Release Date: July 16, 2012
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- For Tim Boling, July is an important time of year. For the next five weeks, he will have 800 schoolchildren on his hands, a thought that would cause the average adult to become wide-eyed and hyperventilate into a brown paper bag.
Boling, though, is not anxious; in fact, he is looking forward to it. For these few weeks every summer, he is among the privileged few with the opportunity to witness something remarkable.
Boling is the CEO of Cradle Beach, a nonprofit organization located along the shore of Lake Erie. He orchestrates the summer camp held there, a destination that has welcomed disadvantaged youth and children with special needs from the surrounding area for 125 years.
Here is what makes the camp extraordinary: It's the only camp in the country bringing both groups of children together at the same time. This integration -- as many camp graduates would tell you-- has changed many lives. An effect Boling believes may be "magical."
"When you bring children together with over 100 counselors who love working with children, a magical life-changing experience takes place," says Boling.
Unique to their program, past campers build strong bonds with those who have special needs and often pursue careers that involve helping others.
The scientific community, however, seldom supports presumptions based on magic. This is where faculty and students in the Department of Counseling School and Educational Psychology (CSEP) in the UB Graduate School of Education enter the picture.
Backed by funding from Cradle Beach and the GSE Dean's Office, UB faculty and students are on a mission to put numbers behind the magic. Over the next few years, these researchers hope to find tangible proof that supports the praises of the program given by former campers, parents and counselors.
"They refer to it as magic in part because they're not sure what it is," says Timothy Janikowski, associate professor and chair of CSEP. "Tim Boling was looking to identify and describe what it is about the Cradle Beach experience that helped many of their campers transform their lives."
In the past year, UB faculty administered surveys to hundreds of children ages 8 to 16, omitting only those with cognitive disabilities. Each survey consisted of simply one question: "A kid should come to Cradle Beach because…?"
The children supplied the faculty with hundreds of responses that were boiled down to 100 unique statements. They later asked the campers to group together these responses and rate them based on importance.
Of all the different statement groups, those relating to social skills and responsibility were the most important. Surprisingly, "fun" was rated the least.
Abiola Dipeolu, a research assistant professor in CSEP who specializes in vocational psychology, believes the children's responses follow their social development.
"When kids with disabilities come into society, they are often sheltered from a lot of us, so we don't know how to act around them," says Dipeolu. "This results in an attitudinal barrier between them and society. By improving the kids' attitude, the camp is removing a huge barrier out of their way, setting them up to succeed later in life."
After all of the data was gathered, UB faculty used concept mapping, software that creates a visual picture of the answers and ranks the frequency of the responses.
The innovative software leads to what Janikowski calls a "merging of language and data."
Funding for the research paid for software licenses, as well as a three-day training class for faculty and students. The research also marks the first time concept mapping has been used with children as young as 8 years old.
James Donnelly, former UB faculty member who now serves as director of research at Hospice Buffalo, offered his concept-mapping expertise to the project. Other UB faculty involved in the study are Catherine Cook-Cottone, Gloria Lee and Amy Reynolds, all associate professors in the CSEP.
Much of the faculty's work included staying on top of the workload. They praised the work of several UB students, including Elliot Zimpfer, a graduate student in mental health counseling; Carolyn Cormier, a sophomore psychology major; Jennifer Schuard, a student in mental housing counseling and counseling psychology; and Marvin Lalin, a senior psychology and business major.
There is still much to be done. The research will continue for another two to three years. The next phase: collect data from staff and parents.
The workload may seem daunting, but the children drive the faculty to keep going.
"This is not highly funded; we're not going after a lot of grant money to buy out of teaching time or to pay for a far-flung research effort. There's a lot of time and effort picked up by the faculty," says Janikowski. "But we hope results will help other camps and similar kinds of organizations get a better sense of how to make their experiences more meaningful and impactful."