Deborah Vilas, GSE ’93, faculty advisor and instructor in the Child Life Program at Bank Street Graduate School of Education, has received the Association of Child Life Professionals (ACLP) 2019 Distinguished Service Award. The award is presented once a year at the Child Life Annual Conference to an individual who has made notable contributions to the development of the child life profession and the ACLP organization.
Vilas is an educator, child life specialist, social worker, and writer who has dedicated her life and career to supporting children and their families experiencing illness, injuries, and trauma. Her work at Bank Street began in 2001 and the following year, the College launched its Child Life master’s degree program to prepare graduate students to become child life specialists in both healthcare and community settings.
“Students in the Child Life Program learn how to help children and families cope with the medical experience. Through therapeutic play, artistic expression, and by teaching children about their bodies and treatments, children are able to develop the skills and strategies they need to get through hard and painful treatment,” said Vilas. “Parental presence and learning how to advocate for your child is also crucial. Child life specialists have changed, and are still changing, the hospital experience for children.”
Vilas teaches two courses in the fully online program at Bank Street. Her work focuses largely on child-centered play and the use of “loose parts,” including medical supplies like gauze, gloves, and tubing as well as non-medical items to build models that help children better understand their medical circumstances. Therapeutic play exemplifies Bank Street’s developmental-interaction approach to teaching and learning, which is grounded in the idea that active engagement with materials, ideas, and people leads to a more meaningful learning experience and greater social-emotional growth.
“The American Academy of Pediatrics reported that play is a necessary piece of child development. For a child who is ill, play is a vital way to augment the healing. Play, because it’s what kids do, lessens anxiety and helps with expression,” said Vilas.
Vilas has shared her research through a number of publications including a chapter titled “Medical Makers: Therapeutic Play Using ‘Loose Parts’” in Handbook of Medical Play Therapy and Child Life: Clinical Interventions for Children and Adolescents, co-authored by Jon Luongo, GSE ’05, child life specialist, Maimonides Hospital Center. She also travels to multiple countries each year to teach nursing students, social workers, psychologists, and educators.
A graduate of Georgetown University, Vilas went on to obtain her Master of Science in Education from Bank Street and a Master of Social Work from New York University. Vilas has been a member of ACLP since receiving her child life specialist certification and has remained active in the organization through various committee work, including a position on the Disney Partnership Advisory Committee, a group of ACLP members working with Disney on its one hundred million dollar initiative to support children’s hospitals globally.
The award will be presented to Vilas at the 2019 Child Life Annual Conference on Friday, April 12 in Chicago. During the conference, Vilas will co-present “Child Life Specialists as Advocates for Social Justice, Equality, and Equity in Health Care” with Rechelle Porter, director of Child Life at Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital, and Genevieve Lowry, faculty advisor and instructor in the Child Life Program at Bank Street. Vilas will also speak on a panel and lead a round table discussion.
“I am grateful to be recognized by the ACLP and to be nominated by two of my former Bank Street students and, now, colleagues,” said Vilas. “Bank Street is known as a leader in child life and I’m proud to work with my associates at the institution and across the child life profession.”