Lydia Hurst’s deep passion and energy for her job and for the people she works with at Penn-Mar radiates out through her smile and through her steadfast dedication to a profession she knows to be absolutely vital to the lives of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD). Last October, her passion and dedication were recognized by PAR, Pennsylvania’s leading disability provider and advocacy association for people with autism and intellectual disability, by awarding her the “PAR 2017 ‘We Are Worth It’ Central Region Direct Support Professional of the Year.”
As a Penn-Mar Community Activity Instructor and Direct Support Professional (DSP) who has been with the nonprofit for 15 years, Lydia is often the go-to person in Penn-Mar’s Day Program and can be pulled in 20 different directions at once, but as she points out, “Of course, it’s all good.”
One direction she has moved in in the past few years is as an advocate both for Penn-Mar’s individuals and the staff who support them. Last year, she was so moved by her experience in Harrisburg advocating for higher wages and increased funding for disability services that this year she led a group of 38 Penn-Mar staff and the people she works with to the state Capitol on June 4th for a PAR rally.
Her initial foray into advocacy led her to apply to Penn-Mar’s Career Ladders program, a professional credentialing and development program for DSPs that was established in the fall of 2016 to tackle the care system crisis of low wages and high turnover. It took her about eight months to complete the program, and she was the second person to graduate with a DSP 1 certification.
“Becoming engaged in Penn-Mar’s Career Ladders program taught me a lot. It’s one of the best things you could possibly do,” said Lydia. “Although I’ve been in the field for 15 years and have a lot of knowledge and experience, I still learned new things, like how to advocate for others and for myself as well. Advocacy is a pretty inspiring experience, one which I never thought I would get into like I have.”
The day of the Capitol rally in June, the excitement level among the group of advocates was through the roof, but nobody was more excited than Lydia herself, who had green tee-shirts made up for all the participants. At one point, as Lydia described, dancing broke out among the group on the Capitol steps and they began to chant “We want more money for you.”
“The people I work for were so excited to go,” she said. “They knew why we were there, because we’re the ones who are there to support them, from washing their hands to getting a job. We were there supporting each other.”
The main purpose of the PAR rally in Harrisburg was to drive home to House lawmakers, deliberating Gov. Wolf’s 2018/19 $32.7 billion state budget, the critical importance of providing a living wage for DSPs, which would ultimately improve retention and the ability of agencies like Penn-Mar to recruit team members. Unfortunately, the budget signed by Gov. Wolf on June 23rd, did not include the wage increase, but did provide an additional $74 million for services for individuals with intellectual disabilities and autism, including $16 million to enroll an additional 965 individuals to receive services.
Penn-Mar’s CEO, Gregory T. Miller, notes, “As leaders in this field we have a responsibility to ensure that the men and women who are providing support each day to individuals with disabilities receive adequate compensation. The funding of these services is a core function of state government, and so we will never apologize for advocating that DSPs be recognized as professionals because they are the ones that ensure quality in our system.”
“We’ll be back next year,” said Lydia. “Increased wages for staff means Penn-Mar is able to bring new people into the field, and have them want to stay. Without a feasible wage, people can’t pay their bills and it’s tough to make ends meet. It’s also about keeping good people here, who see the job as rewarding, but struggle financially. Some people can get overwhelmed, but most of the people who stay love what they do.”
Lydia says that advocacy is so vital to getting in front of lawmakers to say change is needed.
“The experience in Harrisburg moved me. It moved me last year, and it moved me more this year,” she said. “It puts a fire in you just for those few hours and can make a huge difference. For myself, I just want to help make things better.”