Frontline Initiative: Making Direct Support a Career

My Career in Direct Support

Author(s)

Jen Peterson is a DSP-3 at Black Hills Works in Rapid City, South Dakota. She can be reached at Jpeterson@bhws.com

Jen Peterson

I did not become a direct support professional (DSP) as my first choice career. I started as an associate instructor with Black Hills Works. I needed a job to help make ends meet while going to college. I had a four-year-old son who was about to make my life even more interesting. This line of work did not scare me at all and I was excited to start learning even more. I worked for two years as an associate instructor until I experienced burn out from the balancing act that I was trying to live. During this time my son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. I did so much extra research on it. I took every class I could take. This was probably the main reason I left direct support. It was all too much to handle. I was lucky that I did not need to work at that point in my life because I had a partner who was able to support us. When I left direct support, I worked part-time meaningless jobs for some time. Well, they ended up being meaningful because those jobs made me realize that I hated not being with the people that I had supported. I wanted to come back to this line of work.

I came back to Black Hills Works as a part time DSP in 2012. I soon took on full-time work and never looked back! I was able to learn and grow quickly. I even took a leadership position, which I learned I did not like very much. I am happier when I get to directly support a person, not just through paperwork and meetings. After several years, I moved to a smaller community in the Black Hills of South Dakota, where I worked as a DSP in a different agency for a year.

Coming back to Black Hills Works in 2016 felt like coming home. It was around this time that Black Hills Works launched the credentialing pilot program. This gave me a chance to learn more skills and advance my direct support career. I was excited about the opportunity to learn from some of the top people in the field! I was one of the first 15 people in the program at our organization. There was so much to learn! Open Future Learning completely changed my life.  I love to learn so the fact that there were so many modules to watch and learn from was exactly what I needed and wanted. After the first year of the program, we started using the E-badge Academy through the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals (NADSP). This was an online learning platform for achieving our credentials. I was a little mad because I had been working at getting my credential for a year, but it was a short-lived mad! It was much easier than the first platform, but the change initially created more work than was required from us. However, I became one of the first DSPs at Black Hills Works to receive the Level 1 credential. I then finished Level 2 very quickly. The third level took a little longer, but mostly because we had to wait for more e-badges to be created! I finished all three credential levels in less than a year. Completing this gave me a sense of pride that cannot be explained in words. I had learned so much through the E-badge Academy, and there was validation from others throughout the NADSP program who agreed that I knew what I was doing. These accomplishments are some of the best things that have happened to me in my career as a direct support professional.

Completing [the credentials through the E-badge Academy] gave me a sense of pride that cannot be explained in words. I had learned so much, and there was validation from others throughout the NADSP program who agreed that I knew what I was doing. These accomplishments are some of the best things that have happened to me in my career as a direct support professional.

I wanted to share some of the lessons I have learned in my career. First, ask questions when you do not understand.  The information is not always correct or complete. Asking questions can help you understand and support with more information. This can help you advocate for the people you support. My second piece of advice is to recognize the importance of the relationship that you have with the people you support. Your life will become so much better with the people supported in it! Finally, if burnout happens, do not be afraid to admit that you are experiencing burnout. Take time for yourself, but do not give up. Remember you cannot pour from an empty cup! This means that it is OK to try something else for a while. When you can refocus your energy and what you want, you will be ready to come back to direct support.