Debbie Gibson, United Cerebral Palsy Central California’s director of children’s programs, wants you to know that family is the most important thing to her.
And UCPCC is lucky to be a member of the family she’s chosen.
The mother of four has been married to her husband, Mike, for almost 44 years. Debbie and Mike tried for 12 years to have children. When an opportunity to adopt presented itself, they adopted two boys: Keith and Cody. Four months after their adoptions, Debbie became pregnant with her son Joshua. Joshua was born early at 28 weeks old. As he grew, he showed delays in gross motor development, so her son began receiving services from United Cerebral Palsy Central California’s Parent & Me program.
Then Debbie and Mike were surprised with their fourth son, Jacob. With Jacob, Debbie suffered a placental abruption and he stroked in utero, leaving him with significant medical and developmental needs. Jacob would also utilize UCPCC’s services. And as Debbie likes to say, “Jacob graduated early intervention, but I never left.” Jacob now receives services from UCP through their adult program.
Debbie and Mike are also grandparents. They have three grandchildren and a fourth on the way.
In her time at UCPCC, the Visalia resident has worked as an advocate and director in UCPCC’s Family Resource Center, First Five project director, and finally in her current position as Children’s Programs director.
We recently connected with Debbie to get some insights on what drives her, what inspires her, and how she feels about having the same name as a popular 1980s pop sensation.
What does a day in the life of Debbie Gibson look like?
Most recently I’ve been at home a lot. … I’m usually the first one up. The dog goes out and I go in and I check on Jake. I start the coffee. I have my alone quiet time. That can be from reading or meditating or praying. And sometimes I’m just thinking about the day and piecing things together. But I need that morning quiet time.
What do you think the greatest challenges facing programs like UCPCC’s children’s programs are?
Funding. And … for day programs, trying to staff them in a way that meets the needs of the families. And if they are on our census -- the families -- we staff as if we’re at 100 percent attendance. We only get paid when they attend. And families don’t attend all the time. Children get sick. Moms get sick, siblings, whatever.
The good thing about COVID is it introduced remote services to this world of early intervention. We are hoping we have the opportunity to go hybrid so when a child is sick they might still get an opportunity to get remote services and not cancel an appointment. We know birth to three is the biggest growth period for the brain, and so getting services is paramount. Parents aren’t just the caregiver they are the brain builders.
What does UCPCC mean to you?
As a parent it gave me a place that was safe to take my children. It was a place that I could share my feelings as a parent. It was a place that guided me and supported me. It was there whenever I needed it. And as an employee it has been a rock for me. It’s the cornerstone of my purpose and my mission.
What is the most challenging thing about being an advocate for people with disabilities and what’s the most rewarding thing?
Probably the most challenging thing is not having the services that a child needs because … being in a rural area like we are, it makes it challenging to make sure that we have all the services that children need and are entitled to. If they were in urban areas or metropolitan areas, there’s therapists and so on and so forth at every turn. We don’t have that here in our Valley.
We are always in need of having that quality of service. We are very fortunate that we have excellent therapists, and excellent teachers. And it’s all about money just not having enough money to go to all the programs that we need.
I’m very grateful to live in the state of California where we have regional centers where there aren’t waiting lists like in other areas.
The most rewarding thing is when you see that a difference has been made in the lives of the child and the family. That they have grown into who they are … and now appreciate that their child for who … they are. That they have they can make it as a family. That they are succeeding as a family.
What would you like people to know about UCPCC?
That UCPCC is not just CP only. It is a place of safety. It’s a welcoming place -- a place where services are provided in a warm and caring environment and atmosphere.
Where do you get your strength from?
From my faith. I rely on my spirituality and my connection to that. I believe that everything I need is already in me as I need it. It grows and I have it there to use. Inside of us is a flower garden, and when I need flowers to pick, they’re there.
When you’re not at UCPCC and you’re not winning Mom of the Year hands down, how do you take care of you?
I have my quiet time (in the morning). I love to connect with my grandkids. That is a huge part. Family is everything to me. Sometimes just sitting in a room with kids running all over makes my heart happy and refills my soul. I love to be outside, not necessarily tromping through the woods. I love to sit and just soak in the green and the blue and the colors that are outside.
It’s almost Mother’s Day. What is the best piece of parenting advice you were ever given?
If I had known then what I know now. We have learned so much about the brain, the relationships, social and emotional. The best advice was to make sure and spend time individually with each of my kids. It may only be 5 minutes or 2 minutes but slow down and spend that time. It’s not easy. Not getting caught up in the business of this world. Because they need you.
What is something people would be surprised to learn about you?
That I’m not as mellow as I come across. I have a passion. I am purpose-driven. If I have a mission, I will get that mission taken care of. Don’t underestimate what you think is passivity because it’s really determination. And people don’t know that I can get really fired up. My husband does. And occasionally I say the f word.
Has anyone ever told you they got “Lost in Your Eyes” (a song by Debbie Gibson the pop star)? And if so, what was your reaction?
Well, my husband has told me I have the most beautiful eyes. Usually people will ask if I can sing and I say, “Only in my dreams.” And there’s another famous name in the family: My father-in-law’s name is Mel Gibson.