Frontline Initiative

Lightbeams - A Personal Experience

How can we not share the best that we know… for there is no greater service that any of us can do than to help others find meaning and purpose in their lives. Personally, this quotation from a spiritual publication, is the essence of why I do what I do. I’ll admit it – I’m an idealist. I’m a person that feels that if I try hard enough, I can make a difference in this world – not unlike that bumper sticker from the ’80s that says “Think Globally, Act Locally.” Naive? Maybe. But chances are if you’re reading this publication and working in this field, you’re one too.

I have been working as a direct support worker with adults with developmental disabilities on and off for about three and a half years in several positions: as a one-to-one aide in a leisure setting, a program instructor in a work ⁄ activity program, an independent living instructor, and as a supported living counselor (same job, different title and state). Initially, I didn’t choose this profession. It’s not like I woke up one morning and said, “I’m going to be a direct support worker supporting people with developmental disabilities.”

The first job I took was on my way to my “chosen” career in elementary education. I enjoyed the work; it was challenging, fun, and certainly rewarding. However, I left the field after a year because I experienced all the things that the Alliance for Direct Support Workers is trying to change: low wages, minimal training, and lack of career opportunities. In addition to these, I also left because I had the general feeling from outside that this wasn’t a valued profession. It was more like a transitory arena one passed through on the way to being something else. After trying many other professions, I’ve since revised my thinking. I know in my heart that this is the perfect career for me and am encouraged that this Alliance exists out there and is attempting to initiate change.

When I was interviewing for my current position as a supported living professional in a fairly large agency, the supervisor used the term “mentor” as a job descriptor. I had never thought of myself as a mentor to the people I’ve served. In reflection, I know that I’ve taught them skills that have made their lives more efficient and organized, and I’ve helped them achieve their desired goals. But if the truth be known, it is they who have been my mentors. They’ve helped me discover many things about what’s really important in life, about what should be valued, and sometimes about what should be left alone.

I learned the meaning of true spirit from a young woman who was trapped inside a body that was failing but who had a mind that refused to be limited. She was always joyful, always ready to go. She taught me to truly listen – not with my ears (because she couldn’t say many words) but with my heart. I’ve also learned the true meaning of determination from another woman who wanted so badly to earn a paycheck that she struggled for months against a physical barrier until she was successful. Another woman’s example taught me the importance of balance in my life. This is a subtle message that’s taken me years to learn. My “balance mentor” works at her job and equally enjoys her leisure time with family and friends. Her desires are simple and her life works because it’s balanced.

One aspect of my job that I’ve always had a particularly hard time with is the “tracking” of people’s lives – setting goals and making workable plans to achieve these identified goals. Of course, it was always explained as a way of making sure we were doing our jobs – as accountability. Recently, it occurred to me that this really is a positive thing, a valuable tool, one everybody should incorporate into their lives. It’s all about growth, and frankly, I’ve met many people without disabilities out there who are simply lost because they’ve never learned this skills of goal setting and accountability – valuable skills they could possibly learn if they began careers in direct support work.

Working with adults with developmental disabilities is rewarding, but not always easy. Let’s face it, people are unpredictable. The job can be stressful and problems with burnout are things that face every direct support worker. But every once in a while the reasons for doing this kind of work shine so brightly it’s almost blinding. Recently, I had one of those blinding moments. It happened three thousand miles away from where I live now. An individual I worked with seven years ago recognized me. He was pleased to see me and took great pride in sharing the details of his life. He also reminisced about the ways I helped him during our working relationship. It was truly a great moment – one that made me realize a single person can make a difference – validation in its brightest form.