A unique after-​​school pro­gram at Our Space Our Place—a small non­profit orga­ni­za­tion housed at the Tobin Com­mu­nity Center, in Rox­bury, Massachusetts—is helping visu­ally impaired and blind chil­dren gain more self-​​confidence and build life­long skills.

And North­eastern stu­dents are making sure the young­sters get the most out of their expe­ri­ence there.

Over the spring semester, two stu­dents taking “Tech­niques in Pro­gram Eval­u­a­tion,” a graduate-​​level polit­ical sci­ence course taught by Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy senior research asso­ciate Laurie Dop­kins, worked with the resource-​​strapped non­profit to develop a way to gather data on stu­dent par­tic­i­pa­tion, mea­sure the program’s effect on stu­dents’ lives and assess the organization’s future goals.

The project was part of the university’s Stony Brook Ini­tia­tive, a large ongoing part­ner­ship that links North­eastern with com­mu­nity and non­profit orga­ni­za­tions in neigh­boring Rox­bury, Mis­sion Hill, the Fenway and the South End. The goal of this par­tic­ular project is to help these non­profits develop new methods, leverage resources, and become more effi­cient and effec­tive, despite all the funding cuts prompted by the eco­nomic downturn.

It sounds easy,” says Cheryl Cum­ings, founder and exec­u­tive director of Our Space Our Place. “But you really need to do research to make sure you have the right tools. We just don’t have the time to do the addi­tional work. And, because of our size and lim­ited budget, we cannot afford to pay someone to do the work North­eastern did.”

Our Space Our Place, founded in 2005 and cur­rently serving 11 stu­dents, aims to intro­duce visu­ally impaired or blind kids to new worlds of pos­si­bility and adven­ture. From Sep­tember through June, the 6– to 18-​​year-​​olds take lessons in dance and Tai Kwon Do, learn to play chess, write and per­form in plays, engage in team sports, host radio shows and par­tic­i­pate in col­lege and career exploration.

Meg Bossong, MS’09, who earned her degree in the Law, Policy and Society pro­gram, and Diana Wogan, a grad­uate stu­dent studying polit­ical sci­ence, devel­oped sur­veys for Our Space Our Place that elicit feed­back from stu­dents, instruc­tors and par­ents, and cre­ated a spreadsheet-​​like tool for tracking stu­dent participation.

Keeping the reality of budget restric­tions and the need for ease of use in mind, Bossong and Wogan also sug­gested that all stu­dents keep a port­folio of their work, so that, at the end of the year, the non­profit will have a tan­gible way of mea­suring stu­dent accomplishments.

Having easy-​​to-​​access data will come in handy when the non­profit applies for grants, says Bossong. “It is crit­ical to estab­lish why a pro­gram is unique and valu­able, and be able to effec­tively com­mu­ni­cate that infor­ma­tion to fun­ders, poten­tial vol­un­teers and others inter­ested in the pro­gram,” she explains.

Now, when we apply for grants, we will be able to pro­vide num­bers, in addi­tion to the great sto­ries we can tell,” Cum­ings adds.

According to Dop­kins, the Stony Brook part­ner­ship is a much-​​needed forum for open dis­cus­sions about the community’s needs.

Together, we’re coming up with ways of addressing the issues,” she says.