Life-long Learning

Next Chapter Book Club engages adults with developmental disabilities

Three years ago Oprah Winfrey reintroduced her famous book club called Oprah’s Book Club 2.0. This new version places an emphasis on using social media to discuss titles so that participants are able to connect and interact with one another. Social connection has always been the driving force behind book clubs and is especially true for an organization called the Next Chapter Book Club. It provides adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities the opportunity to read, discuss books, and socialize in an age appropriate setting.

Denise Gehringer is the Program Coordinator at the Ollie Webb Center in Omaha where she oversees the Next Chapter Book Club as well as several other programs offered there. She has been passionate about helping people with intellectual and developmental disabilities ever since her son was born with Down syndrome. “They have the same desires as everyone else and want to live their lives just like the rest of us,” she said. “With just a little bit of support, they can have that.”

The program began in Omaha in 2011 and is part of a national program founded at Ohio State University in 2002. There are more than 250 clubs nationally in more than 100 cities that serve 1,500 adults, ages 18 and up. Omaha currently has 12 clubs and is the third largest in the nation. Each club has up to eight members and two or three volunteer facilitators. Meetings are weekly for one hour, held at public locations such as Panera, and near members’ homes to make transportation easier.

The meeting format is casual with members gathering at the beginning and chatting about daily happenings. Once the meeting begins, members take turns reading a few pages, stopping occasionally to ask questions or discuss a topic. If a member isn’t able to read themselves, then they can shadow, in which a facilitator reads a few words and the member repeats them for the group.

Many of the books that clubs read are classics such as Sherlock Holmes, The Wizard of Oz, or Huck Finn. Contemporary books are also included, and club members vote on every title. Often once a group has finished a book they get together and watch the movie version, which provides additional social interaction. Books are provided by the Ollie Webb Center’s lending library that is funded by grants from the United Way of the Midlands and the Meyer Foundation for Disabilities.

Jenny Koley has been a club member since it began in Omaha and said even though she’s always enjoyed reading, she has grown to love it even more since joining the Next Chapter Book Club. “I like being with my friends every week and getting out,” she said. “The books are all good, and we read so many different things. One of my favorites was Around the World in 80 Days.”

Becky Kalinski has been a club facilitator since the group formed and volunteered at a friend’s suggestion. “You could be having the worst day, and then you come here and it turns everything around,” she said. “You get to read, be with friends, and it’s such a positive experience.” Kalinski is a teacher by trade and recently won the 2014 Volunteer of the Year award for the Next Chapter Book Club.

The program has been so successful in Omaha there is a waiting list of members who would like to join a group. The only thing preventing more groups from forming is having enough volunteers who will facilitate. “There are several areas throughout the city that have people who are ready to form a group, we just need facilitators,” Gehringer said. All volunteers undergo background checks and receive training. “It’s only an hour a week and such a great experience. Once members form these social connections they become friends for life.”

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