Frontline Initiative: Making Direct Support a Career

Recognizing that DSPs are the Center of our Organization


Natalie Karam is an associate director at the Chilliwack Society for Community Living (CSCL) in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada. She can be reached at

Natalie Karam

I was optimistic and confident that our “not so little” community living organization, in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada, would invest some time, effort, and commitment into creating an effective recruitment and retention plan for our organization. What I wasn’t expecting was that the whole organization would be fully on board with this plan and would support it, 100% (although we do tend to jump in with both feet when something is needed—so I really shouldn’t have been so surprised).

Back in May 2018, I was fortunate enough to participate in the Leadership Institute on Developmental Disabilities offered by the University of Delaware (one of the few times it has been offered in Canada). For a full week, I had the pleasure of spending my days with other like-minded professionals who have dedicated their work to better support people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to live fuller lives in welcoming and inclusive communities.

Going into this week of learning, the only task required of me was to have a pre-identified challenge that the organization I work with was facing. Throughout the week, I was to focus my learning on this specific challenge and at the end of the week, I would leave with a fairly detailed plan on how to address the challenge identified. A common challenge across our sector is “recruitment and retention,” but it is very real. Therefore, my Leadership Challenge was to create a recruitment and retention plan for the Chilliwack Society for Community Living (CSCL).

I could get into the nitty gritty details, but that would require a much longer article. What I will share is that a plan was put into place, the wheels started rolling, and we have not looked back. You may be asking “So, what have you done?” Let me tell you.

Upon returning back to CSCL—with my big plans and dreams to resolve our recruitment and retention challenges—I put my plan in writing and presented it to CSCL’s Leadership Team in September 2018. With their support and approval, the plan started to take form. Since September 2018, we have successfully completed some strategies. We are still in the process of implementing some of the following strategies, tools, and resources to create an effective recruitment and retention plan.

  • Award the STAR Award quarterly to DSPs (nominated by peers for exceptional work) and the EXCEL Award annually to managers (nominated by DSPs or co-managers for exceptional work).
  • Host an annual breakfast to celebrate and appreciate employees for their years of service to CSCL (e.g., 5-year, 10-year, 15-year, 20-year recognitions).
  • We realized that in order to recruit and retain DSPs and to acknowledge that they are vitally important to our supports and services, we flipped our organizational chart.
  • Host an annual staff conference called CSCL’s iConnect Conference for all employees. We have brought in various keynote speakers over the years. For the 2019 iConnect Conference, the keynote speaker was Joe Macbeth from the NADSP. Joe presented on the value of DSPs. This was well received by all employees. They loved how real Joe was. Joe presented the NADSP’s competencies in a way that everyone was able to understand and relate to them. This really got everyone excited about their work and started their “buy-in” on what the NADSP is and does.
  • In addition to the iConnect Conference, we brought in John Raffaele from the NADSP to present to our Management team on the NADSP’s Code of Ethics.
  • Created an NADSP Task Force/Committee to discuss ways to incorporate the NADSP’s Competencies and Code of Ethics into our everyday practices. Here are some of the ways we are looking to do this:
    • Revise job descriptions, performance appraisals, interview scoring
    • Daily documentation, staff meeting discussions
    • Review and revise policies
    • Communications via social media and newsletters
    • Creating career ladders and monetary incentives
    • Creating training opportunities for DSPs (e.g., Relias, E-Badge Academy)
    • Developing an in-house training that will focus on the NADSP’s competencies and Code of Ethics for all employees to participate in.
  • Obtaining an annual membership to the for all CSCL employees to access.
  • Purchasing a for all CSCL employees to be able to further their training and education in the direct support profession.

There are some big projects listed above that will take CSCL many years to fully achieve. But based on the progress we’ve already made and the energy that CSCL’s employees are showing thus far, we know we are heading in the right direction. DSPs are a necessity. They need to be recognized and valued for the work they do every day. Without DSPs, we could not effectively and efficiently support the people we support and their families.