Posted on September 1, 2023
“I’m an open book. If my story can help someone, that’s a great thing.”
When Michael Casper hit rock bottom in 2019, it was an unlikely rock star who inspired him to climb back up and turn his life around. Then COVID happened to further change his course, leading him ultimately into a new career field, and a position as a Direct Support Professional at Penn-Mar in which he never dreamed he’d find himself.
Michael, 47, who lives in New Freedom, Pa., with his wife Melissa, and their dogs Molly and Charlie, describes the last five years of their lives like an extreme roller coaster ride, one that encouraged them to face serious emotional and physical challenges and fears with courage, resilience, and an abundance of rekindled faith in God.
Up until the pandemic shutdown in March of 2020, when he and millions of others lost their jobs, Michael, born in Nassau County, Long Island, N.Y., and raised in Eldersburg, Maryland, spent 22 years as an audiovisual technician and stagehand. He put in long hours, easily 100-hour weeks, working multiple events at different venues all over Baltimore. With his move to Pennsylvania in 2003, his commute more than doubled. It was only a matter of time before the hours, a toxic work environment, the stressful drive up and down I-83, and little to no sleep would all take a significant toll on his mental health and wellbeing.
“It became a very hard lifestyle, and it got to me in a bad way,” said Michael. “Melissa and I were also dealing with relationship and money issues, and longstanding tensions that I had with her family that with work brought me to a place where I was extremely depressed.”
Michael’s depression set in in 2017, and worsened by the following year. He sought counseling trying to find answers. Then everything came to a head. It had gotten so bad, he said, that at one point he contemplated taking his own life and ended up with a crisis team in his home.
“I would have reached out so much more to family and friends before, but unlike when you have cancer, or an illness, people more often than not run away from you when you mention depression or suicide,” Michael said. “What counselors helped me to understand later, was that it wasn’t because people didn’t care about me, which is what I thought, it’s because they don’t know what to say or do – they’re scared. I finally realized that I had to stop looking to other people in my life to help solve my problems. That’s when I reached back out to God.”
Although faith was a big part of Michael’s life growing up, he said he stopped going to church in his teens. He went back briefly in his early 20s, returning in his late 20s for just enough time to meet Melissa in 2003; they started dating the next year. In both instances, he had what he perceived as bad experiences. He felt like people were judgmental, not very open-minded, and often hypocritical.
“I think I had some big pride issues at the time,” said Michael. “I did a lot of spiritual wandering for years and questioned things a lot. I even dabbled in other forms of spirituality. I was very young, and I realize these days that those bad experiences had more to do with me and my attitude than it did with those other people. Everyone’s on their own journey.”
One thing that remained constant throughout these years was prayer. “The seed had been planted when I was a kid,” he said. “When times got really hard, I would always fall back to praying. It’s just that my faith wasn’t very strong at all then.”
What drew Michael back to his Christian roots at the lowest point in his life?
“You might laugh when I say this,” said Michael, chuckling himself. “It was Alice Cooper of all people.”
Alice Cooper, whose five-decade-long music career, and notoriously outrageous and shocking concert performances earned him the title of Godfather of Shock Rock, is the son of a pastor, who like Michael drifted away from the church in his teens. The heady lifestyle of rock superstardom led to serious alcohol and drug abuse that all came to a halt when he became a self-professed born-again Christian.
Michael recalls a particularly dark day of ruminating on who in his life would be better off without him. Pausing his thoughts, he pulled out his phone and checked his news feed where a photo of the shock rocker was staring back at him under a headline that read, “Is Alice Cooper a Christian?”
“I remember him growing up and the wild stories and his reputation,” Michael said, who read the article and watched some videos of Cooper talking about how he turned his life around. “It really pulled me up and I said to myself, if he can put his faith there, what do I have to lose. Maybe I’ll try that and start putting my faith in the right place.”
Rebooting his faith entailed first sitting down with Melissa and getting on the same page together. They were hopeful and things began to improve. That is until Melissa underwent a triple bypass and aortic valve replacement, due to damage to her heart from radiation and chemotherapy treatments she received at 19, when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 1994.
A bone marrow transplant from her sister who was a perfect match, saved her life. “My wife was the first survivor in the John Hopkins IPOP [Inpatient/Outpatient Program] unit, which was new when she was a cancer patient.”
Melissa’s heart surgery, Michael said, pulled the family together like never before. “We almost lost her a couple of times. But we had all kinds of little miracles happen.”
Throughout the extreme roller coaster ride of 2019, Melissa, who was also a stagehand, recovered, but did not return to work. Then came COVID and the shutdown, and out went Michael’s job.
Something a therapist had asked Michael at one point during counseling was, “what would have to happen for you to be able to change things in your life?”
