Demand high for direct-support workers

Seth Ritchey, center, jumbles a jigsaw puzzle for an excited Joey Hensley, left, a client of Mesa Developmental Services’ Community Skills day program in Grand Junction. Another client, Russell Eggleston, checks his cell phone. Ritchey is a direct-support professional for Mesa Developmental Services.

“Hey, the cops came by. They were looking for you,” Seth Ritchey said to a client with a twinkle in his eye.

“They did?” Russell Eggleston replied, clearly interested now.

“Yeah. I told them I didn’t know where you were,” Ritchey said, visibly pleasing Eggleston, who stood a little taller, maybe thinking he was off the hook.

After four years of working with many of the same clients at Mesa Developmental Services’ Community Skills day program, Ritchey knows Eggleston is obsessed with anything police-related. The chatter about cops keeps Eggleston engaged, piquing his interest.

As a direct-support professional, it’s Ritchey’s job to know what makes his clients tick.

This week, which the U.S. Senate named National Direct Support Professionals Recognition Week, is dedicated to workers such as Ritchey.

Direct-support professionals include people who work hands-on with the elderly and people with disabilities. The workers also are called home-aid workers, or those who work with people in group homes.

It’s a career field that is expected to balloon as people with disabilities live longer thanks to improving technology and standards of care. And as the baby-boomer set ages, it is expected to need more direct-support professionals, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The government agency estimates 1 million new direct-support professionals will be needed by 2016, making it the third-fastest growing career path. The national average wage is $16.75 per hour, but an average direct-service professional wage is $9.26 per hour. The lower wages contribute to a high turnover rate, more than 45 percent, the agency reported.

Kathy LaPlant has been working for more than the past six years as a direct-support professional for Mosaic, 2813 Patterson Road, in Grand Junction. She is one of several workers in the company with multiple hubs around the nation being honored this week.

LaPlant is being recognized for helping establish a garden for clients by coordinating donations and personally donating supplies to create a thriving garden. She also is credited with serving on a number of committees and usually being upbeat.

LaPlant said she sees the work as empowering to individuals who may otherwise be “closeted in their home.”

She assists clients with activities that include working in day programs, visiting animal shelters, picking up trash in parks and working at local thrift stores. Once a week, she and clients go out to just have fun, which often means a trip to a bowling alley.

“I help people with disabilities to have a meaningful day,” LaPlant said. “I have fun at work.”

Most of her clients are older people with developmental delays, some of whom previously lived in state-run institutions, she said.

LaPlant said she is rewarded when she sees her clients flourish by receiving care and being with others in group settings. She became interested in helping people with disabilities when, as a child, she tagged along with her grandmother, who cared for people.

She sees more demand for workers in her career field as people with developmental delays live longer.

“If you were stuck in a home where people didn’t care, you didn’t fight to live,” she said. “I think people want to live more than they used to.”


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