Helping God’s Children Thrive

In Issue, News, Winter/Spring 2021 by Sarah Moss

Every person is made in God’s image, and so when we honor that image, it means we celebrate each person as they are and come alongside them to help them learn how to live their life to the fullest,” says Sarah Hawley, clinical director of the Thrive Center for Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). “We can honor God as creator when we think about how we as humans were created to interact with the world and learn, and we honor God when we love and understand all his people, just as he created them.”

The Thrive Center for ABA is a teaching center affiliated with Dordt that is committed to loving and understanding those with autism and other developmental disabilities. It provides behavior therapy and skills growth for Northwest Iowa children ages two to six. As its name asserts, the Thrive Center uses ABA, a research-based behavior intervention strategy that has been shown to have a positive impact in working with children with learning difficulties and autism. Staff members work on communication, social skills, daily living-related activities, learning strategies, and more, all while partnering with parents to set goals to help implement strategies at home.

“ABA is a tool that has been used successfully to help many acquire new skills,” says Dr. Kathleen VanTol, faculty director. “At the Thrive Center, we use the tools and understandings of this science to help a child continue to grow and develop skills that will enable him to reach his full potential to the glory of God.”

Since the Thrive Center opened its doors in January, it has garnered plenty of interest in the community. Staff members take a holistic approach to learning, collaborating with schools, families, and agencies to achieve the best outcomes for each child they work with. The Thrive Center staff will also be assisted by Dordt psychology, social work, and education majors; Dordt students will gain practicum experiences working with children and families being served by the Thrive Center.

“I’m really excited to be able to serve kids in our community, but I’m also excited that we get to work with current and future Dordt students who are learning about these concepts in their classes,” says Hawley. “I think it’s going to be such a great opportunity for them to see ABA in action and to get to know some of the kids we are working with.”

Both Hawley and VanTol are Board Certified Behavior Analysts and have worked extensively with children with developmental disabilities such as autism.

“ABA is very play-based, but you teach and see progress quickly. I love knowing that I’m really helping the kids I work with. I love the kids and families I’ve been able to work with over the years—the kids are fun, smart, and interesting, and the parents are so invested in helping their children reach their full potential. It’s really great to work alongside them,” says Hawley.

VanTol is excited about the hope the Thrive Center can offer individuals and families.

“There are not enough providers to meet the needs that exist in Northwest Iowa, and there are no providers in Sioux Center. A family might be told that ABA is the best therapy choice to help their child achieve the most optimal outcome, only to wait for years to get a space at a provider. Meanwhile, those early learning years are slipping away. We want to change that for families in our community,” says VanTol.