“I said, ‘well it will never happen, but if something were to happen and I could be out of work for a year to start learning something new, start going to the gym, start to have a chance to pull myself together mentally, maybe get into something else…. But that will never happen.’ Then the pandemic hit and knocked me out of work.”
Despite the gravity of losing his job, Michael viewed it as his chance to make the changes he wanted. It took a month or two to process, but by the summer of 2020, the couple started going to the YMCA, Melissa got a new job as a para educator, and by September, they began attending a new church. “We started making some really positive changes.”
However, just as things were looking up, everything took another sharp turn, when around Thanksgiving of 2021, Michael and Melissa got hit with COVID. He recovered quickly, she, though, ended up on oxygen with congestive heart failure, kidney failure, and fibrosis in her lungs. She lost her job and had to drop out of Wilson College, where she was pursuing a teaching degree. Today she is on permanent disability.
“She’s trying to do the best with it,” Michael said. “Doing her artwork and selling it at craft shows is a new venture for her now.”
Without a job, one thing Michael knew was that he didn’t want to go back to stage work, so the question became “now what?”
The answer came slowly in the form of interactions with people in the community and his church, and a compulsion to want to help others, like a gentleman he would see often in New Freedom, who looked like he could use a friend, somebody to talk to. Or a fellow named Mark, who walked into his church’s parking lot one clean-up day looking disconsolate and telling Michael and church members assembled that he was going to lose his apartment at the end of the summer and didn’t know what to do or who to turn to.
Seeing that he was scared, Michael gave him his number and over the summer helped him find an apartment by setting up an ad on Craigslist. At one point, because Mark had indicated he was depressed and said that he saw no reason to live, Michael referred him to York County’s Southern Community Services and the Y. Not once, Michael noted, did Mark ask for anything. “He’s doing well today.”
“With God in my life, I knew that we are supposed to show love and compassion and that was one way I could do that by reaching out to people, and showing them that someone cares,” Michael said.
For Michael it felt good that he could be there for these individuals, so much so that he began to realize that he wanted to do something to help people, but he didn’t know exactly what he was going to do. Then an opportunity came up through a woman at church to care for a 78-year-old man with Alzheimer’s. The woman was moving on and asked Michael if he wanted to take over for her. He did, and for a time worked four to five days a week, several hours a day, helping support the man’s wife in caring for him in their home.
When the man’s health failed and he passed away in August of last year, the idea of supporting others took hold and inspired Michael’s next move, but not without some hesitation.
Last September, Michael became a Penn-Mar DSP at the encouragement of several members of his church who work for the nonprofit. “They had said they thought I would be a good fit with the organization’s Day Program.”
At first, he wasn’t sure about applying, because of the pay. Human Service organizations such as Penn-Mar are state and federally funded, which can make it especially challenging to provide competitive wages, though the organization privately fundraises, among other measures, to continually increase DSP wages.
“The pay was the only thing holding me back,” Michael admitted. “Finally, I said to myself that if this is meant to be, if this is the path that God’s got me on, then it’ll take care of me. Somehow it will work out. So, I went ahead and applied.”
Working with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities was a whole new world for him. He wasn’t sure he would last his first 90 days. “There was a lot I wasn’t used to,” said Michael. “It was overwhelming at first.”
But he got through the first three months and said that the experiences in providing weekly community-based supports for Lesha, Julia, Chrissy and Josh, has kept him in his job.
“Now it’s not just about is the pay going to be enough, it’s what I’m doing with these individuals,” said Michael. “You get a window into what their lives are like, and you start to really understand how you can improve things with them. Sometimes it’s just the littlest things that you do that can make all the difference.”
Although he’s not been in the job a full year, and the start was a little rocky, Michael loves his group and his coworkers and wants it to work, despite the pay, which incidentally got a boost early in July, with the announcement of significant wage increases for all Penn-Mar DSPs.
“This is where God has me for now. This is how I look at it. My wife and I are riding on faith. We’ve had so many things hit us in the past few years, but we’ve always pulled through – severe depression, heart surgery, COVID, losing our jobs and looking for jobs and thinking nothing was going to come up and then starting at Penn-Mar.
“Every time I thought the bottom was going to fall out in my life, it has seemed to work out and I’m still here. My wife and I are still together, we’re still surviving. We have each other. That’s what life’s about,” said Michael. In March of last year, after 18 years together, the couple tied the knot, a bright moment in an otherwise turbulent time.
Michael wants people to know that he’s an open book, and that if his story can help somebody, then that’s a great thing.
Not long after starting at Penn-Mar, Michael and Melissa went to see Alice Cooper performing in Atlantic City. It was their second concert of his that they attended. COVID prevented them from meeting him the first time, but not the second.
“It was very cool to come full circle, to meet him in person and be able to thank him for being open about his story. I told him that hearing it saved my life.”