Penn-Mar's Vanessa Cooke named DSP of the Year for Maryland

Career Change Leads to National Recognition for New DSP Vanessa Cooke

Posted on April 19, 2023

Vanessa Cooke's headshot

Vanessa Cooke, ANCOR’s DSP of the Year for Maryland.

You know you’ve found your true calling when in less than a year into your new profession, you’re recognized as one of the best at what you do. Such is the case – rare, we might add – of Penn-Mar DSP Vanessa Cooke, who was selected, out of 350 nominations, as the recipient of ANCOR’s 2023 DSP of the Year Award for Maryland.

ANCOR (The American Network of Community Options & Resources), the national nonprofit association representing 2000 community providers of services to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, will present Vanessa with her award during the association’s annual conference, which this year will be held in Chicago from April 24th to 26th.

The conference’s theme is Possibility Unleashed, a phrase that fittingly describes Vanessa’s meteoric rise as a Direct Support Professional, as well as the work she is doing in unleashing possibilities and greater independence for four adults with intellectual disabilities through community-based supports.

“I’m still a little shocked about the award,” said Vanessa. “It’s such an honor, and my first thought is that I’ve just been doing my job. I honestly didn’t feel like I was deserving of it.”

Vanessa, who just turned 29, and who grew up in Westminster, Maryland, was nominated for the ANCOR award by Penn-Mar West Community Support Team Manager Teresa O’Brien and Senior DSP Maria Swift. Maria is Vanessa’s cousin and was last year’s recipient of ANCOR’s National DSP of the Year Award. You could say dedication to others and compassionate support runs in the family.

Vanessa has only been working as a DSP for the past ten months. A childhood dream of hers was to become a veterinarian technician (Vet Tech), a career she pursued while at Westminster High School through an internship with Airpark Animal Hospital. She continued her internship at Airpark after graduation and was then hired by Route 140 Veterinary Hospital. All the while, she attended Carroll Community College earning an associate degree in psychology, and then completed the college’s veterinarian assistant program, which led to a job with the Westminster Veterinarian Hospital in 2017, where she remained until last year.

During her career as a Vet Tech, Vanessa discovered that her real passion was working with people.

“I think a lot of people assume that a tech only works with animals, but you’re really working with their owners,” she said. “I never realized how much I enjoyed talking to people and educating them about things. That’s where I think I hold my purpose – working with people and helping them in their daily lives.”

After ten years as a Vet Tech, Vanessa felt the job had run its course, and that she had fully accomplished her childhood goal. It was just prior to the COVID pandemic when she began thinking about transitioning into a new career working with people. She learned about Penn-Mar through Maria, who explained the role of a DSP, and described what it entailed on a day-to-day basis. Vanessa thought it sounded rewarding and something she could see herself doing, however COVID stalled the career move she was hoping to make until last year.

“I would say this is my career now. I really enjoy this work,” Vanessa said. “I think that people who start working for Penn-Mar and in this field go one of two ways – they’re either here for a short amount of time or they’re lifers. It’s very rewarding work and I think Penn-Mar does such a great job of highlighting people’s success and showing the appreciation that you look for in a job. I enjoy being that safe place for people to come to for support and encouragement.”

5 people smiling while taking a group selfie outdoors.

Vanessa (front right) with, from left, Sarah, Derek (front), Nicholas, and Julia.

From day one, Vanessa has worked with a group of four individuals – Sarah Maranto, Derek Long, Nicholas Passarello, and Julia Quarles. For the first few weeks she shadowed Maria, and since taking over the group has formed a great rapport and bond, she said. It’s the work she’s done with them in the past nine months that propelled Teresa and Maria to nominate her for the ANCOR Award.

In an excerpt from the nomination, Teresa and Maria state that Vanessa “excels at implementing effective strategies that support individuals while keeping their personal interests at the root of every activity. [That she] offers opportunities for people to be educated, have first-hand experiences, and explore their communities…. Incredibly, with less than one year of experience working as a DSP, Vanessa has gone above and beyond to deserve this award.”

Vanessa feels that her background in psychology has given her an advantage in understanding different disorders and disabilities and has helped guide her in creating strategies, opportunities, and solutions for her group. The field of study has always intrigued her, and she is currently pursuing a bachelor’s in psychology from the University of Maryland.

Vanessa Cooke and her husband Jason pose for a photo.

Vanessa and her husband Jason, on a recent flea market outing, are expecting their first child this summer.

If working a full 40-hours a week and pursuing a degree isn’t enough, Vanessa will further have her hands full when her and her husband Jason’s first child, a boy, is born at the end of July. She’s going to take a semester off but plans to take a painting course this summer; art being one of her passions. 

“I love art, thrifting and antiquing. I’m very much a creative kind of person,” said Vanessa, who has a little side business refurbishing and selling furniture and useful wares found at flea markets. “I really enjoy giving things new life.” 

Creativity is one of the talents that Vanessa applies to her work as a DSP. In their nomination, Teresa and Maria cited numerous examples of her talents in leadership, relationships, and innovation, and noted that she has developed an out-of-the-box approach to effectively support the individuals with whom she works.
“Just being able to see the joy that’s created in someone’s life through the support that we provide every day is an honor,” she said. “I love being a role model and a cheerleader in people’s lives. I don’t take this job lightly because it’s a big responsibility that we have as DSPs to help people with their ideal lives.”

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