Frontline Initiative: DSPs Respond to COVID-19

Supporting my Own Self-Care in the Midst of the COVID-19 Pandemic


Melissa Salazar is a direct support professional at Royal Community Supports in Bridgewater, New Jersey, as interviewed by Julie Kramme, co-editor of Frontline Initiative.

young woman standing by a holly bush. She is smiling at the camera, has brown eyes and shoulder length brown hair with highlights and is wearing a light gray v-neck sweater.

Melissa Salazar

Melissa provides support for five people with disabilities in their homes but also in the community. The pandemic has forced a shift in the ways that she provided supports and activities which  people had access. In the midst of the stress and anxiety related to the pandemic and its dangers, she explains how she cared for her own mental health and gave herself grace to respond to the pandemic. Her advice, “I have to take care of my needs so that I can provide the best support for the people I work with.” She receives weekly support from her therapist, and support from her supervisor to manage anxiety. She takes time to pay attention and intentionally learn from the situations where she finds herself. She was encouraged from her supervisor to have faith in the people she supports to manage their circumstances, even when they are tricky.

Learn more about Melissa’s story:

Video from the Web version of this publication:

Interview with Melissa Salazar:

Julie Kramme: Hey, Melissa. Thanks so much for talking with us today for Frontline Initiative. I want to introduce Melissa Salazar from Royal Community Supports in New Jersey, talking about her work in direct support today. And that’s my first question for you: Would you tell me about your work in direct support?

Melissa Salazar: So I started working for Royal about two years ago. I was in college as a social work major, and I needed a part-time job at the time. And Karen Gutshall was one of my professors and she had previously worked with Patty, the Director at Royal, and she ended up connecting us via email and I applied and it was all new to me. But along the way, I learned a lot about this field and a lot about myself and I’ve loved it ever since. And now I work full-time, almost full time.

Julie Kramme: What is it about direct support that you love so much?

Melissa Salazar: Everyone’s different. Everyone is unique to work with and every single time that I work with another individual, I learn about myself and I learn about things that perhaps I need to work on so I can provide the best quality support. Because everybody is different, every day working with them is a new adventure and I really enjoy that.

Julie Kramme: Very cool. I agree. I love some of those things about direct support as well. I’m curious about how COVID-19, how the pandemic has impacted your work.

Melissa Salazar: A lot of the type of support that the individuals with whom I work with need community support or to connecting with their community. So COVID has made it a little difficult. We’ve had to do some things virtually, whether that’s an annual meeting that they do with their support team or using masks and gloves, being cautious about indoor activities. Outdoor activities are the best way to prevent any discomfort. And I’m vaccinated fully. Most of the people with whom I work are vaccinated, and I’ve also tried my best to educate and facilitate the process of getting the vaccine for some of the people whom I work with, because they may not know where to sign up or where to get on a list to get vaccinated. Now they are. So, yeah.

Julie Kramme: Were there folks that you worked with who you had to teach to wear a mask, to wear gloves, and preferences that you had to think about when you were teaching people to do some of these things?

Melissa Salazar: I don’t think I needed to teach them. I think I needed to explain why it was important. Sometimes wearing a mask for a long period for some people can be uncomfortable, like in the car. I would wear my mask in the car and I have people who I wanted to wear their mask in the car. And so I had to explain, “I do this because I want to protect you. And I want you to also protect yourself by wearing your masks. And we need to remember to wash our hands and just be extra careful. This is a weird time. It’s a scary time, but we can still have fun. We can still be productive. We just have to take measures that we’re not used to taking, but it’s doable and it’s okay. And sometimes it’s uncomfortable to wear a mask. Sometimes we get hot. All right. I can pull over. We can take a breath outside and get some fresh air and then come back.” And things like that. So it’s a weird time and it was hard to get used to at the beginning because not everybody is comfortable wearing a mask, but it is important. So that’s something I didn’t really need to teach. I just needed to reinforce why it’s important and why I’m wearing a mask.

