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Shippensburg University student researches impact of summer lunch program

Junior Gabby Binando had different plans when she arrived at Ship. The Gilbertsville native intended to major in math education, but reconsidered her direction when a friend noticed that she constantly talked about her general psychology course.

“Once he brought that to my attention, I realized this was what I wanted to do,” Binando said. 

After declaring a psychology major, Binando decided she was especially interested in child psychology. A research opportunity offered this past summer solidified her passion for working with children.

During the spring semester, Binando worked, as a writing fellow with Dr. Laurie Cella, associate professor of English. She expressed to Cella that she planned to stay in the Shippensburg area through the summer.

“Dr. Cella has been a mentor to me, and she asked if I’d be interested in helping with a research project at a summer lunch program for kids.”

The Shippensburg Community Resource Coalition Summer Lunch Program, located at James Burd Elementary School, provides activities and lunch to Shippensburg Area School District students. Each day, participants are exposed to reading, science, music and craft activities. They also have an opportunity to attend a weekly field trip. All students in the district are eligible for this free program.

Dr. Cella, along with Dr. Liz Fisher, professor of social work and gerontology, and Dr. Michael Lyman, associate professor of social work and gerontology, are researching how, why, and when programs like the summer lunch program stimulate the growth of social capital, or stronger community bonds.

“All three of us believe in the value of a free program that is open to the entire community, a program that provides valuable programming as well as free lunch for all who attend,” Cella said.

Binando worked with Cella to apply for a Ship Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) grant. SURE supports faculty/student research pairs during the summer by supporting student researchers through paid assistantships with faculty.

Once they were approved for the grant, Binando was tasked with surveying and interviewing parents regarding changes they saw in their children over a seven-week period in the lunch program. This included questions about their growth in social skills, willingness to leave comfort zones, and understanding of their community.

Originally, Binando planned on spending a few hours a week working on the research project, but after her first day, she found herself immersed in the program.

“I started helping with the program and interacting with the kids. I just decided rather than sitting at home, I’d help,” she said.

Binando, who loves the outdoors and staying active, spent five days a week with the program for seven weeks. She worked closely with the kids during daily activities, crafts, and field trips.

“My favorite was the trip to Pine Grove Furnace. It was fun watching the kids learn about the Appalachian Trail, and then they swam in Fuller Lake.”

It was a unique chance to study child behavior. As she researched the growth of social capital, she realized that she also was experiencing her own social capital connection. She developed relationships with parents and program directors, but it was her connection with the kids with which she speaks most fondly.

“Watching the kids change was my favorite part. Kids who were clinging to their parents at the start of the summer, were eventually running ahead of them and excited to get in the door.”

Binando also was touched by the relationships the kids developed with each other.

She explained that despite unique and varying backgrounds, they paid little attention to their differences.

The summer lunch program has ended, but Binando will continue to work closely with Cella, Fisher, and Lyman as they continue their research through the fall semester. During Ship’s fall Welcome Week, she will take part in the Success Now! Expo. She created a poster that will showcase her research and will talk to new students about her undergraduate research experience.

In January, Binando will travel with Lyman to Las Vegas, Nevada to present their research at the twenty-ninth Ethnographic and Qualitative Research Conference. The conference features presentations on a broad spectrum of topics, the common thread being traditional ethnographic and qualitative research projects.

Binando hopes to continue making a difference. She will explore additional research opportunities at Ship with the goal of one day working with children as a board-certified behavioral analyst.

“This has been a great opportunity academically, but I also got to know the community and make a difference,” she said. “This wasn’t just work. It was fun and eye-opening!”