with IDD and other mental health conditions from Bethesda Children’s Home in Meadville. These one-hour sessions take place in a school classroom at Bethesda.

During the first session, each group voted on which book they wanted to read. One adult group chose “The Phantom of the Opera,” while the other chose “The Arabian Nights.” Both of the teen clubs chose “The War of the Worlds.”

“When Professor Chowdhury asked me to join this project, I was thrilled,” says Dempsey, a senior biology major and psychology minor. “We are having fun with this. Allegheny emphasizes community involvement and engagement, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

During each session, the facilitators help members sound out words, use words in a new context, use events in the book as bridges to personal stories when appropriate and provide positive, gentle encouragement.

What the Research Says …
Research shows that for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, literacy may decline after their formal education ends, but it also can be motivated by book interactions. “Many people with intellectual and developmental disabilities who are trying to learn literacy may face many barriers. The book club promotes an environment that uses literacy and socialization as a mechanism to address and help alter inequities,” Chowdhury says.

“I really feel like this experience has shaped me,” says Lemons, a junior biochemistry major and psychology minor. “I’m learning about what I can say to get the members engaged in the book and have a conversation. It’s really rewarding. When they come in, they tell us how much they missed us. It’s a great feeling.”

It also feels good when they’ve made a special connection with a member.

“At Bethesda,” Dempsey says, “there’s a boy who really likes to write. After the club, he showed us a project he’d been working on. He was genuinely excited about sharing that.”

“I’m constantly amazed by how creative our members are,” Chowdhury adds. “When we talk about a person with IDD, we might have an image in our mind of someone who doesn’t understand much. While that might be true in certain cases, we have a range of individuals in terms of cognitive function in our clubs, and their creative ability is truly inspirational for all of us. This work helps us to break some of those stereotypes.”

A Civic Autobiography
In addition to making a difference in members’ lives, a large component of this research project revolves around civic engagement. Dempsey and Lemons have done several exercises that allow them to reflect on their civic identities and motivation – which also ties into one of the components of the new Allegheny Gateway.

“Work by various authors has shown that civic engagement activities can prepare a student for success far beyond the classroom in their personal careers and with family life,” Lemons says. “With the book club, we are able to be engaged in the community, and that expands our appreciation of civic engagement.”

This fall, the group plans to expand their work with new and existing members and focus on collecting data to assess how well the book clubs are meeting their goals. Funding for this research will come from the Fahrner Fund for Community Engagement through the Allegheny Gateway. Students in Chowdhury’s upper-level course on autism also will have an opportunity to participate.

“I just like to read; overall I’m enjoying it. I like it (“Arabian Nights”) because of the suspense. I look forward to coming (to the book club) … I wish the book club could go on forever; I would come (to the book club) twice a week.”
~ Member, Next Chapter Book Club, Meadville

Chowdhury already has seen positive results from this summer. For example, she says one of the adult members spontaneously, without instruction from the facilitators, started modeling appropriate reading for another member who had less-developed reading skills.

“This member had taken it upon himself to help his peer with difficult words and prompt the peer to sound out bigger words,” she says. “It was very rewarding seeing this unfold. This aspect of peer mentorship certainly speaks to the social connectedness and literacy learning that the Next Chapter Book Club has as one of its goals.”

Both Dempsey and Lemons feel the experience has made a difference in their lives.

“The more that you interact with people, the more you find out about yourself,” Dempsey says. “For me, this experience has solidified my plans to go to law school by giving me hands-on experience working with and for the people in my community.”

“I would like to someday be a pediatric oncologist, so I know I’m going to be interacting with a wide variety of people,” Lemons says. “Working with those with intellectual and developmental disabilities has helped me gain an understanding of what’s out there and learn how to interact and communicate with them.”

“This experience has been incredibly rewarding for me, as well,” Chowdhury says. “I see our members enthusiastically interacting over books, Noelle and Ian as effective facilitators helping them read, keeping them actively engaged and included in discussion – it is what we had envisioned for this project. I look forward to continuing this collaborative work with our future students and taking this journey forward.”

Year of Meadville
This year’s annual theme is “The Year of Meadville,” which ties into the work Dr. Chowdhury and her students are doing in the community. To learn more about the Year of Meadville, visit

Appropriate permissions have been obtained to use images of book club members.