Penn-Mar Human Services

Teaching Independence and Hugs

Natalie Place has always enjoyed helping people with disabilities. At the age of 11 she babysat for a boy with muscular dystrophy and in her late teens worked with a man who was wheelchair-bound from a stroke. In between, she held more typical teenage jobs but somehow those “regular” jobs just weren’t satisfying. “I knew I had more of a purpose,” she said.

That calling brought her to Penn-Mar Human Services eight years ago as a DSP. She admits now she had no idea what she was getting into. “I wanted to help, teach, change things; it was all about me, me, me! But once I set foot in the field, I realized that the individuals you support are the ones who make the changes, in you!

After all these years, Natalie continues to be in awe of her charges.  “They bring such joy,” she exclaims. “They have daily challenges but from the minute they wake up — many of them with physical disabilities – they smile and are so happy to see you and greet the new day. They have taught me what a blessing it is to have them in my life.”

Natalie is all about independence, therapeutic approaches to care…and hugs. She tells the story of a gentleman cared for who had no family to support him. They communicated in sign language and she realized that what he needed most was a hug. “It sounds like such a small thing but I literally taught him how to hug. To this day, whenever he sees me he stands up and gives me a big hug.”

Her therapeutic approach to care has her constantly asking her superiors, her DSPs and her individuals, “What can we do better?”

Do people really need to stay on meds they’ve been taking since they were teenagers?

How can we make some alone time for our individuals that is safe and enriching?

Is someone just “acting up” or is there an underlying issue we need to address?

How can we listen and respond to what our individuals want, not what we think they want?

Richard is a beneficiary of this innovative thinking. Natalie noticed how he was mesmerized by the sight of a lawn mower whenever the grounds crew came around his community home. Four years ago, Natalie planted the seed with her supervisors to find out if Richard could have the opportunity to mow his own yard as he had done previously at his parent’s home.

Since last month, after many at-bats and assurances that he would be well supervised, Richard is now living the dream, working outside inspecting his lawn mower and starting it up whenever he sees a patch of grass that needs some attention.

Emily Malone, Natalie’s direct program supervisor, describes her as a “creative thinker” who is open to trying new things and learning from them.

As a Residential Supervisor at the Jeffery Lane home, Natalie is a strong advocate for her DSPs as well. Recently she organized a group of 25 people, including support staff and individuals, to stand together at the Harrisburg Capitol to rally for additional funding for DSP wages.

“I have a will to learn and reach out to those around me, to be on the front lines doing everything that needs to be done,” concluded Natalie.

Daily, Emily Malone witnesses Natalie’s passion for making an impact. “She strives to give our individuals independence so they have the normality of person-centered support. To her, it’s more than a job. She’s making a difference not because she has to, but because she wants to.”