Centre class partners with Grace Café on groundbreaking research project

Centre College professors often offer their students important opportunities to apply what they learn in the classroom to real-world situations. And in the fall of 2016, Assistant Professor of Sociology Kaelyn Wiles took this a step further, giving students in her Research Methods class the unique chance to work on a project that was not only the first of its kind but one that will have a positive impact on the community.

Wiles’ students completed a semester-long community-based learning project, collecting and analyzing data for Grace Café, a pay-what-you-can café located several blocks from Centre’s campus in Danville.

“This research project was designed to help Grace Café assess the progress it is making toward achieving its mission: to end hunger and food insecurity in Boyle County by providing healthy and delicious food to all who walk through the door,” Wiles says. “They welcome and serve their patrons in a respectful and dignified manner, regardless of their ability to pay.”

The research was not only meaningful but groundbreaking, as Wiles reports that it is “the first and only research that we know of thus far in the United States that has been systematically collected on a pay-what-you-can café.”

The opportunity to partner with Grace Café came about through a Centre connection: Assistant Professor of Philosophy Daniel Kirchner is the president of the Grace Café board and reached out to Wiles about potential ways to collect data illustrating the impact the café has had on the community. Thus, the idea for the research methodology class to become involved was born.

“This was a perfect partnership, because it was a chance for the students to learn how to conduct research in a ‘real-life’ setting that matters and that could help the community,” Wiles explains.

While completing their research, students were able to apply sociological research techniques such as field observation and the interview process directly in their work.
“Partnering with Grace Café brought the methods to life, and the students really devoted themselves to learning each method as we moved through the semester,” says Wiles. 

This real-world application of research methodology was appealing to Wiles’ students.

“I was drawn to this class, because the research was hands-on,” says Shomari White ’17. “Each student had the opportunity to really engage in all aspects of research methodology, and I took full advantage of this opportunity.” 

Interaction with the Danville community was also a highlight of the class and inspired the students in their work.

“They were invested in their research, because they wanted to produce meaningful data for the café and for other pay-what-you-can cafés around the country,” says Wiles.  

“Partnering with Grace Café was a truly wonderful experience as it enabled me to connect with the community,” explains Christina Colón ’17. “I feel honored to have been a part of this project and believe Grace Café has the ability to positively and permanently impact Boyle County.” 
Beyond the connection to the community that the methodology project fostered, the students are also proud to have participated in innovative research.

“I feel proud of Centre College and my class for taking on this challenging project,” says Kelsi Moran ’17. “The pay-as-you-can cafe movement has a lot of potential, but research on its effect on the community is necessary for its future success. Knowing that I played a role in the first research project is very exciting and rewarding. I believe in this model and hope that our research is used as a resource.” 

“It is truly an honor to know that I was part of something so groundbreaking and unique,” White agrees. “There is no greater feeling than to know that you played a pivotal role in not only analyzing how Grace Café can improve the Danville community but also how college students, like me, can reach out to the community to get a better understanding of what they need.

“Doing research is how relationships are formed and barriers are broken down,” White continues, “and I definitely can say that we, as a class, accomplished both of those things.” 

Photo provided by Grace Café.
by Elizabeth Trollinger
February 10, 2017