Frontline Initiative Stress and Burnout

I Stay Because I Care


Ralph W. Vunderink is a DSP for Spectrum Community Services, in Wyoming, Michigan

Never did it occur to me that one day I would become a residential instructor, charged to support men and women with disabilities in getting dressed, eating, or taking a shower. But let me back up. 

Having successfully completed a challenging graduate program in theology and philosophy at the University of Chicago, I intended to stay in higher education for a long time. After 16 years I realized college teaching was not for me and I looked for other employment. One day I saw an ad in a local paper: “Residential Instructors Wanted.” I thought, perhaps this is a new calling, although I felt some hesitation when the interviewer asked me if I would feel comfortable helping people take showers.

Now I have been a direct care giver for over seven years and sometimes I am amazed that I am still one. I have worked in more than 20 residential homes, supporting people with developmental disabilities and people with mental illness. Some were quiet homes, while others were boisterous. In these varied experiences, I learned a lot about how people interact and treat one another.

Group home settings, can be hard on both DSPs and supervisors/ managers. The stress level is enormous, and the pay is relatively low. In Michigan we recently received a raise from the governor. It helps, but not quite enough to really attract and keep people in direct service jobs. Since I can neither increase the salary of my co-workers nor remove all of their stress factors, I propose we think of the reason most of us chose this field: because we care and because we like knowing we make life better for others. 

The following are two examples of why I stay. Last September our organization had a three-day camping event. I decided to take Roger to the camp’s pool, but I was apprehensive because I was unsure of Roger’s comfort level in the water. Once in the water, with a life jacket, Roger was not thrilled about the unsteady arrangement. Laying on his back limited him to seeing only the ceiling, not where he was going. I began to tilt his head, making him more at ease. As soon as he could determine his direction, his whole face lit up. I will not easily forget his response.

 About three months later I was privileged to take Bob to a Christmas party. He thought it was quite an honor that he would be taken to a special table, receive individual attention during dinner, and have his picture taken next to the tree. His speech abilities are limited, but his expression of enjoyment was clear. The evening was a real treat for both of us. It is people like Roger and Bob who make my job worthwhile and keep me in the field.

Another way in which I am able to continue to work as a Direct Support Professional is to focus on the consumers for whom I provide supports. When I reach a low point in my work, I look for ways I can give one of the six people I work with a lift. Sometimes I go for a walk with one of them, or take someone out, but essentially, I devote special one-on-one time to someone. I also find focus for my work by becoming more involved in the operations of my company. By attending the meetings of two committees—the advisory and cultural diversity committees— I am able to understand my job much better, and gain clarity in the need for support of co-workers as we address together the pressing issues of high staff turnover and burnt-out supervisors.

The ultimate answer to the question of why I remain a direct care giver lies in a vision. Early in the 21st century I hope our work will receive the honorable status of other professions like those of nurses, case managers, and therapists. By then I hope that applicants for direct support will have to get meaningful credentials to qualify for employment. The financial rewards, not to mention personal satisfaction, however, should more than off-set that small requirement.