Less than two minutes into our conversation with Rachel Holland, a Residential Supervisor who’s been at Penn-Mar for nearly three-and-a-half years, and has worked in the human services field for six years, and one thing is clear – if Rachel’s in your corner, anything is possible.
Suffice it say that Rachel is the person who’d wake up at 5am just to snag a copy of a newspaper in which you’re featured. She’s the person you’d call if you were in crisis. She’d jump into the freezing-cold bay in the middle of winter, contact the local press to champion a cause, and even tattoo your artwork onto her body permanently, just to prove to you how much you matter.
As a Direct Support Professional (DSP) supporting people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), Rachel has actually done all of the above and then some. And while she might consider this just part of an ‘average’ day on the job, no part of Rachel’s heart for others, or her dedication to the gentlemen with IDD that she supports, is average.
A Path with Purpose
Rachel’s career path as a DSP began when she took a job working with a child with autism as his 1:1 support. “I’d known him since he was 6 years old and babysat him. Then I started working with him through the Maryland Autism Waiver Program. I’d been in childcare previously, but – and this might sound terrible; I don’t mean it that way! – I wasn’t getting enough out of it. I wanted to do more. I wanted to have more of an impact.”
This initial foray into Direct Support helped Rachel recognize that not only was it a fulfilling career, it was one at which she excelled, thanks to her exceptional relational skills. “The little boy I started with turned 17 today, actually. I’m still in contact with the family and get to have special days with them.”
Rachel eventually moved onto the ARC of Carroll County and Target Community & Educational Services in Westminster, MD, before coming to Penn-Mar.
Once here, she dove in – quite literally – and quickly built trusting relationships with the three gentlemen she supports today.
Taking the Plunge
“When I first started working at Penn-Mar, I wore my Polar Bear Plunge sweatshirt.” (Polar Bear Plunge is an annual fundraising event for Special Olympics, where people plunge into cold water in the winter.) “I’d participated before, and David, a gentleman I support, asked me a bunch of questions about it. He really wanted to do it. I was worried about his safety since it’s so cold, but I knew he loves the water. His family’s from Queenstown,” she adds, referencing a part of Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
“I wanted to make sure that everyone was on the same page. So I worked with him, and he advocated for himself, and he advocated with his family, and soon it became this whole team effort where everyone was really supporting him in his fundraising efforts and rooting him on.”
Yet Rachel advocated even further, reaching out to the Carroll County Times, who’d put out a call for stories from Plungers. “I contacted them and said, ‘Hey, he’s done this all on his own. He’s done all the fundraising. I want to make this a really big deal for him.’”
“David and his housemates made the front-page cover!” she laughs, recollecting, “I definitely didn’t expect that!” Naturally, Rachel woke up at 5am the day of the Plunge so that she could drive around the County and find enough newspapers to give one to each member of David’s out-of-town family, all before hitting the road to get to the actual event. “Of course, the first place I went didn’t have any copies, so I had to keep trying.”
Rachel’s already anticipating some creative ways for the crew to still participate in the Plunge this year, even though COVID-19 has put a damper on many events. “Three years later they’ve raised over $3,000 and it’s become a tradition. The guys already have it in their heads this year that we’re doing it at home. Someone’s going to have to dump a bucket of water on me outside this year,” she jokes. “I’m not sure I can do it to myself!”
Adapting in a Pandemic
Of course, the Polar Bear Plunge isn’t the only thing COVID-19 has disrupted for Rachel, her team, and the gentlemen they support.
“Prior to COVID, we had a set schedule. Now, there’s no such thing as a schedule or routine. You’re always on the fly. It’s hard, because I’m trying to protect everyone – the guys, the staff, their families, even myself,” Rachel explains.
“One of the guys, Jeff, loves goats. He actually writes adventure stories about [Program Manager] Michelle Delozier’s goats. One is named Joseph Abraham, and so he always wears a top hat, like Abraham Lincoln. So we’ve been doing lots of petting zoos. I swear the goats know Jeff loves them, they always come right up to him.”
Recently, Rachel even spent 90 minutes helping Jeff carve a pumpkin into a goat with a top hat. “It took forever and my hands were aching, but it was worth it.”
“The guys deserve to have staff that will do whatever they want to do, and also be strong advocates, especially now, because what they’re going through is not normal. They’re really good about it, but it’s still hard because they’re not seeing their families as they normally would. So we’ve already had conversations about the holidays. We realize they might not be able to go home. But one of the guys said, ‘It’s OK. We’re one big family at Penn-Mar.’”
Reflecting on a Legacy of Good
When asked about some of the highlights of her career thus far, Rachel shares a few key moments.
“The guys don’t really have a filter, so it can be interesting sometimes. Especially now that it’s election season – they just let their opinions fly! But that’s actually been really cool to see. They’ve gotten more interested in politics, just from seeing signs everywhere. So they’ve been learning and are expressing themselves more, and some of them have made plans to vote, which is awesome.”
But Rachel’s most significant moment as a DSP is something she says, “I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.”
“Before I came to Penn-Mar, a person I had supported was really struggling with some stuff. He’s an artist, and even though I didn’t work with him anymore, I’d always told him that if he ever needed something, if he was ever in a bad place, that I would be there for him. And that if he reached out instead of hurting himself, that I would get a tattoo that he designed, and I would put it on my body.”
Rachel’s thoughtful, genuine support of this gentleman led him to contact her when he was in crisis, and she now proudly sports a tattoo that says: “See the World Differently.” A fitting design for someone who so readily sees each person’s potential.
“At the end of the day, that’s my job. To see the world differently. You don’t go into this field for the pay or the recognition. I do this job for the people I support. Myself and my staff are there to support the guys 100%, no matter what. We advocate for what’s best for them, instead of putting our own opinions first. I may not always agree with everything I do at my job, but it’s not about me. It’s about them.”