Laila Schumacher works for these moments—when Elizabeth Eagle Feather finds something funny and smiles from ear to ear.
“It’s what makes our job our job,” says Laila, who has served as a front line leader at Black Hills Works for almost three years, guiding the direct support specialists who work to care for the people Black Hills Works in Rapid City serves.
She also works directly with Elizabeth at Minnesota House, one of the homes the organization supports people to live in. Elizabeth has been a bright light in Laila’s tenure at the organization, which is a career path she actually had never expected to take. When Laila turned 18, she realized she wanted something more out of life. She was tired of her previous employment.
Living life with independence
"They know they can come to us and we’re going to help them live their lives as independently as possible.”
“I was tired of retail stores and things like that and I wanted a grown up job,” she said. “I never imagined I would find my purpose. I didn’t think I would make this a career but then I got started and got my hands dirty and now I’m making this a career—and proud to be doing so.”
Black Hills Works currently employs more than 500 employees. The staff work in a variety of capacities, from direct care to administrative support. The organizations serves more than 600 people over the age of 16 with various disabilities, including learning and developmental disabilities, visual and hearing impairments, brain injury, chronic mental illness and physical impairments.
Laila says each person they serve is unique and the organization has a special way of meeting people where they are and helping them meet their goals. “They know they can come to us and we’re going to help them live their lives as independently as possible,” she says.
Elizabeth is a great example of that. She first came to Black Hills Works in 1992 after her father passed away. Her mother passed away six years later. She doesn’t have contact with her sisters and a state-appointed guardian makes decisions on her behalf. She also does not speak, Laila says, but is able to communicate verbally with sounds. She is unable to walk, but staff say that has not stopped her from participating in activities and engaging in community events.
“She loves upbeat people,” Laila says. “If you go and talk to her, she’s just smiling. She has a really contagious smile.”
Black Hills Works encourages and supports the culture and backgrounds of the people they serve and Elizabeth’s Native American heritage is a source of joy and motivation. She is a consistent attendee at local powwows where she enjoys the dancing and drum beats. “She hollers and yells,” Laila said. “She loves her culture and I hope she gets to go to even more events and learns and builds relationships.”
Elizabeth’s room is decorated with Native artwork and she is often tuned into Native music during the day. She pays special attention to the drumming, Laila says, and has had the opportunity to try drumming herself with assistance. Her room is a testament to her desire to stay connected to her culture; many of her pictures include her time at powwows and with friends who share her love of the culture.
Elizabeth’s life has not been without struggle, Laila says, as is true for many of the people they serve. She has struggled with the ability to eat her entire life, which negatively affected her health. In 2008 she was given a G-tube to ensure she receives nutrition and it has given her strength.
Watching the people they serve struggle is a challenging part of the job, Laila says. “It’s hard to see them go through tough times,” she says. “We’re trained to help them with emotional and physical needs. When they are sick, it’s hard.”
Elizabeth has thrived at Black Hills Works. Elizabeth spends most of her days at the organization’s day center, which offers activities, recreation, games, TV and social gatherings. They are days well spent, Laila adds, and demonstrate the importance of organizations like Black Hills Works, particularly when family members are not able to around to provide care.
It’s an honor, she says, to be able to help them live out full, meaningful lives. “If we weren’t here, where would they be?” she said. “If I can make just one person smile in a day, that’s it. It’s satisfying and a feeling of accomplishment. I love knowing I’m making a difference in their lives for the better.”