SMC Student Leans on Past to Create Program for Youth with Disabilities
Making new and meaningful connections is an important part of the college experience. New friends, roommates, and professors all play a role in shaping young lives. For one Spartanburg Methodist College student, making new and meaningful connections meant creating that opportunity for others, who may have a bigger challenge in developing relationships.
Kennedy Howard, a junior from Greer studying psychology and religion, wasn’t sure how to fulfill her community service requirement to complete her psychology class in the spring of 2019, but she was certain that she wanted to benefit young students with disabilities. Howard’s motivation to help those students stemmed from her own experience. Growing up with cerebral palsy, she understands the challenge of connecting and developing relationships that can provide positive motivation and encouragement at a young age.
With some help from her mother and her psychology professor, Dr. Mary Jane Farmer, Howard found the direction she needed to both fulfill her community service requirement and her desire to help students with disabilities. She wanted to focus on creating a communication and mentoring program to help those students. That led to Kennedy’s Korner, an electronic pen pal program focused on connecting with middle school students with disabilities to help them gain insights into personal issues and struggles they may encounter.
“The driving force behind the program was to provide students advice and encouragement,” she said. “Growing up with a disability myself, I never had someone similar to my situation give me first-hand experiences and advice on what I was going through; so, I wanted to provide that for others.”
The program started with Howard serving as a pen pal for 15 students with disabilities at Florence Chapel Middle School, where her mother is a teacher, exchanging messages with those students via e-mail or various social media platforms. Howard’s mother, Andrea, saw the benefit of the program on her students as well as her daughter.
“Kennedy's Korner allowed our students the opportunity to interact with college students,” said Andrea Howard. “The program allowed Kennedy to showcase her passion for helping kids of all backgrounds and circumstances feel confident in themselves and empower their voices.”
The program received a quick and positive response from the young students, who were excited at the prospect of getting a new message from their pen pal. There was also a meet and greet for the students at SMC, including a campus tour.
“I chose middle schoolers because that can be a hard time for students, and I thought this would be a good age to mentor,” Kennedy said. “If I had this program when I was in middle school, I probably would have loved it. It would have reminded me that I’m not the only person with my situation out there.”
Kennedy's Korner had such a positive impact that Howard and Dr. Farmer decided to expand the program in the fall semester of 2019. Dr. Farmer recruited all her psychology students to participate, and Howard expanded from one classroom of 15 students to 140 middle school students, including non-disabled participants.
Research showed that the benefits of Kennedy’s Korner extended well beyond students with disabilities to all of the middle school students and even the college students who participated. Howard said it was very rewarding to see that many college students expressed interest in staying in contact with their pen pals to continue mentoring them. Feedback showed that 88 percent of participants indicated they had a good connection with their pen pal and it provided them a good perception of college.
Dr. Farmer recognized the value and success of the program and not only provided support by recruiting other psychology students to participate, but she also encouraged Howard to submit a paper on the program to the 2020 South Carolina Upstate Research Symposium (SCURS). After review, Howard’s paper – “Kennedy’s Korner Pen Pal Program: The Effects of Electronic Communication on Special Needs Students” – was selected for presentation at the Symposium and received tremendous positive feedback, including a suggestion that her program could be tailored to help young students cope with the pressures of the pandemic.
"I'm extremely proud of Kennedy," Dr. Farmer said. "She is a very smart young woman who is very persistent at achieving her goals."
Howard was excited to present at SCURS and proud of the feedback she received.
“It was an honor to represent SMC at SCURS. The response was amazing,” Howard said. “I received comments on how great the program sounded. I also received questions about expansion and how this idea could impact many different groups.”
Kennedy's Korner has also resonated in the psychology academic community beyond South Carolina. Howard has presented her work at the 2019 Psi Beta Conference in Chicago, where she was awarded the Carol Tracy Individual Community Service Award.
"Kennedy has a bright and promising future ahead of her,” Dr. Farmer said. “I pray for her success and for opportunities for her to touch other people’s lives with her gifts and talents.”
While Howard is proud of her program and the results it showed with the students involved, she is certainly not finished with Kennedy’s Korner. Howard plans to continue growing the program, adding more middle schools, and providing more young students with the meaningful connections she had a hard time developing when she was growing up.
She credits her experience at SMC and Dr. Farmer for giving her confidence and motivation to develop Kennedy's Korner and to continue developing it beyond a psychology class requirement. She's also proud of what her idea has grown into. After graduating from SMC, Howard plans to continue her education by pursuing her master's degree in school counseling.
“The most rewarding part about the success is to see that my ideas and experiences are helping people and that there are so many people who support the mission and are willing to help,” Howard said. “In short, the most rewarding thing is that I am making a difference. That has always been the goal.”