Student Stories: Kelley Gavel


Launched in 2019, the Office of Child Development Student Fellows is a yearlong opportunity for students at the University of Pittsburgh to learn and grow as integral parts of our work. This is part of an ongoing series where we asked students to share about their experiece with our Office.

Kelley Gavel

HealthyCHILD intern
Clinical Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling, MS '21
Applied Developmental Psychology, Child Life, MS '20

On her work at the Office

"I just graduated out of the Applied Developmental Psychology (ADP) program and and I was in their concentration of children with special health care needs and their child life track.

I was on the HealthyCHILD team. What I was working on was in their early childhood partnership classrooms and we were doing different medical play and early intervention for preschoolers to decrease their stress and anxiety going into medical procedures. How the partnership started was another develop mental healthcare consultant, Denise Esposto, was in in the classrooms doing HealthyCHILD stuff and ran into Duquesne’s nursing instructor. Her name is Kay Kennedy. Kay was saying that she has nursing students that she brings into these early childhood classrooms, the same ones that HealthyCHILD is in, and and they do well child checks. So they do height and weight, sometimes vision, sometimes dental.

And Denise, with her background with the Children's Hospital, thought ‘Hm. I bet this could be a teaching opportunity for HealthyCHILD to get involved with.' She takes on a student every year to work on these medical play programs called teddy bear clinics with these classrooms, so that way when the nursing students come, children are not as freaked out when they see people with scrubs and stethoscopes. Each cohort of nurses facilitated a teddy bear clinic at Minadeo Elementary school, a HC ECE partnership school.

That was the program that I was working on and we reached about 70 kids and we were in four different classrooms. It was great – the research was really awesome with it."

What drew Kelley to OCD

"Under ADP, you have to have a capstone project. And so I knew that I wanted to do something with children because my concentration is in children with special healthcare needs. My professor Denise Esposto, a developmental healthcare consult at OCD, has been just an incredible professor and role model and I knew that I really wanted to work with her.

I emailed her the night after our first capstone project planning class and said something along the lines of, 'Hi, can I come meet with you more?' And I really want to learn more from you and from your expertise. So she was a really big draw. And just knowing the great stuff that OCD does, I just knew that I wanted to be a part of it."

On Her Expectations 

"I really went into it, thinking that it was going to be OK. Just another project, just another step to get towards graduation. I love kids, I was a teacher before it came back to grad school, a great way to get back in the classroom. And that's kind of what I thought it was going to be. However it developed into so much more than that.  

But now actually, through this Student Fellows program, I am seeing all of the different ways this project can be expanded. At one of our meetings, we had a roundtable with a lot of different people all across Pitt. There was a huge amount of people there and I was explaining to them these teddy bear clinics that I was facilitating in these early childhood classrooms.

The dental school representative, we were talking afterwards and she's really encouraged me to look into writing my own curriculum so that teachers could implement it. With my education background that's definitely something that I would love to look into. Dr. [Stephen] Bagnato also said that if I get that draft written, he'd be happy to send it over to some publishers to see if that could really get started. Dr. Jacqueline Burgette, she’s the dental professor, she was saying that she would love to do a full dental clinic for these kids as well and try to expand it to Pitt’s Community Engagement Center down in Homewood.

I’ve also been talking with Denise about also wanting to try to do these clinics online with COVID-19 because a lot of kids are hearing more about hospitals, what's a ventilator, how to break down these really big words that everyone's hearing on to a much developmentally appropriate level.

This project and partnership between Pitt and Duquesne definitely grew way more than I had expected. And I think it's going to these connections that I was able to build, especially with the dental school and with the Community Engagement Center. I think that really opens up doors for students down the road."

How it influenced her career path

"I think it will turn into kind of like a passion project, I want to say.  I definitely thought I was going to see myself more in a clinical setting, you know, in a hospital, similar to what Denise is doing before she came to OCD, she was a child like specialist over at the Children's Hospital and that's initially what I wanted to do post graduation.

Now seeing this area of growth and a cool opportunity to combine medical knowledge with my education background and now this project that I thought was interesting, but I think could really like tumble into something much bigger. I think it's something I want to continue to keep on my radar. It's all about decreasing children's anxiety surrounding medical procedures, but also increasing their medical knowledge so that they're more engaged and they're not so scared of what's happening in a clinical or in a medical setting.

From this project, I think I'll be able to use the resources and tools, but also just the networks as well. And then my future might not be completely clinical. It could also include education, which was my first background, so I think just going forward there are more doors than I initially thought. So it's cool to see other all kind of coming together in an unexpected way."