Julie Kramme: Awesome. What were some of the things that helped people to understand that?

Melissa Salazar: Well, when I say things like, “I’m doing this, because I want to protect you. I don’t want to get you sick and I don’t want to get sick, either. ’Cause if I get sick [and] you get sick, we can’t do these fun things. We need to protect each other, and we need to protect your family members.” When I would explain things like that, it makes it, I think to more like, it’s a little more personal. And sometimes that doesn’t always work, but it’s important. I’ve had people who I work with who maybe don’t want to wear the mask in the car. And so to that, I say, “well, I don’t think we can go places because it’s important to wear the mask in the car.” So, yeah, just reinforcing.

Julie Kramme: Absolutely. And neat to hear you emphasizing safety for yourself, for the people you support, for their families, for living with their family or living with roommates in any of those cases. That’s great.

Melissa Salazar: Yeah.

Julie Kramme: So how are you taking care of yourself and your needs in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Melissa Salazar: Yeah. It’s an overwhelming time for everyone. I practice a lot of self-care. I try to remember that once I step inside my home that I’m home, I don’t have to work. I’m not on the clock. So I try to make sure I leave room for myself, reading a book. It’s overwhelming to watch the news sometimes. So reading a book or painting is something I like to do, finding hobbies, seeking some therapy for myself so that I have an emotional outlet has been really productive for me.

Julie Kramme: Nice. When you say “therapy,” what has therapy looked like?

Melissa Salazar: So I have a therapist that I see once a week and it’s really helped me with any anxieties and things like that. It’s a nice emotional outlet. I have someone who helps me regulate my emotions so that when I get to work, I am able to give the best quality support and I can be the best version of myself for these individuals whom I work with. And so my “stuff” doesn’t get in the way.

Julie Kramme: Yeah. And… did you feel like throughout the time of learning about the COVID-19 pandemic and what it is and how it impacts people, did you feel like you had a greater amount of anxiety as you were dealing with it and going to work every day?

Melissa Salazar: Absolutely. I feared for myself. I feared for my family. I feared for the family of those whom I work with. I feared for the people I work with. I have people in my car, and I thought, “oh my God, I have to sanitize my car.” It’s overwhelming. But it’s important to be well informed. It’s important to also try my best. If I have someone in the car, okay. I want to make sure that if, God forbid, someone is exposed, whatever the case may be. I want to make sure that my car is always sanitized. My car is a safe and sanitized place. So I keep sanitizing spray and I just spray my seat. I wipe them down—Lysol wipes, I’ve gone through tons—but it’s important. It’s important to me to make sure that the individuals I work with are in a clean environment. I wash my hands every time I come into someone’s home. I wash my hands when I get home. So, taking extra precautions is important.

Julie Kramme: Were there specific things that your organization did to support you—to support you and your mental health, you and the information that you get, the training to respond to the pandemic—that were particularly useful?

Melissa Salazar: So, at the very beginning, I remember getting emails and things and explaining, “okay, we need to wear masks.” And this is at the very beginning, wearing masks and gloves. If we’re making food or cooking with someone, that’s important. Definitely the mask, always. Making sure that they understand that they also need to wear masks. Patty is always available to talk. She makes herself very accessible to call in case I have any worries or any anxieties about being exposed. I always let them know. That’s very important. And so that communication is clear. If she knows that someone was exposed, they let her know or someone who I work with, they will let me know so I have time to get tested. That is helpful. And she’s always available to talk.

Julie Kramme: Patty is your supervisor?

Melissa Salazar: Yes.

Julie Kramme: So you’re interacting with people throughout your day and then also in your life. I assume you’re probably also interacting with folks.

Melissa Salazar: Yeah.

Julie Kramme: Do you have family as well, that you come home to?

