Teri Alford isn’t afraid of hard work. It’s one of the reasons she loves her job as a director support specialist at Black Hills Works, where she has been employed for almost two decades.
There’s much to be said about the unique balance director support specialists strike every single day between individual, supportive care to the people they serve—and the gentle nudging to independence. “You create bonds with people,” Teri says. “They are bonds that are unbreakable. You get to know the people we support on such a deeper level than what’s written about them on a piece of paper. We pride ourselves on looking at each person as an individual.”
That’s because individual care is what people with disabilities often need, and always deserve.
The work is hard. It is emotional.
But it is also rewarding “I love what I do,” Teri says. “And I want other people to see what we do. There are people with disabilities who go from having absolutely nothing to going out in the community on their own, and without this organization and the other organizations supporting people with disabilities all across the state of South Dakota, that likely wouldn’t happen.”
It takes investment
The line of work requires emotional and physical stamina. Direct support specialists provide care for people who need around-the-clock support, from dressing and bathroom assistance, to people who simply need a reminder for when they have to go to work.
The largest residential home at Black Hills Works is currently able to house almost two dozen people.
“We do everything from total care, like feeding and bathing and providing mental and emotional support, to just giving someone a wakeup call in the morning or getting them medication certified so they can do their own medication,” she says. “It is amazing how much they can start to rely on you, and you have to remind them, ‘I’m here if you need me, but you can do this.’”
In its mission to help people with disabilities obtain as much independence as possible, Black Hills Works—like many other organizations across South Dakota—partners with local businesses to help secure employment for the people they serve. “But for some it just wouldn’t be feasible and we need a day program for them so they can get education, exposure and experience,” Teri says.
Teri is the lead direct support specialist in the largest residential home at Black Hills Works. Almost two dozen people currently live in the house. Every day is different.
And every day involves their greatest partner, the families of the people supported.
Support for persons with disabilities, and their families
“There’s an idealism for what our job should be,” she says. “We’re paid to come in and provide support, but really, we have to remember that we’re caring for someone’s loved one.”
Families are concerned that the person they love is in a safe, caring environment and will still be provided opportunities for a good life after their family has passed away. Going above and beyond to make sure family members have a safe space to speak and be heard is part of the work too, Teri adds.
She remembers one instance when one of the people they provide care for began to exhibit increasingly problematic behavioral issues. Staff members tried several avenues, Teri says, including positive praise, more attention, diversifying schedule and activities, and changing his medication. “There wasn’t much more we could do and some suggested he go to the state institution in Redfield for a little while and then return,” she recalls.
His mother feared the worst—the institution wouldn’t offer the same quality care. Her son could be locked away and ignored. Teri tried to converse with the mother over the phone and realized she needed to speak with her in person. “She was terrified and it was gut-wrenching,” Teri recalls.
One of those worries was being unable to be with her son during the upcoming holidays. She would be all alone. Teri extended an invitation to continue to come to Black Hills Works during the holidays.
The mother agreed to let her son temporarily leave Black Hills Works, in the hopes that he would receive additional support in a safe environment and then return. She did spend her holidays at Black Hills Works and Teri says it’s a great example of the holistic care direct support specialists give on a daily basis.
“I let her cry on my shoulder and I gave her my number if she ever needed to talk,” she says. “We reassured her that we want to see her son to grow and succeed. Family members are such a huge part of this.”
The role DSPs play is growing
It’s all the more reason that organizations like Black Hills Works need community and legislative support to hire quality employees. Organizations like Black Hills Works continue to fill a larger role in communities as family members age and there are fewer federal resources to support people with disabilities.
In 2017, 8,809 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities were living with family caregivers.
According to the 2017 edition of the State of the States in Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, there were 8,809 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities that were living with family caregivers. Of that number, 2,382 were family caregivers that were over 60 years old.
“If you don’t have someone dedicated to making amazing life change in their lives, you won’t have the support you need,” Teri said. “I invite people to come spend a day with us. Spend a week with us. Without these types of facilities, we’re back to the dark ages when people with disabilities are forgotten. They have so much potential and so much to give.”