Frontline Initiative John F. Kennedy Jr. Tribute

The Big Picture:
A DSP First-Person Story


Cynthia H. Mowris is a Kennedy Fellow and NADSP editorial board member and works at Anderson School in New York

It is with great sadness and distress that I write this article to memorialize a man whose passion to improve humanity has touched so many lives. Fortunately for me, mine happens to be one of those lives touched and changed forever. Through my connection with John F. Kennedy, Jr. and the Kennedy Fellows, I have changed from a direct support worker who barely saw beyond the walls of my everyday environment to a Direct Support Professional (DSP) whose resources span the globe. Those connected with the fellowship have been there to guide and support me in my endeavors, provide me with new opportunities and challenges, and above all else helped me to break down the walls that hid the “big picture” from my everyday life as a DSP. It’s amazing how much confidence some recognition, support, and a simple handshake can create.

When a friend gave me the application for the Kennedy Fellowship, I stuffed it in the desk because my crazy, hectic days didn’t allow much personal time. While tidying up weeks later I found the application and completed it with the attitude, “What’s to lose?” As I pursued the application, I learned that the Kennedy Fellows Program supports the education and career advancement of DSPs in the disabilities field through a scholarship/mentoring program. I thought to myself, “Wow! Someone to support us? I’m in.” You know how it seems there is often very little support, especially when you really need it. Needless to say, I was ecstatic when I received the letter of acceptance. It was the greatest honor I have ever known.

That confidence boost helped me strive harder and reach for things I previously thought unattainable both academically and professionally. I became involved with the Fellowship, attending conferences as a representative. Then I began sitting on panels and presenting information and perspectives on direct support work. Eventually I worked to organize and attend international conferences. I have continually been challenged when given these opportunities to represent the direct support perspective but those challenges became easier as time went on. I had changed from a shy young girl who hid in the corner to a professional woman. 

When I learned that my agency put together a team to attend an international conference on childcare to be held in Glasgow, Scotland, I teased a colleague on the team saying that I wanted in. Initially I thought of it as a joke, because what agency would sponsor a direct support worker to go to an international conference across the “Great Pond”? But I filled out the brochure anyway and a couple of weeks later got a reply from my Executive Director stating that there was not enough money in the budget to allow me to attend. At that point I was determine to go even if I had to pay for it myself. I soon came to my senses and realized that on my salary it would never happen. Determined, I wrote a letter to the Fellowship outlining my expenses and explaining my situation. A couple of weeks later I received a check for three-quarters of the expense and a letter wishing me well with a request that I act as a representative of the Kennedy Fellows! My agency decided to sponsor the balance of the trip. Not in a million years would I have pictured myself as an International Delegate.

While I was in Glasgow, I made many international friends and business contacts. The title of the conference I attended was Realities & Dreams. Can you imagine? During that week and half, I felt the weight of the world. It was an overwhelming sense of responsibility and obligation. Nations of the world looked to us for guidance, they craved our knowledge and experience. During my travels, I discovered a university that sent a chill down my spine as I thought about the possibility of attending. The following year I returned to study at that university. Even today, I still can’t believe I did that.

If not for the efforts of John, these opportunities and experiences may have passed me by. What have I learned from my experiences? Always believe in yourself. You may be surprised at what you can accomplish. Networking and partnerships are the key to success. Most importantly, by empowering the direct support professional, the quality of services is bound to excel. I wish for all direct support workers to have a glimpse of the “big picture.” Thank you, John, not only for helping me achieve my goals and revise them, but for helping me accomplish things beyond my wildest dreams. I couldn’t have done it without your recognition, support, and many handshakes.