By his own admission, helping people comes pretty naturally to Dorian Cephas. You might say it’s in his DNA. His mother, LaDawn Ellen, has been with Penn-Mar for three years, and it was her love for her work as a Direct Support Professional (DSP) that inspired Dorian to apply to the nonprofit some 14 months ago.
From day one at Penn-Mar, Dorian, 27, and a Baltimore native, has been working exclusively with Stephen Long, who was born with autism, and has, among other diagnoses, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which as Stephen’s mother, Barbara Knauff, described, “really cripples him at times.” It is Dorian’s work with Stephen over the past year that compelled Barbara to nominate him for a Penn-Mar PRIDE Award for going above and beyond in his work with Stephen, and making a difference in his life.
Before joining Penn-Mar, Dorian was a mentor and advisor to young people in juvenile detention at the Charles H. Hickey, Jr. School (CHS), of the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services. While at CHS, he helped youth with life skills and routines, basic things, like brushing their teeth and making their beds. “Normal everyday things that we take for granted, but which these kids didn’t know, because they were either homeless, or had grown up with nothing,” said Dorian.
Although working with the kids at CHS was rewarding, Dorian wasn’t comfortable with the prison-like setting and the feeling of being locked in, so he decided to make a change.
“I was helping kids do better, now I’m helping Stephen get out into the community and live as fulfilling a life as possible.”
One Door Closes, Another Opens
In the 21 years that Stephen, 54, has been with Penn-Mar, the last 12 of which as a resident, this is the first time he’s ever had one-on-one support. The need for it was, in great part, prompted by deep grief when his father, Earl Long, a constant in his life, moved to Florida for medical care. As Barbara explained, “Stephen couldn’t comprehend why his dad wasn’t around anymore.”
In addition, Stephen’s OCD, which can cause him unbearable anxiety, and which historically, as Barbara acknowledged, has been difficult for staff at times, compounded matters. One of the standing issues with people with autism is difficulty adapting to change, and unable to articulate his frustration with the changes in his life, namely his father’s absence, Stephen would lash out.
“His behavior became his voice,” said Barbara. “He constantly asked where his father was, and became aggressive, which resulted in his being heavily medicated to control his behavior.”
Just as Dorian began one-on-one support with Stephen, Barbara, a practicing psychotherapist and RN, had moved back up from Florida, where she lived for ten years and had a large practice and taught at the college level. Being so far away was very difficult for her, so she just packed up and moved. “I knew that I was needed, and that Stephen was my priority,” she said.
The first thing Barbara looked into was finding Stephen a good doctor at Baltimore’s Sheppard Pratt one of the nation’s top mental health systems, offering psychiatric care for mental and behavioral issues. The second thing was to get his medication reduced, as it broke her heart to see him go around, as she said, like a zombie. Over the course of those first few months, she and Dorian began comparing notes as to how Stephen was progressing with his medication lowered. Sheppard Pratt nurse practitioner Hilarie Lynn, also watched his progress, and Barbara is grateful for her exceptional care over the months.
“We’ve managed to accomplish a lot of little things in a year,” said Barbara. “I’ve seen a great deal of difference. We have our setbacks, but they’re not as severe or frequent. Dorian and I are both so happy when we see a spark of progress.”
For his part, Dorian feels that he has helped Stephen most by being very patient with him, and by understanding that his OCD very often takes the driver’s seat. He credits Penn-Mar DSP Brandon Grammes, who worked with Stephen, for sharing insights about him and helping in the transition.
Although Stephen attends the Day Program in the mornings, he and Dorian are more often out in the community on outings… to parks, the movies, and several times a week, swimming at the Towson YMCA, an activity that Stephen loves and which Barbara signed him up for. He also spends weekly overnights at his mother’s new home in York, Pa.
“Stephen is a great guy, a great friend,” said Dorian. “I would say he’s a part of my family.”
“Dorian has exceptional characteristics as evidenced by his patience and kindness,” said Barbara. “I trust him and he makes Stephen feel safe. The one-on-one has been wonderful, and I feel very good about their relationship.”
This fall, on the recommendation and strength of his experience working with Stephen, Dorian was accepted into and began Penn-Mar’s Career Ladders Program, the DSP career development and credentialing program now in its third year.
“I think the most important thing to have to be a DSP is respect and patience,” said Dorian. If you don’t respect yourself, you’re not going to respect anybody else. And if you don’t have patience, then you’re really going to have a hard time.”
“Dorian has the approach of respect and dignity with Stephen,” said Barbara. “He has made an exceptional difference in his quality of life. After not showing any emotion for months, Stephen began to actually laugh. Dorian asked him why he was laughing, Stephen replied, ‘I’m happy.’”