Frontline Initiative: Making Direct Support a Career

Supporting our DSPs to Stay in Direct Support


Tony Thomas is the executive director of Welcome House in Cleveland, Ohio. He can be reached at

Tony Thomas

We are like many organizations that serve persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). We have 46 homes in the Cleveland area, and two apartment buildings, and many really cool people we support in their own apartments. That said, the story I present today started in the last recession in 2008 and 2009. And it began simply enough as a Direct Support Professional (DSP) coming in to our main office. She discussed the need to get her car fixed and had no extra funds to do it. If she could not get the car fixed, she could not come to work. In the past we would have sent her to a payday loan company. The payday loan company charges 30–40% interest on the loans they provide. She could borrow $300 but have to pay back $500!

Our DSPs are as essential as identified by the Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities but also by our agency. We had many staff who accepted payday loans to get a car fixed or pay a utility bill. Their limited financial resources forced them in that direction. We know that many of our staff live paycheck to paycheck. We know that many of our staff have children to care for and aging parents they may live with. We know that some of our staff experience not only poverty conditions, but also domestic violence. That leads to a spiraling of out-of-control feelings, high levels of anxiety, desperate decision making, and then, finally, a resignation or disappearance from our agency. When facing a crisis, many DSPs take the fastest route to seek help. Prior to 2008, a broken down car may have led DSPs to seek help from a church, a shelter, a friend, or find a payday loan program to get them out of trouble.

In 2008, our agency made an unusual decision. Why don’t we just loan the money to our staff, provide it interest free, and then take it slowly out their paychecks? This prevented many staff from seeking out payday loans (aka…scam artists). It allowed us to get a check to the staff within hours and set up a repayment plan that was reasonable. Importantly, it allowed DSPs to get the car fixed or utility bill paid so that they could get to work, and keep the lights on at home. The program comes with risk. Many of our senior staff in 2008 asked, “Well, what if they leave us before they repay the loan?” That has only happened one time in the 12 years we have done this program.

I think the reason it has only happened one time in 12 years is true compassion and empathy. The person receiving the funds is compassionate and thankful for the help. They see the need to pay it back because they are helping to pay it forward. By their payback, they help the agency keep the loan program in place. They help others get a loan next month or next year. The empathy comes in from the agency staff. They work very hard to make these loans happen right away They never make a staff person feel “less than” but rather “equal to.” We have all been in this position at some point in our lives. We can sense the anguish that many DSPs are in because we have felt that anguish ourselves.

Surprisingly, when I took the idea for this program to our Board of Trustees, they gave us their immediate and enthusiastic support. They asked that we develop a policy to guide our loaning funds (we have revised it a few times). They asked that we put a ceiling on how much we can loan at one time (we settled on $750.00). They asked that we make the repayment reasonable (we take a specific amount out of each paycheck for 4–6 months). We can only provide one loan like this per year but are exploring offering this kind of loan twice per year. I think the support of our Board of Trustees surprised me. I also give them credit for recognizing how important this kind of program is to our DSPs. And, I also want to thank our incredible DSPs who have tirelessly worked throughout this pandemic. Please reach out to me if you would like to learn more about our program.