Appreciation for support specialists

To see an illustration of what Tony Kirkman means about the jovial nature of the direct support professionals who work at the Piatt County Mental Health Center, just take a group picture.

Their smiles were not posed. Instead they seemed natural for those who work with and train those with disabilities day after day, year after year. DSPs mugged before the newspaper photo was taken, and continued grinning after it was completed.

It’s something Kirkman noticed as soon as he began as the Piatt County Mental Health Center’s director last year.

“The first day I was here, I opened the door and heard laughter down the hallway,” he said of the development services area that employs 11 and uses about 65 percent of the mental health building in Monticello. “That’s the staff getting ready for a day where they’re going to be on their feet for seven hours straight. I thought, this is a really good team.”

DSPs are recognized internally at the mental health center during Direct Support Professional Recognition Week each fall, but Kirkman is trying to raise community awareness as to the essential service they provide to 60 clients with disabilities. This year the national Advocacy Campaign has set aside Sept. 10-16 as the week to recognize direct support professionals.

“It’s just an extremely unrecognized profession,” said Amy McDermith, the mental health center’s developmental services director. “There’s no big money and the ladies in the back put their lives aside to make everybody else’s goals come true.”

Those goals vary for DSP clients, but in a nutshell “they want the same thing in life that everybody that doesn’t have a disability wants. They want all those things and it’s our job to make sure that as much of that comes true for them as possible,” added McDermith of Bement, who has worked at the PCMHC for 24 years.

“For me, I look at DSPs as a support provider to individuals to help them obtain the highest degree of independence and autonomy they are capable of,” adds Kirkman.

The range of disability varies between clients. Some cannot feed themselves. Others live on their own and hold jobs in the community. At the mental health enter, all of them learn living skills ranging from hygiene and occupational skills to tactile and motor skills.

There’s also plenty of fun offered, from cooking classes to karaoke sessions.

Direct support professionals are required to complete 120 hours of training and start at $9.50 per hour locally. Many were attracted to the profession through positive interactions among family members with disabilities.

“My uncle had Downs Syndrome and he was one of my best friends ever,” said Cori Jeffers, a former Certified Nursing Assistant who began as a DSP about 3½ years ago. “We would read together; I would help him with his math. That drew me to individuals who have disabilities – I wanted to help and give back to them.”

Tia Schum is also a former CNA who switched to DSP work four years ago, commenting “I needed a change of pace.

“I’m helping people not just at the end of their life like a CNA, I’m helping them in the midst of their life, and it’s fulfilling to see them be able to do things that you or I take for granted. To see them learn how to do that on their own is pretty rewarding,” added Schum.

DSP Tracey Nayonis, also a four-year employee of the mental health center, added that her clients “are always so happy and so willing to try, and so willing to do it. It really makes you appreciate life.”

The public may not be aware of what goes on from early morning hours into mid-afternnon each weekday, but McDermith is proud of each and every one of her staff.

“There’s not one of my staff that I fell do a better job than anyone else,” she said. “They’re all good, so they all deserve the spotlight because they all bring something to the table.”

People are unaware
Kirkman deals with preconceived notions of the mental health center every day.

“It’s interesting what people think happens here versus what happens here. Nobody knows,” he said. “I have heard everything from ‘I don’t know what you do over there’ to ‘you guys institutionalize people.’”

What they do varies from providing prevention services in Piatt County schools to counseling services, substance abuse prevention work, and the developmental services.

And while the services are varied, he wants to focus on DSPs for a week anyways and is asking the community to send letters of appreciation and support to the center at 1921 N. Market St., Monticello, IL 61856.

“A quick thank you goes a long ways,” he said.

McDermith said they don’t do the job for the praise, but that it helps because “I think they take a lot of stuff home. I think it’s hard to turn the tap off when they leave.”

That’s when the infectious smiles and laughter of both staff and clients comes in handy.

“If I’m having a bad day, I just walk to the back and I guarantee you it will put a smile on your face,” adds McDermith.

Jeffers totally agrees.

“I don’t know what I would do without them, that’s for sure. It gives me a real sense of pride that I can give back to them.”

More info
For more information on the Piatt County Mental Health Center, go to Details on Direct Support Professional Recognition Week are available at

Categories (2):News, People


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