While students and faculty at UNCG’s Speaking Center have worked to support voices of communities off campus for the past 13 years, they had never done so on a farm! Starting in 2015, the speaking center has been spending Friday afternoons at Peacehaven Community Farm. At Peacehaven they formed a partnership which gives voice to the adults with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities who live on the farm by way of a self-paced certificate program

Currently living at the Peacehaven Community Farm are four core members: Jeff, Anne, Molly, and Jake. The Speaking Center takes trips to the farm to support the core members in improving their interpersonal and social communication skills. While CST MA student, Taylor Williams is conducting research around this work, three of the undergraduates involved joined their faculty directors at the 14th Annual Excellence at the Center Conference to share this important work, what impact the outreach has had on them as learners/consultants, and a group interview video with the core members themselves.

Here is a snapshot of what the students had to share:

Rachel Sieczowski, CST major, spoke about each core member and the individual struggles of communication they each wanted to attend to. She also provided details about the fully-sustainable farm itself, which sits on 83 acres and includes a main house with land for animals and crops. The farm also hosts workdays where people from the community come to volunteer on the farm, meet core members, and learn more about Peacehaven.

Jake and Taylor practice handshake and eye contact
Jake and Taylor practice handshake and eye contact.

Anna Curtis, CST major, primarily discussed the one-on-one sessions she had with core members – specifically Jake, who she helped to speak up and fully pronounce sentences. Anna admitted that she suffers from anxieties in communication, especially when conversations don’t go back and forth between people. “I felt like I wasn’t doing anything right, that they weren’t learning” Anna explained. However, she soon learned that these pauses in communication were normal because core members tended to stay quieter if they didn’t know what to talk about. Over time, Anna became more comfortable and was informed that her presence was meaningful and that the Speaking Center team always has her back.

Molly Barker practices introducing herself.
Karen Boger coaches Molly Barker practices introducing herself.

Karen Boger, PSY & CST double-major, presented the theatre technique of side coaching she utilized to help core members with their individual communication complications. “Side coaching,” Karen said, “is when someone is actively at your side and coaches you while in the communication situation, providing techniques to help throughout the conversation.”

“Borrowing from theatre does not stop there; we also engage in improvisation by using props such as hula hoops for personal space, and outfits to create different personas to aid each core member in learning introductions and asking questions about others.”

Molly Barker, Anne Harris, and Taylor Williams minding one another's personal space.
Molly Barker, Anne Harris, and Taylor Williams minding one another’s personal space.

Strategies such as open-ended questions were used to help conversation become more comfortable and open between each core member. Karen specifically stressed that these were not games they played, but effective tools to give the core members a more improved, confident, and sociable ability to communicate.

CST faculty member and Speaking Center Associate Director, Erin Ellis assisted the students as they prepared to present at their first national academic conference and provided feedback after the presentations. Director Kim Cuny, serving as chair of the panel, provided theoretical and historical grounding for the student presentations.

Speaking center student interest in this effort continues to grow and so Cuny has been creative in finding ways to include participation.  These experiences at the farm can be curricular for those enrolled in the speaking center’s internship course (CST 412), co-curricular for interested students currently enrolled in the speaking center theory and practice course (CST 390), or extra-curricular for those who have already completed CST 390.  As Cuny says, “it all starts with one life changing course, CST 390!”

Thanks to Kim Cuny and Mitchell Byers for contributing this story and to Taylor Williams and Katelyn Wilkinson for the photography.