As the mother of two young boys, and another soon on the way, Kari Hartless says that the experience of being a parent has in many ways informed the work that she does as a Direct Support Professional (DSP), a career she started at Penn-Mar two years ago.
Interestingly, it was working for her mother Jennifer’s cleaning service that led her to want to have a career helping people.
“My Mom showed me what empathy really is,” said Kari. “When some of her longtime elderly clients couldn’t pay anymore, my mom kept going anyway to clean.”
Her entrée into the health and human services field came with a job at SpiriTrust Lutheran, where she gained a lot of valuable knowledge and experience working in their skilled care nursing home with dementia and Alzheimer’s residents.
“I learned that you have to bring yourself into their world,” she said. Something she has achieved at Penn-Mar working with resident Jon Larkin, who was born with Down syndrome and was recently diagnosed with early-onset dementia.
The role of a DSP goes far beyond that of a caregiver that it once mostly entailed. DSPs work hard to help people with I/DD realize their full potential, and become part of and engaged in their communities. Where in the past it was more about doing things for an individual, today it is about helping an individual do things for him or herself. Working with Jon, Kari has put her experience, knowledge and skills into full play and has helped him connect with his community in ways he hadn’t for a long time.
When Kari first met Jon he was part of a Day Program group led by DSP Charlotte Quante. Given his dementia diagnoses it was determined that Jon would most likely thrive working one-on-one with a DSP. She observed him for two weeks and consulted with Charlotte, who, said Kari, provided a lot of helpful information and advice concerning him. She learned, for example, that he loves music, particularly the Oak Ridge Boys. Within the group setting and even while first working with Kari, Jon, who is mostly nonverbal, refused to go out, preferring to stay in and not participate in excursions or some activities.
“Jon wouldn’t leave this one room at our old Glen Rock Day Program,” Kari said. “It took me a bit of time, but I was eventually able to gain his trust.”
Taking a highly energetic, fun-loving approach, Kari applied music, dance, physical play, and what she discovered was one of Jon’s favorite things to do… a little bit of horseplay to help him come out of his shell. Being nonverbal, Jon’s physicality is a way for him to express himself, noted Kari. “He tells me what he wants not with words, but with his body language.”
“I had to figure out what his interests were and move it from there,” said Kari, adding that the Day Program’s move to New Freedom and bright, state-of-the-art facility had a positive effect on Jon’s mood. “Once we got to the new building the whole atmosphere changed. He brightened up, and it increased his desire to do things.”
On most days, you’ll find Jon and Kari out and about at the park, shooting hoops, off to The Meadows for ice cream and a few arcade games, or interacting with people at Brown’s Orchards & Farm Market. Wherever they go, Jon’s ready to shake someone’s hand.
Jon’s come a long way from the reclusive man Kari first met. She feels the reward has been seeing his smile and to know that he is happy. “You can see that he appreciates all that we do together.”
“I feel very accomplished by helping change an individual’s life,” said Kari. “When I started at Penn-Mar, I knew this was where I wanted to be. I can’t recall a single day I haven’t woken up and not looked forward to coming to work.”