When Christen Rystedt decided to become a Direct Support Professional (DSP) roughly 10 months ago, no one could have imagined just how much all our lives would change thanks to the Coronavirus.
A career as a DSP is an adventure on a ‘typical’ day, let alone in the midst of an unparalleled global crisis.
Yet for Christen, being a DSP has always been a learning experience, both for herself and those she supports.
A New Path
A relatively new DSP, Christen came from a retail and customer service background, working in various stores and a doctor’s office before going back to school to earn her degree.
Successfully armed with an educational background in Psychology and Human Resources Management, she began to explore new career options.
“I never did this work before, but my sister works for Target [another local human services agency] and actually started working at Penn-Mar a little after I did. So, talking to her got me interested.”
Christen accepted a position at Penn-Mar’s Westminster location (formerly Change, Inc.) in the Day Program, where she worked for about 3 months before COVID hit.
“It’s all a blur to me at this point – it’s a lot when you’re first starting out. I’d never done anything like this before, so I had to learn a lot. I was especially focused on learning about the different individuals that I support. Everyone has their own preferences, things they like and dislike. It takes time to get to know people.”
To compound the challenges of starting a new job in a new sector in unprecedented times, Christen’s team was also short-staffed initially. Nationwide, agencies like Penn-Mar struggle with recruitment and retention of talented Direct Support staff due to low reimbursement rates set by state and federal governments, which translates into low wages for DSPs.
“It was definitely a learning experience!” she jokes of her first few months on the job. Nevertheless, Christen found her groove, working in a one-on-one capacity with a few people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to explore their local communities – and beyond.
“Being a DSP isn’t just one job. You have to be a jack-of-all-trades, depending on what the people you work with like to do. You’re not just cooking all day, or folding clothes. You become an expert in what they’re passionate about, and like with all of us, that can change.”
“I can’t stand to be in the same place every day,” shares Christen. “So, we’ve been all over the place, almost a new place every day. I always try to find places that I know the gentleman and lady I support will be really into.”
So far, Christen and company can count a myriad of cool places among their visited list: Catoctin Wildlife Preserve, The Land of Little Horses, Codorus State Park, and Long Arm Dam, just to name a few.
She elaborates, “One individual really loves watching people play sports, so we’re always looking for somewhere that people are playing pickle, basketball or soccer. He loves to watch and cheer them on. Sandymount Park and Christmas Tree Park usually have something going on, so we try to go these places each week. And a lady I support LOVES looking at records. She can name all the artists just from the photos. She loves music and is really knowledgeable. So we would go to the Antique Mall [which recently closed] and she would go straight to the record section. We’re trying to find a new record store to visit now.”
COVID has certainly made this task harder. “The woman I work with also loves flowers, so we’ve been to all the garden centers in the area. I think we’ve exhausted them all!”
Yet the pandemic isn’t the most significant challenge when it comes to exploring local communities. Even in 2020, accessibility can be frustratingly evasive.
“It’s challenging when someone has ambulatory needs. It’s hard to find places that are accessible. The young man I support can’t walk on uneven surfaces. Now that it’s getting chilly outside, it’s hard to find places to go. A lot of fun fall activities are on farms, where it’s hard to push a wheelchair or to walk.”
Getting over these hurdles together has helped Christen bond with the people she supports. “I would definitely say that earning someone’s trust is so important if you’re going to be working with them. The gentleman I work with, if he doesn’t know you, he understandably won’t let you assist him with his mobility. But I just stuck around. I kept trying and I showed up consistently. I always explain before we’re about to hit a step, or the terrain is changing. So we’re always communicating, and that’s been really helpful.”
Christen’s impressive combination of persistence, compassion, and creativity has led her to many meaningful moments supporting her clients. “Just this morning, an individual and I went to a park, and he pushed his own mobility device. Usually I push him, but he did it himself. It was exciting to see him take charge!”
A Passion for Inclusion
When we asked Christen what she wishes she knew 10 months ago; what she would share with new DSPs, she emphatically states, “Don’t be afraid. I was terrified at first, because I didn’t want to mess up. I wanted to do everything perfectly. Obviously, you can’t. But the people I support are forgiving and they understand. You just have to try different things, because you never know what will work for the two of you.”
Perhaps this sage advice is in part impacted by Christen’s experiences growing up. “I have family that I grew up with that have disabilities, and so I never thought of it any differently in my interactions with them. Some people [when they encounter people with disabilities] are afraid to say the wrong things, or do the wrong things, but most people just want you to interact with them just as you would anyone else; that’s all they’re looking for.”
She continues, “People with disabilities are no different than anyone else. That’s the biggest thing for me.”