Melissa Salazar: I don’t live with my family. I live with my husband, but I try to limit our social gatherings. At the very beginning of the pandemic, we stayed within our bubble of just our family. And even then, it was a little tricky because everybody has their own bubble. And then you worry that you go to the supermarket and you walk past these people and you never know. So I try to always limit my social activities, as everybody has during this time. I’m fully vaccinated, as I said before. And I plan on getting the booster shot as well. And my loved ones are also vaccinated.

Julie Kramme: Wonderful. Yeah. How have you offered yourself grace? During this time?

Melissa Salazar: I try to remember that I’m human and I’m not a robot and I’m allowed to sometimes not know the answer. When I’m asked things like, “when are we going to be able to do these things we used to do again or go to the places we used to go?” I don’t know. I don’t know when that’s going to happen, but if we take these precautions and we keep ourselves safe and healthy, the faster we can all do that, the quicker we can get to doing things that we used to do before.

I also try to remember that I’m not meant to know the answers to everything. I’m not meant to know what to do in every situation and that’s okay. I am learning every single day, I am learning about myself and about the individuals I work with. Thankfully, I have an amazing supervisor. Patty is an amazing guide. Like I said, she makes herself very easily accessible. So I’m able to just call her and be like, “oh, you know what? Today was a rough day. I don’t know if I made the right decision. I don’t know if I said this correctly.” And she’ll guide me from there.

Julie Kramme: Wonderful. Is there any particular advice that she’s given throughout this, or any ways that she’s led that have been particularly important for you in taking care of yourself?

Melissa Salazar: Yes. Not too long ago, I was working with someone who needed some help getting food. And I was taking it on at home. I’m off on the weekends, but I was still thinking about it. I was worrying and it became… I almost made it my problem. And while I do worry, because I’m human, I have to remember that I need to have a little more faith in the people I work with. They’ll figure it out. They will. And they had everything they needed to figure it out. I just… I need to remember that I have to take care of my needs so that I can provide the best support and help those I work with fill their needs. So her advice to me was really, “you need to worry about yourself first and by that, I mean, you need to take care of yourself first.” You do.

Julie Kramme: So on a day-to-day basis, what changed when she gave you that permission to take care of yourself?

Melissa Salazar: I went home feeling like I had less weight on my shoulders. I went home feeling, “okay, today we did X, Y, and Z with so and so. They have everything they need. They’re going to be fine and I can go home and I will see them again next week and it’ll be okay. And they have my number.” I have to remember that I am doing the best that I can and that is all I can do. I’m not perfect. And nobody is, and nobody should be, but I’m doing the best that I can, given the times that we’re living in, and that’s all I can do and really accepting that is a hard pill to swallow, but it’s all you can do.

Julie Kramme: Yeah. It’s a lot to carry, it sounds like. Yeah. And in terms of ongoing support, what have been the biggest things for you to make sure that you’re taking care of yourself?

Melissa Salazar: The biggest things for me have been therapy and also putting my phone down. Not answering emails on the weekend, not answering texts all the time. Just staying present with the people who I spend time with: my family, my husband, and doing activities that will keep me present and keep me grounded. We live in the era of technology and we’re all very connected and that’s great, but sometimes it can be a little overwhelming. So shutting off my laptop, my phone; sometimes TV and just doing things like reading a good book or going on a walk or things that will keep me present. That’s important.

Julie Kramme: Yeah. Getting a break from work, time for yourself.

Melissa Salazar: Yeah.

Julie Kramme: Wonderful. That is so cool. So, what advice would you give other DSPs?

Melissa Salazar: Don’t try to be perfect. Don’t try to know the answers to everything. Take every person that you work with. Try your best to learn something new. Maybe there’s a hidden skill or piece of knowledge there that you didn’t know before. And so I think it’s important to learn more about yourself. When you work with someone new, you learn a lot about them; you’re learning a lot about yourself, too. If there’s something you’re struggling with, something that made you uncomfortable, find out why, so that you can provide the best support and be good to yourself.

Julie Kramme: Wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and your experiences. All of these things are important for us to share with one another as we respond to the pandemic and the other challenges that we face as DSPs. Thank you.