Frontline Initiative Changing Roles

Changing Our Ways


Pam Walker works at the Center on Human Policy School of Education, Syracuse University

Staff roles at two agencies changed dramatically when the agencies moved from traditional supports in group homes to individualized supports. Stories of this were collected by the Center on Human Policy at Syracuse University.

Onondaga Community Living (OCL)

 “It’s like heaven forbid that OCL should be in someone’s way. So that’s what I want to make sure [that] we are not in someone’s way of being the best that they can be and having the life that they want.” — Richard, DSP

The staff people of OCL dream, plan, and work with individuals and families. They are there to help in a crisis and to provide support through good and bad times. Staff members are the most important resource of the agency.

In many ways, working at OCL is seen as more difficult than in working at a more traditional agency. OCL staff must be able to make important decisions, solve problems, and help people get involved in their communities. However, along with the responsibilities are freedoms and flexibility that go well beyond those typically enjoyed by staff members of other organizations. Creativity is encouraged and rewarded at OCL.

Because staff roles and tasks are determined primarily by the changing needs of the people that they support, day-to-day staff activities vary greatly. There is a tacit understanding that everyone will jump in and help in an emergency. People who need clean boundaries between work and their personal life do not last long at OCL, but staff retention has been excellent among those staff that enjoy the level of personal involvement required at OCL.

As the transition began, staff worked part of the time in the group home and part of the time in someone’s own home. As time went on, however, it became apparent that the group home mentality was perpetuated by this arrangement. It became critically important that people’s negative reputations be left behind, giving each person a fresh start as they entered their new life outside the house.

Over the years, DSPs at OCL have learned more about how people who traditionally had 24- hour staff support could be supported safely and effectively with more nontraditional means. They began working cooperatively together with family, friends, and fellow DSPs to discover how to best meet the support needs of the person. In the best situations, there is no line of authority. Rather, everyone works together on behalf of the person. Assignments or roles are determined depending upon what the need is and what personal attributes each family member, friend, and staff member brings to the group.

Finally, a principal value of staff is maximizing the opportunity for real community involvement by helping people to link up with community members and form relationships with them. Staff are constantly and acutely aware of the importance of friendships to the happiness and fulfillment of people supported by OCL and they continuously experiment with new ways to enable this to happen.

From Fratangelo, P., Olney, M., & Lehr.S. (in press). Coloring outside of the lines: How one agency embraced change one person at a time. St. Augustine, FL: Training Resource Network.

Jay Nolan Community Services (JNCS)

During the first two years of change, administrative staff were given the freedom to continuously reorganize in ways that made sense. The staff roles that worked within the group home model did not make sense with this new approach.

Overwhelmingly, DSPs who have been successful attributed it to having a positive relationship with the person they support. The chances of finding DSPs who are compatible are increased by the fact that they are selected by an individual’s circle. The reality for many people, however, is that it is very difficult to find DSPs who work out well. In fact, several people have had an incredible number of changes in their DSPs. One man had over 20 different DSPs in the first year he lived in his own place. Now he has had the same DSP for almost 2 years. In the most stable situations, DSPs have included the people they support in their own circle of family and friends. 

On an administrative level, staff were given the opportunity to identify their roles and responsibilities based on their particular strengths and interests. For example, some people provide training because they are good at it, and others have taken responsibility for paperwork and finances.

 In order to support and assist staff, a strategy of the agency is to provide opportunities to learn from each others’ experiences. Once a month, staff from the vocational, family support, and support living programs get together to celebrate their successes and share ideas. In addition, JNCS has developed a mentorship project. It is based on the belief that the typical one shot training is not an effective way to learn about supported living. For example, after staff are trained in person-centered planning, they receive ongoing support to implement what they have learned. 

From Hulgin, K. (1996). Jay Nolan Community Services: The advantages and dilemmas of converting quickly from group homes to supported living services. Syracuse: Center on Human Policy.