Frontline Initiative Credentialing

Accepting New Challenges

Ellen Strickland is an Employment Specialist with Chesterfield Employment Services (CES) and the Chesterfield County Department of Mental Health/Mental Retardation/ Substance Abuse Services in the state of Virginia. Working with people with disabilities, Ellen demonstrates excellence, professionalism, and enthusiasm in her daily work, which has become the benchmark of best practice in her agency. Recently, one of the FI editors had the pleasure to talk with Ellen about her experience as a DSP.

Q: Ellen, last year you were nominated for the JFK Jr. Award at the President’s Committee for Mental Retardation by your supervisor, coworkers, and consumers. Tell me how you got into this field and what makes you so successful in your job.

A: I was always interested in the helping profession. After I got a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Virginia in 1995, I started working part-time as an Employment Assistant at Chesterfield Employment Services. My job was to provide daily support to three women employees at the Virginia Department of Taxation. Later, I moved into a full-time position placing and training individuals in competitive community employment. I enjoy what I do and I want the best quality services for my customers. Now I’m a senior employment specialist working on the Supported Competitive Employment Team. I conduct teambuilding activities and work with my supervisor to improve my approach of leading the group. My supervisor is extremely supportive. She is always encouraging me to develop leadership skills.


Q: Speaking of skill development, you have participated in many training programs in your county which are not mandatory. Why?

A: For me, it’s important to accept new challenges and give more on my job. I always try to participate in as many training opportunities as possible. The programs are offered by the county at minimal charges to department training budgets. There is an application process and attendance requires your supervisor’s commitment of your time and use of the knowledge learned.


Q: Give me some examples of how your work benefits from the training.

A: I’ve learned skills such as conflict management, customer service, and person-centered planning. All these have a lot to do with building relationships, recognizing different needs and styles, respecting people’s own choices, and focusing on the outcome. Some time ago, I got a call from an employment site where two people I support worked in competitive positions. They were both about to lose their jobs due to a serious misunderstanding. I intervened by talking to everyone involved. It’s important to let people express their concerns. I supported each customer during meetings with their supervisors. Then I suggested the employer let these people take some days off before getting back together for a solution. We wanted to give them time to think and make their own choices. I am glad to report that these individuals are still working and getting along just fine.


Q: I know you also coach and train new staff. What do you do as a mentor?

A: I introduce the position to new staff and guide them through the entire process, including interaction with consumers. The new employees shadow me at work and then I allow them more space to develop their own style. As a mentor, you have to recognize everybody learns in a different fashion — this is out of my leadership class, so you need to adapt and match your coaching with them. I make sure that a person communicates well with other team members and understands the expectations. I keep them up to date and make myself always available to answer questions, even outside weekly team meetings. I provide feedback to supervisors who appraise new staff’s performance.


Q: What is your plan for the future?

A: I want to develop more of a focus and have a chance to experience a supervisory role. I’m glad that I stayed in direct support. I love the work I do.


Q: You are doing a great job Ellen. I wish you every success in your career.

A: Thank you.