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Sociology grad students present findings of community services survey

A group of nine Lehigh graduate students in sociology recently presented the results of a survey they conducted to assess the effectiveness of the Allentown-based Community Exchange program. The presentation was made to about 50 members of the organization gathered at the Lehigh Valley Hospital.

The Community Exchange—one of the country’s 200 “time banks”—coordinates exchanges, or bartering, of services that can range from sign language to help with household chores. The Lehigh Valley Community Exchange is sponsored by Lehigh Valley Hospital and supported by the Dorothy Rider Pool Health Care Trust.

“We were asked to evaluate the effectiveness of the organization in promoting physical and mental health and reducing isolation,” says Judith Lasker, professor of sociology, who taught the second semester of the graduate program’s required research methods sequence.

During the fall semester, Lasker explained, the students learned about the complexity of carrying out well-designed scientifically valid research. In the second semester, they applied what they learned to a real project—an intense undertaking going from identifying research goals to designing and distributing a survey and analyzing the results for a publishable paper and conference presentation.

In this case, Lasker says, the staff of the Community Exchange requested the research as a way to assess what the organization accomplished, what challenges they might face in improving their operations and to collect data that could be used for future grant applications.

“The students in the course did an excellent job in working with the staff and members of the Community Exchange to design and conduct this survey and present their findings,” Lasker says.”

Participating students were Lauren Baldasari, Tara Bealer, Ethan Kramer, Zane Kratzer, Rachel Mandeville, Eric Niclaus, Julia Schulman, Danielle Suchow, and Jessica Young.

Lasker explained that the students employed a participatory action research method to develop research questions and construct the survey, which was offered to participants online, in person, or through postal mail. The students received a 47 percent response rate, which Lasker characterized as “outstanding”.

Information ferreted out in the survey included demographic statistics, level of participation in the program, attitudes about the program, and health and social indicators, which included quality of life assessments.

The respondents, the students reported, were overwhelmingly female (83 percent of the surveyed sample), between the ages of 45-64 (54 percent), living with a spouse (48 percent) and Caucasian (90 percent). Most (68 percent) had either a college or a post-graduate degree, were still employed (42 percent), and drive their own vehicle (83.3 percent).

Recipients of the Community Exchange services heard about their availability through word-of-mouth and advertising, while a smaller number learned about them through the newspaper or their personal physician.

On average, the members of this organization provided more services on a regular basis than they received. Thirty eight percent said they offer a service at least once every month or two, but only 25 percent received services with the same frequency.

Among the most popular services provided were transportation (31 percent); household help with moving, gardening or maintenance (31 percent); personal services such as massage or prayer (28 percent); or simply companionship (25 percent).

The most common services received were household services (30 percent); educational programs such as exercise, CPR or sign language (25 percent); transportation (20 percent); or companionship (18 percent).

Greater involvement in community

As a result of these exchanges, the students found, those surveyed said they were more likely to entertain guests in their home, felt an increased connection to the community, were more engaged in news-related events and became more active in community decision-making processes.

A majority also reported an improvement in their physical and mental health as a result of their involvement with the Community Exchange. Comments included, “I love the idea of a social network…being available as a safety net,” or “What a great concept to benefit our society—interdependence is so important.”

Many shared suggestions for new services to be provided and groups to organize, including those related to religion, singles, the arts and issue-related gatherings.

“What this project illustrates,” says Lasker, “is the enormous value of facilitating connections among many different kinds of people in a community. It also is a great example of what we had in mind when we created our masters program in sociology with an emphasis on applied research. It gave the students a terrific opportunity to use the skills they have learned and gain new ones by engaging in a complex and challenging research project that had value both to them and to the community partners.”

Equally enthusiastic were the students who participated in the survey project.

Jessica Young, a graduate student from nearby Center Valley, Pa., found the project both challenging and informative.

“It’s a great learning opportunity that will help prepare us for future work in research,” she says. “Personally, I had the opportunity to learn a great deal about the Community Exchange program and the ideology behind it, and it was great to see how grateful all the members of this group were to have us co-produce a project with such positive outcomes.”

Fellow student Ethan Kramer concurs: “The members of Community Exchange were extremely grateful, which made us feel great. And seeing a research project like through from start to finish was highly educational. Dr. Lasker really hit it out of the park on this one.”

Lasker says that she and her students are looking forward to presenting this project at a national sociology conference in Montreal in August.”

--Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Wednesday, May 03, 2006

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