Although Debbie Wilkes grew up knowing she wanted to be a teacher, it wasn’t until high school that she found which area she wanted to focus on. A unique experience would eventually put her on the path of advocacy for the special needs community.
Debbie was 16 years old when she was asked to help a classmate with his reading. The boy had a mild intellectual developmental disability. She did help him — and in return she was inspired.
“I’ve always had the belief that God never made a mistake, and that all of us are made in his likeness,” Debbie said. “I figured if I could help him learn to read, then what else could I do if I started with younger kids?”
She embarked on her career in special education in 1974 when she began teaching in the classroom. She moved on to administrative roles within the Richardson and Plano Independent School Districts, during which time she instituted new special education programming.
Since “retiring” from the education field — sort of — Debbie has become a statewide consultant in the area of special education instruction, transition, post-secondary education, employment and self-advocacy. Among her many accomplishments within the special needs community, Debbie has developed and implemented numerous special education training programs for educational institutions.
When a friend approached her in 2010 about a nonprofit organization that provided post-school services for adults with disabilities, Debbie admitted she was skeptical. In her opinion, often these types of facilities serve as a babysitting service for its clients.
Her friend assured her that Plano-based My Possibilities was different. As a nonprofit organization dedicated to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, My Possibilities gives its clients — affectionately known as Hugely Important People, or HIPsters — an opportunity to build independence and vocational skills in a professional and engaging setting.
After more coaxing, Debbie toured My Possibilities. Her first encounter with a HIPster happened to be with one of her very first students as a special education teacher. When she saw that the individual was being treated with respect and dignity, this was enough for her.
“I went to Charmaine,” Debbie said, referring to My Possibilities founder and chairman Charmaine Solomon, “and I said, ‘If there’s ever anything I can do to help support or grow this program, let me know, because what you’re doing is great work.’ Two days later she called me and asked if I wanted to be on the board.”
Debbie began by evaluating the instructional system My Possibilities already had in place. “We created an educational framework, and I worked with one of the attorneys on the board to get everything — all of our lessons — trademarked,” she said.
According to Debbie, the organization’s goal eventually is to be able to replicate its programming elsewhere. “But we have got to build that strong foundation, so that we can say, ‘This is what we’re teaching, and this is what it looks like. If you want to do it, this is how you do it.’”
As a board member and a mentor, this is what Debbie continues to do for My Possibilities. One of the current projects she is working on is the development of a Communication Center at My Possibilities.
And My Possibilities is very appreciative of the support Debbie gives to the organization. “She believes communication is key to a meaningful life,” said Michael Thomas, executive director for My Possibilities. “A lack of communication and understanding causes frustration. Debbie has taught our staff to create individual, person-centered plans to assist staff with understanding each HIPsters’ goals.”
From a therapy standpoint, Debbie is a firm believer in what she has labeled person-centered planning. “With person-centered planning, you look at the people that know the individual best, and you bring them together. You figure out what is their giftedness. What are the things that are really important to them? What are the things that light up their life that make them want to participate in the world?
“Then you look at the things are important for them,” she said, “and those are the things they need for health, dignity, freedom of fear and safety. Then we build a future for them in which we are giving them what’s really important to them but also recognizing and making sure you’re supporting what’s important for them.”
Debbie’s desire to advocate for adults with disabilities can easily be called a passion. She is adamant about the need for legislative change in Texas, and she is a board member of The Arc of Texas, an organization that advocates for change at the legislative level.
“The world disenfranchises people with disabilities, people who have done nothing wrong in their life,” Debbie said. “It is so important that we help the rest of the world see people with disabilities not as takers, but givers. We have got to figure out what their abilities are.”My Possibilities >
The above content is sponsored. We have partnered with My Possibilities to spotlight #ChangeMakers in the disabilities community.