Even during a nasty Northeast Ohio storm when many places shutter their doors against lake-effect snow or torrential spring winds and rain, the direct support professionals (DSPs) with Koinonia don’t forsake their clients.
“Our DSPs know that their relationship to those they help is critical,” says Diane Beastrom, president and CEO of Koinonia, a Northeast Ohio nonprofit organization that provides residential services, day programs and employment services to adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). “I have no doubt that the success of Koinonia and its future success is due to the work of our DSPs.”
That is well-deserved praise, but it also holds an underlying warning. As the number of individuals and their families needing DSP support increases in the United States, the workforce that aids this population and the related administrating services face huge challenges. Aging baby boomers, higher life expectancies and a shrinking workforce add to the crisis.
Beastrom also says many people with IDD have selected to live in smaller, community-based situations. She calls that a “wonderful choice, but smaller settings increase the need for more workers.” According to research presented at the National Leadership Consortium on Developmental Disabilities held this past February, the 1.3 million DSP workforce in the United States is not enough to meet growth in service quality and growth in service demand.
“Also, the turnover rate has increased over the past years. The national DSP turnover rate is 45 percent of the workforce. Several years ago, Koinonia was in the 20 percent range. Now we are starting to approach that national rate,” says Beastrom. “This is a recruiting issue, but it is also a retention challenge.”
High turnover rates can be traced in part to low pay, the lack of respect for DSP services and missing clear career path opportunities. But a proactive approach to the problems sets Koinonia apart.
“We can all sit in a room and complain about the DSP shortage but that doesn’t get us anywhere,” says Beastrom.
Instead, the company has made an ambitious effort to improve the DSP experience, which, in turn, benefits client care. Koinonia invests in DSP training, development and internal promotions. Two full-time recruiters connect with potential DSP workers in schools, churches, libraries and other institutions and groups to convey the role of a DSP and the possible career path available.
“I just received a nice note from a current Koinonia employee who said she has worked for us for 25 years — half her life,” says Beastrom. “That shows someone can have a long career here.”
Koinonia has also added a director of employee relations to focus on retention and improve communication between DSPs and management. A success coach is also planned for 2019 to help DSPs “navigate issues that might get in their way of successful employment,” Beastrom says.
The lack of understanding and awareness of just what a DSP does is a challenge Beastrom wants to eliminate. The main goal is to help establish a secure and positive environment that supports a client’s needs and goals. Duties can include promoting a client’s independence in daily activities, including work and leisure; aiding clients to follow health care providers’ instructions; performing housekeeping duties; and any other responsibilities as needed. But the most important factor is continuum of care so the client is comfortable and can thrive.
Potential DSPs come from many walks of life, ages and experiences, according to Beastrom. Some are unemployed, while others come from volunteer positions, child care or the teaching sector, manufacturing or retail jobs. Willingness to learn to be an effective DSP is the top priority, says Beastrom.
“We want people with good character who care about others,” explains Beastrom. “These people can see differences in others as adding interest and value to a community. Our DSPs tell us they stay in this profession because of the relationships they forge with the people we serve. This job adds meaning to that staff person’s life while changing the lives of people with disabilities. Not every job can deliver on that.”
Maggy is one of those stories. A number of service providers had tried to help the young woman with IDD and mental health conditions, but her case was just too complex. Koinonia, however, tried a Trauma Informed Care approach, which “recognizes the widespread impact of trauma and teaches staff members to respond in ways that provide resilience and hope, while simultaneously teaching coping skills to people who have IDD.”
The road for Maggy has not been without obstacles. But she has been able to live in her home for more than a year with the assistance of a staff member. She also works and participates in community outings. Her life has been changed because of Koinonia.
Koinonia’s service portfolio includes 22 licensed group homes, over 50 supported living arrangements, transportation services and shared living options all provided in safe and healthy settings. The company’s service area includes Cuyahoga, Geauga, Lake, Lorain, Medina, Summit and Mahoning counties.