Every day, disability service providers around the country work tirelessly to improve the lives of individuals with I/DD. SETWorks’ “Inspiring Progress – Celebrating Success in Disability Services” awards aim to recognize these successes and their impact on individuals with disabilities, DSPs, and the community.
Because there are many ways of viewing success, there were three types of awards open to any SETWorks client: Achievement, Innovation, and Transformation. The first category, Achievement, celebrates agencies and individual DSPs for outstanding performance or exceptional outcomes. Winners will receive prize funds that can be used to further their initiatives, support professional development, or enhance the quality of their services.
Below are this year’s winners in the Achievement category:
During a time when the average IDD agency loses nearly half of its workforce every year to turnover, Via of the Lehigh Valley didn’t just increase their DSP retention rate — they doubled it.
Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, Via’s turnover rate was 53% — on par with the national average. Recognizing that retaining its DSPs was one of the most impactful things the agency could do to achieve its mission, Via launched a full court press to improve DSP job satisfaction and promote well-being.
This meant investing heavily in DSP career development by increasing pay, offering professional certification opportunities, engaging with employees through forums and appreciation events, and creating a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Employee Council. Via also instituted an employee wellness program that includes walking challenges, mental health resources, and an ‘open door’ communication policy.
As a result, Via’s turnover rate dropped from 53% to 24.5%. Needless to say, this has had a tremendous impact on both the agency’s financial stability and service quality for their clients.
Via President and CEO Lisa Walkiewicz says Via is thrilled to be selected as a SETWorks Inspiring Progress Award Winner.
“As an agency, we have worked very hard to infuse the culture at Via with inspiration, inclusion, and enrichment – for the people we serve and for our employees,” says Lisa. “Our DSPs do their best work when they are engaged and enthusiastic about their job and the opportunities that lay ahead. When we invest in our DSPs and employees, the people we serve reap the benefit through a well-trained, consistent, and passionate workforce who believes in Via’s mission of helping people reach their full potential.”
Lighthouse Vocational Services is committed to making its services available to all, and it is growing its programs as fast as it can hire new employment specialists.
Over the past year, Lighthouse has expanded its services into two neighboring counties. This enables them to provide services to people who have very limited options nearby — something that is especially crucial after the impact the pandemic had on the industry as a whole.
In addition, Lighthouse gained approval from Pennsylvania’s Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR) to provide services through the Work Experience for Adults (WEXA) program. This program allows individuals to explore different jobs with an employer for 12 weeks, helping them discover their preferences. Lighthouse has also worked to cultivate connections with local businesses, enabling them to match each individuals’ skills and interests with the needs of employers.
At the core of Lighthouse’s growth strategy is staff development. The agency is focused on empowering staff to use their unique passions and gifts to serve individuals more fully. To that end, Lighthouse has actively pursued Customized Employment certification for two staff members, while also promoting existing staff into newly created positions.
The results speak for themselves: Lighthouse has placed twice as many people in competitive jobs this quarter compared to the same quarter last year and is supporting 69% more individuals through OVR and ODP Supported Employment, with Small Group Employment services up by 40%.
“Wow! What an honor, truly,” says Program Associate Ashley Hankins of receiving the Inspiring Progress Award. “We are always looking for creative ways to innovate so we can best meet the needs of each person we support. We are so grateful and hope this will encourage and inspire other organizations in the services they provide as well.”
David Nutter works as a Community Inclusion Specialist at Innovative Services NW, a disability service agency that strives to support possibilities for everyone. David is passionate about empowering individuals with disabilities to lead fulfilling lives. So when one of his clients, who uses a walker due to mobility issues, expressed her desire to try yoga, he knew he had to find a way to make it happen.
The client’s guardian was initially skeptical, but agreed to let her try it out. At her first class, the client not only participated enthusiastically but received compliments on her poses from the yoga instructor.
Today, David’s client has become a regular yoga attendee and has made many new friends through the class. Her determination and willingness to push her boundaries has become an inspiration for other individuals with disabilities who are hesitant to try new things — and for David himself.
“Being chosen as an Inspiring Progress Award Winner felt validating, yet at the same time I felt unsure of how to accept it,” says David. “Being there for others has always been something that I have made a priority. I want to dedicate this award to everyone I serve as they are the light in my life and give me purpose every day.”
Link Associates provides a range of unique offerings to meet the full spectrum of needs of individuals with IDD. Among those is the need for a safe and supportive environment for individuals with greater sensory needs.
To fill that gap, Link envisioned building a dedicated space where individuals with sensory challenges could engage in calming activities, stimulate their senses, grow and interact. Planning and fundraising for the sensory room began in 2019. However, the final implementation was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Undeterred, Link welcomed its first participants into the sensory room in 2022. The room is equipped with a wide range of sensory activities that engage various senses, including touch, sound, vision, and smell. It features adaptable lighting with different color options, soothing sounds, and music, as well as tactile play resources and a TV monitor that displays different natural and immersive environments. This highly customizable layout caters to both individuals who seek quieter, more soothing experiences and those who benefit from more stimulating and engaging activities.
Since its grand opening, the sensory room at Link has had a transformative impact on individuals with sensory challenges. Not only has it provided a much-needed retreat, it is also fostering increased interaction, communication, and choice-making — positive changes that extend well beyond the sensory room itself.
“It is such an honor to be recognized for innovation that we take such pride in,” says Linda Dunshee, Executive Director of Link Associates. “Link Associates has always tried to evaluate creative solutions to a problem rather than focusing on the negative. Having this seen and recognized is truly a privilege!”
Derek Shelton, a former world class track and field athlete and author of “World Class Fitness Tips”, has supported clients with autism as a DSP at Options For All for nearly seven years. Over the last five years, Derek helped his client accomplish the remarkable feat of writing and publishing a 43,000-word superhero novel.
This impressive narrative, titled “Strike Dragon: The Last of the Light”, is currently rated 5 out of 5 stars on various platforms including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Goodreads, and more, and has gained attention from movie projects and comic book series.
As the first-known superhero novel published by an individual with autism, “Strike Dragon: The Last of the Light” stands out as a groundbreaking achievement — and a testament to the power of collaboration, dedication, and belief in the potential of those we support.
“Winning an award for ‘Strike Dragon: The Last of the Light’ is tremendous!” says Derek. “My assisting in typing it up comes in only 2nd to writing my mother’s obituary, which includes writing my bio in a 1st and 2nd edition and a fitness tips read. I love knowing my consumers have confidence in me doing whatever I can for them.”
From doubling DSP retention rates to expanding service reach, this year’s Achievement award winners not only showcase their unique accomplishments but also offer a blueprint that other agencies can replicate to improve their own outcomes and impact.
In recognizing these achievements, we hope they will serve as a guiding light for others in the disability services community, reminding us all that through dedication and purposeful action, we can truly make a difference in the lives of those we serve.
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