September 13-19 has been designated Direct Support Professional Recognition Week, saluting a direct support workforce that is the heart and soul of supports for people with disabilities.
I have a unique understanding of the myriad tasks and challenges that DSPs are expected to master as I started my own career 35 years ago in that very same role. To this day, that experience has given me a comprehensive understanding of the complexities of the position and a genuine appreciation for the value of the work.
So while my responsibilities and titles have changed, I have never had a more important job than as a DSP, helping three individuals with disabilities find their place in this world.
Like many of you, I stumbled across my career path by accident. My sister Pam opened the first group home for Target Community & Educational Services in Westminster, MD back in 1984, early in the deinstitutionalization movement. A family friend and neighbor, Dr. Don Rabush, started the organization, and invited my wife Terri and me to drop by his house during a break in my college senior year.
Target was looking for a young couple to invest a few years of their life to help three young boys coming from an institutional setting. Would we be interested in taking on that challenge?
Terri had some experience with Special Olympics but I had no formal training working with people with disabilities. I did, however, have three cousins with disabilities including my cousin Benjamin who I recently wrote about in a June 16th blog. My comfort being with him and his brother Robert and the fond memories of our time together were a big driver in my decision to accept the position.
I remember my thought process: “They’re kids. How tough could it be?”
Needless to say, Terri and I had no idea of what we were taking on. It was a really, really tough job but over time we did discover that they were just kids. Just kids with different needs.
There was very little training then compared to what we require of our DSPs now. It was mostly on-the-job. Our first night in the residence, one of the boys refused to go to bed and tried to bite me. Welcome to the field!
Little did we know that was just the warm up. In time we would spend countless hours in hospitals dealing with seizures, falls, cuts, stitches, and sometimes major neurological issues. It became part of our daily reality that a good day could turn into a challenging day very quickly.
But because Terri and I were working together, it somehow doubled the joy and halved the challenge. In time we became better at our jobs and the three boys in our care began to thrive: Seven year old Michael Pitts; and two teenagers, Troy Meyer and Douglas Wagner.
If these names sound familiar it’s because 35 years later Michael and Troy live at a Penn-Mar residential home, and Douglas receives day services through our Westminster location.
And just to complete the storybook narrative, Michael’s parents, Jim and Kay Pitts — inspired by the impact Penn-Mar’s DSPs have had on their son and entire family — provided a very generous gift in 2017 to establish The Michael James Pitts Endowment for the Advancement of Direct Support Professionals.
Many Penn-Mar DSPs have benefited from this gift and the gifts of others, by completing a national credentialing program that provides them with recognition and wage enhancements to reward their professionalism.
Our field has developed tremendously over the past 35 years. But what hasn’t changed is the importance of the face-to-face relationship between DSPs and the individuals they support. There is no substitute for the right person with the right heart doing this type of work.
These dedicated professionals give individuals something that no one else can give them: a part of themselves that helps another person become more complete. They believe in the value of life and show it in a very practical way.
In a world turned upside-down by the COVID pandemic, I can’t think of a more appropriate time to extend our thanks and admiration for our DSPs’ tireless and critical contributions.