The Next Chapter Book Club, hosted by the MacArthur Campus Library, is making a real difference in the lives of college students with intellectual disabilities. Led by library director Leah Plocharczyk since the spring of 2016, the club is a collaboration with FAU’s Academy for Community Inclusion and the Department of Exceptional Education.
The participating students have a variety of intellectual disabilities, including down syndrome, autism, and cerebral palsy. The club is an optional part of the post-secondary education program that allows these students to have a typical college experience, teaches them how to advocate for themselves, and seek employment opportunities post-graduation.
Students meet once a week for an hour to read, discuss the book, and play educational games. Plocharczyk said finding books everyone can agree upon is the biggest challenge. Luckily, the club members discovered a genre called Disney Junior Novelizations. Mandalorian and books in the Frozen and Goosebumps series were the crowd favorites.
Last spring semester Plocharczyk decided to try something new.
“Most students love pop culture and stay abreast of current events. Although we enjoyed reading a book each semester, I noticed that attention spans were waning. That’s when I came up with the idea to rebrand our image. We are now the “Nosy Newsy Owls,” she said.
Plocharczyk explained that instead of choosing a book to read for the entire semester, she asked the students to select an interesting, current event and bring it to the group. Each week, the students took turns reading an article they found online about something relevant in the world and had a group discussion.
“It is an eye opener to see what topics interest them and what they view as important at the moment. It is also refreshing to hear their opinions and thoughts on different issues,” she said, adding that as the club gets ready to start again in the fall, she plans to ask each student to take turns facilitating the club every week.
“I think this would be a wonderful opportunity for the students to grow their leadership skills and take ownership of the club. The main objective for the students is to gain independence. I want them to realize their capabilities, so they can fine-tune these skills for future success once they leave FAU,” said Plocharczyk.
She added that running a book club for college students with intellectual disabilities was a life-changing experience for her.
“It is rewarding to watch a student who was once shy and reserved open up and flourish. I notice their self-confidence, empathy, and maturity grow as they learn to engage and socialize with one another,” Plocharczyk said.
She believes that the lessons they learn at the book club and the time they spend socializing influence their growth even after they leave FAU.
Plocharczyk still receives weekly emails and calls from students who have moved on yet reach out to share with her the exciting things they are doing as graduates. Often, they ask about the book club and want to know what the club is reading and who is participating.
“Just the other day, I received an email from a staff member of the Academy of Community Inclusion letting me know that two of my former book club members are now living in their own homes with roommates, walk to do their shopping and errands, and take public transportation to their jobs. Those successful outcomes are proof that outreach programs can positively impact our students with differing abilities,” she said.
Plocharczyk added that the club helps familiarize students with the library in general. They feel comfortable using the library services, talking to staff, and asking them for help.
“Some students come to us for homework help or to interview us for class projects. I like that they see us as allies and valuable resources for their success in school,” she said.
Inspired by her work with students and the Next Chapter book club, Leah Plocharczyk co-authored the book Libraries and Reading: Intellectual Disability and the Extent of Library Diversity, published in 2020.