Student-run ‘Debbie Project’ Celebrates Successful First Year

When Eric Gibbs, a second-year student at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, walks into one of the classrooms at the Debbie School, he’s often greeted by a gaggle of toddlers who love to playfully tackle him to the ground.

“It’s generally the best part of my week,” said Gibbs, an M.D. candidate in the Class of 2019, who is going into pediatrics.

The warm welcome is only part of the benefit of Gibbs’ volunteer efforts. For the past academic year, he and 30 other medical students have been volunteering at the Debbie School for an hour each week as part of the “Debbie Project,” a student-run initiative co-founded by Gibbs and fellow M.D. candidates Megan McSherry, Class of 2019, and Gabrielle Hodgins, Class of 2018.

The goal of the project is to provide medical students with an opportunity to interact with people with developmental disabilities in order to produce physicians who are more adept at caring for and interacting with the special needs population.

“We know doctors often report not being comfortable when working with people with developmental differences because there’s not much training for it,” said Hodgins, who will specialize in child and adolescent psychiatry. “So the opportunity to have students come in and get this experience — not only helping the Debbie School, but helping themselves learn how to interact with the children and their families — is a mutually beneficial situation we felt we could capitalize on.”

The Debbie Institute, a division of the Mailman Center for Child Development, is a center for early-intervention research, training, and service. For more than 30 years, the institute has conducted research on problems impacting children with special needs, provided early intervention services for children and their families, and provided training for students interested in careers in special education, speech-language pathology, physical therapy, and occupational therapy.

The educational services of the institute are delivered through the Debbie School, which offers programs that include the Auditory-Oral Education Program, serving children who are deaf and hard of hearing from birth through eight years of age, and the B-2 Early Education Program, which serves children with varying exceptionalities from birth through three years old.

It is in these classrooms that the medical students volunteer.

“When the students said that they were interested in starting a volunteer program for the Debbie School, we could not have imagined what an enriching experience it would be for our young children with disabilities,” said Kathleen Vergara, M.A., director of the Debbie Institute. “Their eyes light up with joy when their volunteer enters the room. We are thrilled to know that the medical students believe that they will be better physicians as a result of their experience working with our children at the Debbie School.”

According to the student organizers, medical students and residents don’t receive enough training to address the care of people with disabilities. The end result is physicians feel unprepared, or uncomfortable, in providing care to people with disabilities, which, in turn, contributes to substantial health disparities.

Through the Debbie Project, each medical student is paired with a classroom where they help the children with skills such as communication, self-help, cognition, and motor activity.

“It has been very impactful for me to see the capabilities of these children and their development through the year,” said McSherry, who will specialize in pediatrics. “It just has been a pleasure to see them grow and change, and I think it is important for any physician to feel that comfort with this patient population.”

Among the many benefits they are gaining, the future doctors are learning the appropriate behavioral interventions, so their patients can be at ease when they come for a visit, as well as the correct terminology to accurately discuss diagnosis and treatment options.

“Working with students at the Debbie School every week, we become more familiar with interventions that can help make them feel more at ease, such as reducing ambient sound and bright light for a child with autism,” said McSherry. “We can apply these tools to future patients. Having a physician who is aware of all of those needs and can help bridge those disparities is an important part of the future of medicine.”

For the teachers in the Debbie School classrooms, who look after 15 toddlers in each classroom, it is an extra set of hands, and an additional opportunity to teach. Even teaching the children how to interact with the medical students once a week, and not every day, is an important “generalization” skill that some of them have trouble grasping.

“I like that the children are able to relate to the medical student who comes once a week,” said Patricia Martinelli, M.S., lead teacher of the “Busy Bees.” “Best of all, however, is that the medical students will understand and be able to relate to children with special needs when they are out in the field.”

Gisel Jaquez is a teacher in the “Panda” classroom and has been with the Debbie School for 18 years.

“When the project started, we did not know how the children would react to the students,” she said. “It has been wonderful to watch the growth of the relationships with the students and children. They have both learned to be comfortable with each other, and we hope that the students will remember this experience of working with children with special needs when they graduate.”

A survey and poster presentation conducted mid-year by the student organizers showed that every one of this year’s volunteers thinks they will be a better physician because of their experience with the program. It’s an important indicator given the growing number of patients with developmental disabilities, and the need for more physicians to care for them.

“Experiences like these no doubt play a significant role in the professional maturation of our future doctors,” said Alex J. Mechaber, M.D., senior associate dean for undergraduate medical education, the Bernard J. Fogel Chair in Medical Education, and professor of medicine. “We are pleased to have developed such a meaningful partnership with programs like the one at the Debbie School.”

The organizers are optimistic that the program will continue to provide the tools that future physicians need to help them form a lasting bond with their patients, many of whom have difficulty interacting.

“I think what is unique about what we’ve done here is the first time we go in, they have no idea who we are; we are strangers,” said Gibbs. “But now, they are willing to talk with me and share. Being able to see that transition is very powerful.”

The Debbie Project had to turn many student volunteers away this past year because there wasn’t enough funding to pay for the additional background checks required by the Debbie School to work with the children. The organizers are looking for supporters who can help keep the program going.

If you can help, please click here.

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