By Gregory Miller
President/CEO Penn-Mar Human Services
Thirty years ago when I started at Penn-Mar, the families of the individuals we supported were looking for some type of program for their sons and daughters when they exited the school system. Safety was the most important program component.
Over the last decade I have seen these programs evolve and gather momentum like a snow ball rolling downhill. Our families today are better educated, our school systems more efficient in preparing our folks for the adult phase of their lives, and we are seeing a lot more community-based activities — including work experiences —that individuals with developmental disabilities can take part in.
Family thinking and expectations have also evolved as they see just how these experiences are enhancing and transforming the lives of their children.
But safety will always be of utmost concern as there is a sense of vulnerability that many of us don’t have that the folks we support do.
So with that in mind, we as an organization need to be sure that when our individuals are out in the community with staff in a work, social or volunteer environment that they are placed in positions where they can be taken care of responsibly.
All of our lives involve an element of risk. Our mission is to advocate for the same opportunities for all in our society but we would be naïve to think there isn’t going to be some risk in many of those decisions.
But there is a big difference between putting people at risk and allowing people to have the dignity of risk in their lives.
As the leader of Penn-Mar, I do not advocate nor would I allow our staff to place our individuals in a position where their safety is being knowingly jeopardized. But as an organization it is our responsibility to advocate for them if someone wants to engage in an activity or behavior that may seem risky.
We carefully listen to what our individuals want to do, understand their intentions and educate them about the risks involved. It is not for us to say “you can do this but not that.” Rather we are here to help them make responsible decisions for themselves.
None of us can achieve true success in life without experiencing some element of risk. Those that achieve the most in life live on that line. For our individuals, that line could be working as a glass cutter, operating a lawn mower, or deciding what to purchase and how to pay for it.
For families who have been accustomed to making decisions for their children and shielding them from risk, this “letting go” can be challenging.
Employers, too, are reluctant to put our individuals at risk which is why we established a very thoughtful job placement program. We work hand-in-hand with businesses to train and nurture the capabilities and untapped potential of our individuals and find even more work opportunities when they show interest.
A provider that could really master the art of working effectively with families to help them understand and embrace the dignity of risk and the importance of advocating for independence for their loved ones would truly set themselves apart.
Penn-mar aspires to be that provider and will continually improve the way we communicate and partner with our families.