Thirty-two years ago a friend of Rita Arnett’s, impressed with her caregiver nature, suggested she use her talents to support individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). The first day on the job Rita saw the severity of disabilities and thought to herself, “No way I can do this.”
But she went back the next day, and the day after that, turning a career as a Direct Support Professional (DSP) for individuals with disabilities into her life’s work.
“It is such an honor to come into these people’s lives,” said Arnett. “My hope every day is that I can go home at night, lay my head down and smile because I did the best I could to help them and give them more independence.”
For the past 20 years, Rita has worked at Penn-Mar’s community home on Walter Road in York, PA as a residential supervisor, taking charge of staffing issues and training, planning medical appointments, chores and activities for the four women she supports. She also sees to the upkeep of the house that is constantly buzzing with laughter, dancing, meal preparation, craft making and any number of comings-and-goings.
The women at Walter Road do a lot for themselves, said Arnett, but have the comfort of knowing that she and her staff are standing by for assistance, transportation and counseling. Several of “the ladies” have regular outside employment and are enrolled in regular weekly activities, giving their lives structure, challenge, friendships and purpose. Two of the residents have lived at the home with Rita for the past 20 years and have thrived under her consistent presence.
“I’ve practically grown up with these women” said Arnett. “I’ve taught them how to lead their own lives, to be as independent as possible. Years ago they didn’t know they could be self-advocates, thinking they needed permission to do everything.”
Over the years Arnett says both the individuals she supports and her staff have been “evolving,” teaching and learning independence at every opportunity.
And she is committed to changing community perceptions about people with disabilities. “They have to be the most discriminated people there are and they face it in one way or another almost every single day. How can we help them overcome this,” she wonders aloud.
Arnett was one of 16 DSPs selected by Penn-Mar to earn national credentials through the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals’ (NADSP) Career Ladders Program. She is also the first in her cohort to receive Certification, leading to professional credentialing and compensation commensurate with her unique skill sets and experience (an additional 27 Penn-Mar DSPs are enrolled in year two). Across the country, there are less than 250 DSPs who have received training to achieve credentialing – out of a national workforce of some two million serving people with IDD.
“It was very exciting for someone like me to be accepted for this program,” said Arnett. “I don’t want to be promoted. I want to continue doing what I’m doing. My strengths are dedication, compassion and advocacy. My longevity in the field only proves my lifelong commitment to this population. Having the opportunity to become certified will enable me to be more recognized for my knowledge and experience and will allow me to continue to advocate and provide services that are not only excellent but innovative and life changing.”