This award recognizes her strong partnership with Peacehaven Community Farm, where for the past five years, Cuny and her students have been helping adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities improve their communication skills.
“Peacehaven is fortunate to have many wonderful partnerships with local colleges and universities,” said Buck Cochran, Peacehaven’s chief executive officer. “However there is not a leader or educator that has made a bigger impact on our organization than Kim Cuny.”
Improving communication through play
Peacehaven is an 89-acre sustainable farm in Whitsett, North Carolina where adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities live, work, and engage with their community. When the farm opened in late 2014, Cuny at first saw an opportunity to help her own UNCG students learn to embrace conflict.
“We were seeing that the students working in the Speaking Center were very conflict-averse,” she said. “When Peacehaven opened, I thought, ‘Hm … Four adults living together … I bet they have a lot of conflict. I wonder if we can be their communication coaches.’”
A rich, fulfilling partnership formed, one that is now five-years strong and with no end in sight. Every Friday until the pandemic hit, Cuny and a group of Speaking Center students would drive to the farm and teach the primary residents new communication competencies. Their lessons focused on skills like respecting personal space, asking open-ended questions, and public speaking. They even started a weekly night program at UNCG called Let’s Communicate, open to all adults in the community with intellectual or developmental disabilities who want help with communication.
Crucial to their success has been the use of play. Cuny quickly realized that a traditional academic approach would not work with a neuro-diverse audience. So she drew on her background as a theater teaching artist to engage the Peacehaven residents in imaginative lessons.
“We can try any established pedagogy – puppets, costumes, props, games, a talk show – whatever activity we put together to have them try out the competency of the week, the core members at the farm are always all in.”
While “Fridays at the Farm” have been paused during the pandemic, UNCG students are continuing to work with the Peacehaven residents every week through virtual one-on-one consulting sessions. Their “Let’s Communicate” night program has shifted to a short, playful YouTube series. These new efforts are led by undergraduate Bri Ferraro and Steven Garfunkel, a graduate student in UNCG’s Master of Public Affairs program. Garfunkel has been so inspired by his work with Peacehaven that he is now pursuing a career as a disabilities advocate.
Making a lasting impact
The positive impact of the partnership is clear – on the residents of Peacehaven, the Speaking Center students who have coached them, and on Cuny herself.
“The biggest reward is the relationships we’ve all developed with the core members at the farm, with the RAs and volunteers,” said Cuny. “It has been such a rich partnership.”
Since the work began in 2015, the Peacehaven residents have spoken publicly at events like Peacehaven’s Annual Harvest Festival and the 2019 National Communication Center conference. Their improved skills have also helped the residents engage more with their community – a primary mission of Peacehaven Farm – by participating in service learning projects for seniors, church organizations, and the homeless.
“My son Jeff [Piegari] has been a resident at Peacehaven since it opened in the winter of 2014,” said Patrick Piegari in his nomination letter for Cuny’s award. “Jeff has improved a great deal with his communication skills, especially writing and verbally sharing ideals that relate to music, which is his passion.” Another point of pride: Jeff Piegari graduated from UNCG through the Beyond Academics Integrative Community Studies program.
Some of the most compelling testimonials came from Cuny’s students, including Taylor Williams, a communication studies alum, lecturer, and Speaking Center faculty fellow, who led Cuny’s nomination for the award.
“The relationship between UNCG’s Speaking Center has evolved from a partnership into a family,” said Williams. “I don’t think she realizes it, but Kim has been the lynch pin during this entire adventure.”
The Service Engagement Award is presented by the National Communication Association, the largest professional organization of the communication studies academic discipline. Yet it’s not the award’s prestige that matters most to Cuny.
“That my students nominated me makes this the best award I’ve ever won,” she said.
Story by Elizabeth Keri, College of Arts & Sciences
Photography courtesy of Taylor Williams and Peacehaven Community Farm
All photos taken prior to the COVID-19 pandemic