A Direct Support Professional (DSP) for over 40 years, Kim Kucherer has seen it all – and probably been in the thick of it.
“I was just 19 when I got my first DSP job; a Residential Assistant working summers, breaks, and weekends while going to college.”
While the field has certainly changed over the past four decades, Kim’s passion for it hasn’t. She describes her first day on the job vividly, because of the impact it had on her: “Back when I was starting out as a DSP, people were still coming out of institutions. So we were supporting people as young as 6 or 12 years old who had spent their entire lifetimes in an institution. My first day on the job a 12-year-old, who had recently left an institution to come live in the home where I was working, gave me the biggest hug. I was a total stranger to him, but he just wanted that connection.” Kim returned his hug, and never looked back on her career path, which she initially thought would be in Elementary Education. “I’ve enjoyed every moment of this job, even the tough ones. I get to see people become empowered to be themselves.”
The longevity of her career as a DSP is certainly a testament to her dedication, but that isn’t to say it hasn’t had its ups and downs. “My first day on the job I felt like such a failure. I was really overwhelmed. So now, with new DSPs, or DSPs that I supervise, I always try to remind them that every mistake is a learning experience. You can’t hold onto them, but you can get better. That’s what we teach the people we support. We have to model it ourselves.”
Kim’s always-learning approach led her to participate in Penn-Mar’s Career Ladders program, a nationally-credentialed certification program that provides professional training and compensation, beyond the basics. The program results in greater care consistency and quality, ultimately enabling the people we support to live higher-quality lives. She is a certified DSP-I, and is already tackling her DSP-II, with plans to go all the way through to DSP-III, the highest level of certification a DSP can achieve. “I’ve always known that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. We work with people; no two people are the same. But Career Ladders made me realize that sometimes you start by trying to solve one thing and end up solving something else instead.”
Clearly, persistence is a family trait, as a large majority of Kim’s family has worked in the field. Her sisters – including Sue Thorpe, also a longtime and outstanding Penn-Mar DSP – as well as her mother have held various DSP positions both for Penn-Mar and in other capacities throughout the years. “You start to become a family. Right now I support four guys in their house – and it’s their house, not mine – and they’ve become a family to each other. We’ve become a family to them.”
Perhaps Kim’s desire to ensure that every person is treated with “kindness, respect, compassion, and understanding” stems from her own journey as a parent. Kim has three children who have varying autism diagnoses. She can relate to the frustration that parents go through trying to navigate the system, and in worrying that their children won’t just be accepted but embraced.
“I hope that in another forty years – actually, sooner – we live in a society that treats all people as worthy, regardless of their life situation. I want a government structure that gives adequate funding to places like Penn-Mar and the guys I support. There should always be accountability – but people should come before policies.”