With nearly an 120 percent increase in prevalence from 2000 to 2010, autism is currently the fastest-growing developmental disorder in the United States. According to Autism Speaks, it currently affects 1 in 68 children, costing families $60,000 annually on average. With autism now becoming an issue that impacts such a wide variety of people, efforts to improve the lives of those struggling with it are growing rapidly, such as those born out of the Honors Cohort program.
The Business Administration Honors Cohort program consists of a group of 30 students in their final two years of their undergraduate degree taking courses together to challenge themselves academically and develop themselves as professionals and leaders. Amidst a variety of different tools to push these students, Ty Shepfer, director of the program and senior lecturer in Fisher, has implemented a project which underscores the importance of service-based work.
“Historically, in the program, you had to volunteer 30 hours throughout the course of the year,” Shepfer says. “It was kind of a ‘check the box’ exercise. You could do whatever you want; a lot of people did it through their fraternity or sorority, or things they were already doing. What I wanted to do was create a service experience that would help build the cohort community while doing good in our local or global community.”
Consequently, he created the Cohort Impact Challenge, in which students have to “develop and execute a form of service.” As third years, they work in groups of seven to eight students to develop ideas and proposals, ending with the realization of their service project. Although the projects often run the course of their junior year, some projects have managed to live on. Empower Sports at Ohio State is just one example of sustained impact.
“We started with this ambiguous task—we wanted to somehow make an impact in the community and that was really our only goal,” says Sarah Everhart, the current president of Empower Sports. “When you have a group of seven or eight students with different interests and passions, it is difficult to find something in common that you can really make a huge impact on. We found that we all loved being physically active and sports, and we all wanted to help children in some way. So those were two things that we all had in common.”
Empower Sports is a non-profit organization based in Cleveland which provides sports and fitness activities to children with special needs. After Max Bentlage, a current senior in the Honors Cohort program, spent time volunteering for the organization, he suggested the group extend the work Empower conducts by bringing its curriculum to Columbus.
The group found that children with autism struggle with limited patience, acute insecurity and a shorter attention span—all factors which make it difficult for them to participate in sports. This, compounded by the fact that 19 percent of children who are autistic struggle with obesity, inspired the group to organize a five-week sports league for them during the past spring semester. Each week of the program, students spent one to two hours practicing a different sport with the children, running through a variety of drills and exercises to test out different interests.
“We want them to be able to communicate with kids that are just like them, and also have the integration of children with special needs and those that are fully functioning,” Everhart says. “We want to not only help those with special needs and develop their skill set, but also develop the skillset of those who may not be affected by any of these things—to build that empathy.”
One memory in particular has left a lasting impression on one of the students. Adam Lee, current Vice President of Outreach for Empower Sports, began to build a relationship with a 5-year-old child who had yet to speak a word of English. Despite his reluctance to participate in the sports, Lee was able to bond with him based on his love for movies and, after weeks of persistently talking to him about movie characters, was able to get a response.
“I asked who was on his shirt and he responded, without looking at me or even noticing that he had just spoken: ‘Darth Vader,’” Lee says. “I will never forget the look on his mom’s face when she heard him say that. She ran over to him, picked him up and kissed him. Then she turned and hugged me with tears in her eyes.”
As a result, the child began to get more involved in the sports program, not crying at the practices and befriending one of the older students.
“That was when I realized how powerful our efforts can really be,” Lee says. “Even the smallest attempts to help these kids step out of their comfort zone can propel them to mold their personalities, build lasting relationships, and ultimately, be happier with who they are and what they experience.”
In going forward, the group wanted to sustain this impact on a continual basis; thus, they established it as an official Ohio State student organization, opening it up university-wide to students outside of the business school. The group now operates with about 30 members, who are currently planning a seven-week sports league for this coming spring. Ideally, Everhart hopes to see the organization become an ongoing program, which would host year-round sports leagues.
Shepfer applauds the group’s long-term plans for the organization. Ultimately, his motive in assigning this project is for students to recognize the positive change they can have on the community around them. Therefore, gaging the outcome of the project is dependent upon understanding the extent of this change.
“We look at impact,” Shepfer says. “Impact can be very difficult to measure, but we do try to put some quantifiable terms behind it. You could look at the number of people that you have had an influence on and, within that, try to determine what level of influence it was. Was it just this one-time event or was it ongoing? From a more qualitative standpoint, did people say this changed the trajectory of their lives?”
In this sense, the group has the potential to have the greatest impact given that it has continued beyond the Honors Cohort assignment. Shepfer recognizes the difficulties facing the sustainability of such impact with Empower Sports, given that the majority of its founders will be graduating this spring. Nonetheless, the current leadership is optimistic.
“From seeing it from the ground up, you have high hopes for whatever it can become, but of course you cannot see completely into the future,” Everhart says. “With children of any nature, things get crazy and they do not always go as planned so keeping an open mind and remembering the larger purpose—to have that integration, build the empathy of the volunteers, bring attention to this social need, and just make sure that the children feel supported and encouraged—that is what matters.”