By Tinu Ogunkoya
I’ve always believed that until your clients become family, you’re not doing your job. You’re not having fun. I started my career in support services as a Direct Support Professional. My first year in college, I worked in a group home in Minnesota supporting four young ladies with varying abilities. I had no experience in this field when I responded to the job ad. I just thought it was a great way to earn some money on the weekends and during the summer and the fact that the work environment was “hanging out” with individuals with varying abilities was attractive. I remember going through extensive trainings on how to best serve this population; there was a lot I did not know and I had to confront my preconceived biases. Thankfully, and most importantly, my desire to help was greater than my fear of the unknown.
During my first couple of years, as many of us often do, I approached my clients with a sense of sympathy. I did everything for them. I truly got to know them and, in many ways, felt sorry for them for things they “couldn’t do on their own.” I soon realized that their stories and circumstances did not make them victims but made them uniquely brave, resilient, and exceptional. I realized that I was the student and they were my teachers. I learned from them perseverance, love, acceptance, flexibility, empathy, and most importantly, joy. The individuals I worked with had the keen ability to approach life in all its colors, with joy. No matter what they were going through, joy oozed out of them. See, joy is different from happiness. It’s not circumstantial, it’s contagious and comes from within. Because of my experiences working with this population, I’ve come to approach life with joy. I’ve built lifelong relationships with clients who are more or less family, relationships rooted in true mutual respect and understanding.
Now, as the Director of Support Services for Individuals with Disabilities at Jewish Community Services (JCS), I frequently flash back to the early years – the unique, life-changing experience that caused me to have a deeper appreciation for people of all abilities and at the same time, recognize the true impact of direct care workers.
Direct care staff at JCS provide an array of services such as teaching life skills, serving as mentors, coaching in the career space, offering personal care, being a friend, and more. This full-range support allows individuals with varying abilities to live, grow, and work in their communities as anyone would.
While the pandemic caused a major disruption in all our lives, the intensity and magnitude of what our direct care staff endured and overcame is in a completely different realm. As I expected, they faced everything head on, working tirelessly to continue providing on-site, in-person, 24/7 direct care, stepping up to fill staffing shortages, including when some of their coworkers became exposed to COVID and were required to quarantine. They devised creative ways to smile and have fun, providing ongoing activities and entertainment for everyone in our residential facilities to maintain a sense of normalcy. They cheered on and offered emotional support to our clients – who are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic – by helping them understand the pandemic given their cognitive capacity, helping them combat feelings of loneliness and isolation without jeopardizing their health and safety, and helping them learn new technology so they could stay connected with family members. And when we faced the loss of three dear clients due to COVID, these frontline workers, full of courage, perseverance, love, and flexibility – all the things I learned in my early years of service – never wavered in their commitment.
These women and men are the invisible heroes, providing exceptional care and enriching the lives of the individuals we serve.
While I know we will continue to charge forward and make a positive impact on the lives of many, there is much more to be done. The good news? Anyone and everyone can be a part of the journey. In fact, you may be wondering how you can be of help.
I invite you to step into our world:
- Become a volunteer and join our Friendly Caller program
- Educate yourself on issues related to individuals with varying abilities and the workforce that supports them
- Keep an eye on future job opportunities
Tinu Ogunkoya, Director of Support Services for Individuals with Disabilities at Jewish Community Services
JCS is a comprehensive human services organization providing a broad range of services that meet the diverse, multi-dimensional needs of individuals and families throughout Central Maryland. To learn more, visit jcsbalt.org or call 410-466-9200.