A Veteran DSP with a Bold Vision for the Future: DSP Shawn Fuller - Penn-Mar

A Veteran DSP with a Bold Vision for the Future: DSP Shawn Fuller

Posted on April 16, 2021

Shawn Fuller got his start in the human services field over thirty years ago. As he says, “For most of the time I’ve worked in this field I’ve chosen to be in direct support. Only about 20% of my time has ever been spent supervising – so that kind of tells you what I love to do!”

Indeed, Shawn’s passion for supporting people with intellectual and developmental disabilities led him to his current position as an Activity Instructor at our Maryland Line Day Program. But his career in the field actually began in 1988 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Over the years he’s worked as an Awake Overnight DSP, in transportation, as a job coach, in residential supports, and more.

He’s taken some sporadic breaks now and then, citing burnout. “I’ve always loved this field, but burnout is definitely real. Over my several decades I’ve left a few times – but I always come back.”

Shawn’s even tried his hand at supervising, but discovered he didn’t love that work the way he did direct support. “Some people are better in a team. I tend to get my energy from being with a team of really competent people who’re working towards the same goal. A good team energizes each other. You all have your own inherent value. You all bring something to the table.”

Fortunately for us, in 2017 Shawn moved back to Maryland for a second time and became part of the Penn-Mar team. “When I came back, Penn-Mar was immediately in my sights. I knew the organization by reputation and wanted to work here.”

Advocating for All

Throughout the human services field’s evolution over the past three decades, Shawn has held true to one mantra: “If you want to succeed in this field, you have to be open to change, and be good with people. I’ve always wanted to come in and be a positive member of whatever team I was part of. It can be hard to get a good team together, and you have to have empathy. Whether you have a co-worker who has stuff going on away from work, or if it’s a person you support. Empathy is important.”

Shawn’s capacity for empathy drives him to be “as much of an advocate for staff as I am for the people I support.” And if you’ve ever had the privilege to have a conversation with him, it’s immediately apparent that he cares about creating an environment where both the people he supports and his colleagues can thrive.

“Anything I can do to make things better, to help us recruit and retain better people – it makes things better for everyone,” he states emphatically. “People looking in at what we do from the outside, they always say, ‘I’m so glad somebody does that; I could never do it.’ I try to explain to those people that our work is vital in any community; we’re just trying to make sure that whatever someone’s disability is, people recognize that their ability far outweighs the disability itself.”

Clearly impassioned, Shawn continues, “But to do that, we as a field have to figure out a way to keep [DSPs]. Staff need to be supported – and a lot of that is financial. Nobody is doing this for the money. It’s better at Penn-Mar than a lot of other places, but it would be great if people could earn what they deserve. I hope we get there someday. In the past I’ve had to supplement with other jobs, but I try not to do that too much. If I’m working 60 hours a week, what else am I doing for myself? How can I take care of others if I’m not taking care of myself?”

Investing in Others

Shawn’s desire to see Direct Support Professionals receive better training and compensation comes down to one critically important point. “It’s traumatic for the people we support to lose someone they like. They trust someone, and 2 years later that person’s gone and they have to start all over. I don’t want to be the person who makes them start over. It’s not like we want to go; we just do it because we have to have livelihoods.”

He notes just how complex the DSP role really is: “We’re a nurse, counselor, teacher – we’re not just ‘caretakers.’ We wear so many hats. Successful businesspeople use so many skills every day – in any other line of work there would be a value to how many skills we have. We do 4 or 5 jobs in one. I don’t know that people recognize that about DSPs. Sure, if this is your calling, you figure out a way to survive with it. But I would love politicians and the public to understand just how involved we are in the people we support’s lives.”

And while he loves his work, Shawn is careful not to glamourize it. “It’s a lot of coming back every day and doing the same things. People come into this field and think they’re going to be big movers and shakers, but it’s actually in the details, the small things, the things we have to repeat time after time. We want the people we support to be as independent as possible, but that takes an investment.”

All investments take time to pay off, but Shawn knows firsthand what it’s like when that happens. “When you see changes, it does make you feel really good. I saw that as a job coach – I could see people learning a job while I’m beside them, and then I’m stepping back, and they’ve taken ownership. I’d go back to check in and see them at work, and there’s a smile on their face, because they’re doing something they never thought they’d do. That’s ultimately what we’re trying to do – trying to support them in making their lives better, hopefully to the point where they don’t need us, where our jobs are obsolete.”

Forever in Progress

As veteran DSP, there’s clearly something that brings Shawn back day after day – even the hard ones – and has drawn him back into the field repeatedly. “At the end of the day, I keep coming back to this work because when I leave it, I realize I miss it. This is where my skillset is.”

He adds, “But you have to be really intentional about self-care. You have to seek things outside of work that recharge your batteries. Whenever you work in a person-centered job, it’s going to drain you if you’re doing it right. It can be really exhausting, but it’s also so liberating to let go of your life for 8 hours and focus on someone else.”

“I enjoy being in the middle of things. Nothing’s ever completely fixed; none of us are ever ‘done.’ We’re all in progress – it’s called human services for a reason.”

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