Frontline Initiative Social Capital

Everyday heroes are builders of social capital


Jennifer Teich is a project coordinatorin AHRC’s Department of IndividualizedSupports. She can be reached

What do people want out of life? They want a sense of belonging, to be respected, to be able to make choices, to contribute to the welfare of the community and to share places with others (John O’Brien 1987). This is our definition of “social capital”. With greater social capital we live healthier and happier lives, increase our community affiliations, exercise choice and selfdetermination.

AHRC NYC Everyday Heroes is guided by the concept that by creating and expanding networks, we can accomplish almost anything. Everyday Heroes are DSPs who help build community connections with the people they support. Their collective imaginations assist our consumers in living richer, fuller lives.

Social capital is not just developed through social media. Kassie Barrett is one Everyday Hero whose work begins and ends with community connections. Kassie supported “Miguel” to become more independent and connected to his passions. Miguel had just graduated high school and was using a manual wheelchair to get around New York City—which he could not do on his own. Miguel had strong connections to his community and wanted to be able to travel on his own to visit people, run errands and “take care of business!” Kassie helped Miguel to work with his family, doctors and service providers to obtain a power chair. She secured travel training for him and he can now be seen cruising through the streets of New York! This training has allowed Miguel to pursue his passions. He loves to travel and sightsee and has taken many family vacations. He loves to “schmooze” with his neighbors and friends and can frequently be seen hanging out at the neighborhood shops. Miguel is currently very busy searching for permanent employment.

Kassie has used what she learned through Everyday Heroes to go on and help develop social capital for others in New York City. She started cooking classes that have facilitated relationships between the people she supports and the local grocery stores. She also teaches a poetry class, where her students are known and respected within the larger poetry community. Kassie’s belief that people are better together than apart, guides her every day. Kassie has emerged as a leader to her colleagues, as well as mentor to new staff.

Everyday Heroes enriches people’s communities and shifts their perspectives about what is possible. By empowering staff with the knowledge and practices that support the development of social capital everyone benefits; the staff, the people they support and the neighborhoods of New York City. Everyone who is part of Everyday Heroes goes away feeling that they can undertake whatever is needed to make a difference. Everyday Heroes has the capacity to change social structures and create a “cultural revolution.”

DSP perspective

Every year, the Direct Support Professional Alliance of New York State, New York’s Chapter of NADSP, and the New York State Association of Community and Residential Agencies co-sponsor regional conferences for DSPs. There, DSPs discuss their efforts to stay true to NADSP’s Code of Ethics and its Competency Areas, both of which stress the importance of social capital. These reallife case presentations put flesh and blood on important concepts, and also serve as learning tools for those gathered as they discuss what more could have been done to further actualize a tenet of the Code or Competency Area. Below are several illustrations of social capital presented and discussed by New York’s DSPs.

Making a new friend

An individual, who sometimes demonstrates challenging behaviors when frustrated, was going to bake cookies (a favorite task) with a DSP. But when they started, they discovered the house was out of butter. Rather than putting the baking off to another time after the house did its grocery shopping, the DSP suggested that the individual borrow some butter from the next door neighbor. Being fairly timid, the individual was at first reluctant; although they would wave and say hello when passing, the individual really didn’t know the neighbor. With the DSP’s guidance, they rehearsed how they would visit the neighbor, ring the doorbell, make introductions, explain their baking dilemma, and ask if they could borrow some butter. With her confidence buoyed, the individual went with the DSP to the neighbor’s house. Once the baking was done, the individual gratefully returned the extra butter to the neighbor along with a fresh batch of cookies and a promise to replenish the butter that was used. The individual and the neighbor are now friends, sharing and talking about their baking experiences.

On a daily basis, DSPs are presented with myriads of opportunities to serve as brokers in developing individuals’ social capital. The task at hand is to recognize and seize these and support individuals in making sound investments.

Finding family

An elderly gentleman who lived in a group home had spent years in institutions. During that time his parents had died and he lost all contact with his family. He knew he had one brother who lived somewhere in New York City and told the DSP about that. Using the internet, the DSP assisted the gentleman in locating his brother. They first made telephone contact, and spoke on the phone, becoming reacquainted. As spring approached, the DSP made arrangements to accompany the gentleman to New York City to meet his brother. They met on Easter Sunday at the brother’s home in Brooklyn. During the visit, the brother told him all about his family history and gave him photographs from their childhood. He also introduced the gentleman to his nephew. All this time, the DSP stayed in the background; it was the gentleman’s time to reconnect with family. At the visit’s end, the brother confided to the DSP that he had terminal cancer, and how grateful he was to finally reestablish contact with his long lost sibling at this stage of his life.

The brother recently passed away. But as a result of the DSP’s actions, a man who lost contact with his family many years ago met his dying brother, has pictures of his family proudly displayed in his home, a sense of his roots, and a new bond with his nephew...his brother’s son.

A new circle of friends

A young man in his 20’s moved from his family’s house into a small group home. From the way he decorated his room, with posters and pictures, it was clear he really liked motorcycles, Harleys in particular. He also wore Harley Davidson-style clothing. Sensing his interest in all things Harley Davidson, a DSP asked if he would like to visit the local Harley Davidson store. He jumped at the opportunity and together they went. There the DSP introduced the gentlemen to the store owner, employees and customers she knew, being a Harley motorcyclist herself. The store owner welcomed the man into their Harley community. Although he doesn’t drive a motorcycle, he still goes on outings with his new friendsriding in one of their sidecars, participating in their charity drives, site-seeing and picnicking.

On a daily basis, DSPs are presented with myriads of opportunities to serve as brokers in developing individuals’ social capital. The task at hand is to recognize and seize these and support individuals in making sound investments.