Building Bridges to Down Syndrome

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(Raul De La Cruz / TTUHSC El Paso)

Emily Moody knows firsthand that working with Down syndrome can be challenging. Emily’s sister, Melissa, was born with the genetic condition — launching the Moody family on a journey to learn how to manage Melissa’s special needs.

This personal tie to Down syndrome has shaped Emily’s perspective as a medical student at the Paul L. Foster School of Medicine (PLFSOM). Today, she actively encourages doctors and fellow students to engage more with people with disabilities.

“It’s important for medical students to go and volunteer with kids with disabilities — and it’s okay to feel uncomfortable at first,” Emily said. “The exposure is going to make them better doctors. As medical professionals, if we encounter someone with a disability, we need to know how to communicate with them — not just their parents.”

To promote this interaction, Emily organizes bi-monthly volunteer events for medical students at GiGi’s Playhouse, an achievement center for individuals with Down syndrome. Students have helped with bingo nights, miniature golf games, movie outings and even variations of “I Painted That,” a painting-themed social mixer.

“It’s great to see the medical students relax and have fun when they volunteer at GiGi’s,” Emily said. “It just feels like one big family hanging out.”

Emily’s family actually spearheaded bringing GiGi’s Playhouse to El Paso in the first place. Back when Emily was just a second-year medical student, she and her family raised more than $100,000 for the Down syndrome specialty center. The center, which was the first of its kind in Texas, opened in 2015 because of their efforts.

GiGi’s Playhouse has even attracted the attention of the pediatric residency program at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso (TTUHSC El Paso). The playhouse is now one of the sites that pediatric residents are required to visit as part of their rotation schedule.

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(Raul De La Cruz / TTUHSC El Paso)

Today, the center helps more than 300 El Pasoans living with Down syndrome, and Emily and her family are still actively involved. Local families enroll their loved ones in weekly programs that help with skills like math, reading and communication — free of charge. More than 300 volunteers help keep the center running at this rate.

Emily is happy to see that El Paso and the medical community have embraced GiGi’s Playhouse.

She said, “We need to change the way that people with Down syndrome are viewed and that starts by building a relationship with them.”