DePaul students start special needs volunteer program

Born with fetal alcohol syndrome, Mandiie didn’t start speaking until she was five years old, following intensive speech therapy. It was hard for her family to do things together, and her mother worked hard to provide consistency in her life to help foster improvement.

Now, 11-year-old Mandiie reads at grade level.

Junior Alysse Cepeda, a special needs babysitter who worked with Mandiie, described it as “one of the most life-changing experiences.”  Following the footsteps of her mom, a special education teacher for 29 years, Cepeda began babysitting for many special needs kids.

Due to the steep costs of special needs babysitters, Cepeda babysat many kids for free. Recognizing the need for more affordable special needs care, Cepeda looked for a way to give back.

Junior William Gross and Cepeda attended the Clinton Global University Initiative in April where students develop commitments of action to better their campus and communities.

Cepeda and Gross committed to providing free services to families with special needs children through a non-profit organization, Needs Education Together. They plan to launch a pilot program this summer to get the organization going.

“Hopefully we will get enough credibility over the summer to come back and get a full-time facility going,” Gross said.

They hope to get between five and ten kids for the pilot program with two DePaul undergraduate students paired up with each child, Cepeda said.

“We’re going to pair them up based on their hobbies and interests,” said Cepeda. “I’m trying to find undergrads that like random things like trains and comic books, because those are some of the things that kids with special needs tend to like.”

Cepeda said they currently have three kids and two volunteers committed to the pilot program.Over the summer they will provide babysitting services at the family’s homes in the suburbs since Needs Education Together does not have a facility yet.

Cepeda and Gross have their eyes set on securing a facility by the fall.

“I know the family lab is moving, and I want their space (in the SAC) so bad,” said Cepeda. “I want a permanent place where we could bring the kids and that they could get used to.”

Cepeda said their ideal space would incorporate sensory elements for the kids, like a ball pit, because it’s “really helpful in helping kids maintain equilibrium.”

Needs Education Together will be 100 percent DePaul student-run, initially involving undergrad students. The first phase in fall will utilize undergrads for babysitting and tutoring services.

“I would love to have as many psychology students as humanly possible, but I want undergrads from all interests and majors,” Cepeda said.

Cepeda and Gross hope to eventually incorporate a junior year experiential learning component to the program.

“We’re currently in the process of talking to individual departments throughout the university to grant contact hours, JYEL credit and all of that so our students can get experience while still in school,” said Gross.

JYEL credit can be fulfilled through study abroad, internships or service hours.

As the program develops, Cepeda and Gross said they hope to involve graduate students to give lectures on disorders and treatments to provide reliable information to parents.

Cepeda said another ideal element would be to involve law students because “it’s really hard to file for disability aid, and it’s helpful to have someone with a legal background.”

Cepeda and Gross, co-founders of Needs Education Together, both emphasized that the non-profit will provide their services free of cost.

“There are not a lot of facilities that offer free assistance,” said Gross. “We are trying to help people, not make money off of it, and we saw that we had an ability to do something.”

Cepeda said she hopes their summer pilot program proves to be effective.

“I want to prove that the model that we’re trying to implement is conducive to making kids feel as safe in a babysitting situation as a self-contained special ed classroom,” said Cepeda.

If anything, Cepeda said she hopes to have “actual success stories” with the program.

From Cepeda’s experience with Mandiie and her family, she saw the direct impact effective care can have.

“I met Mandiie and her family and they’ve completely changed my mind,” said Cepeda. “I now have decided that I want to spend the rest of my life working with kids who have special needs.”