Dordt opens Thrive Center for Applied Behavior Analysis

Aleasha Hintz—Staff Writer

The Thrive Center for Applied Behavior Analysis of Dordt University officially opened for business on January 11. The center is a Dordt affiliate academic center that uses applied behavior analysis strategies.

Applied behavior analysis, ABA for short, is a therapeutic strategy that helps people with special needs acquire social skills, play skills, and functional communication. To accomplish this, ABA applies research in human behavior and how one’s environment affects behavior to learning. Therapists use ABA to help people with ADHD, addiction, reactive attachment disorder, and autism.

The Thrive Center is a much-needed addition to the Sioux Center community. There are not many appropriate therapies for children with autism in the area, something that the Sioux Center public schools, Kathleen Van Tol, and Sarah Hawley all agreed on.

Van Tol is a special education professor at Dordt University. Now she is also the faculty director for the Thrive Center. She has 35 years of experience in special education and caring for her clients. 

Hawley works as the clinical director, running the clinic day-to-day, hiring staff, and creating treatment programs. 

Rachel Raakman, the graduate assistant for the Thrive Center, primarily does one-on-one work with clients and social skills groups. 

But even before becoming involved in the Thrive Center, these women were working fervently in the field of special education. Van Tol said she is always trying to find ways to make special education better. She had a connection to the Sioux Center public schools, so when the need for special education arose, they came to her.

The schools recognized that they did not have the staff to create a focused ABA program. Plus, the law requires ABA centers to be run by a board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA). Van Tol pursued certification as a BCBA, and Dordt University invested.

Meanwhile, Hawley recently moved to Sioux Center with her husband. She had a background working in ABA, but when she arrived and googled the therapy, nothing came up.

Hawley was passionate about ABA but, to continue working in ABA in Sioux Center, Hawley would need her BCBA. Naturally, she pursued it. It did not take long for her to figure out that Van Tol was also getting her BCBA and that they were on track to finish at the same time. Hawley knew she needed to get coffee with Van Tol.

They began to talk more about bringing ABA to Sioux Center. They collected and analyzed data around the area and discovered just how badly Sioux Center needed ABA. They found that many area families were traveling an hour or more to find appropriate therapy for their children. 

But Hawley and Van Tol were not prepared to start a business. However, Dordt University and other investors provided the connections and start-up funds to make the vision a reality.

“It all just sort of meshed,” Van Tol said. Though the plan worked well, it was not a fast process. The Thrive Center had been in the works for just over two years before finally being launched earlier this year. 

“It felt in those two years like every single step took forever,” Van Tol said. Van Tol and Hawley agreed that the process left them with a good foundation and a solid plan.

Dordt’s involvement in the center provides a unique experience for students. Any Dordt student can volunteer to meet and work with Thrive Center clients and their families under supervision.

“This experience is invaluable for psych majors,” Raakman said.

But this opportunity is not limited to psychology majors and is a beneficial experience for anyone pursuing a career in service: such as nurses, teachers, social workers, HR professionals, and even pastors.

Van Tol encourages hesitant students to step out of their comfort zone and volunteer. It is a relatively low-risk opportunity since any students who do choose to volunteer are supervised and have no obligation to return. 

“The unknown is what’s scary,” Van Tol said, “once we have some knowns, we can say autism isn’t all that scary: it’s like this.” 

The Thrive Center held its first open house on Monday, January 25. Additionally, the center is pushing through the application process for new clients.

Van Tol explained that the Thrive Center was born out of a real need in Sioux Center and will help many families in the area while also providing special education experience to Dordt students.

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