This time of year, many disability service agencies are preparing for the start of their summer programs — including hiring high school grads and college students to fill them. For some of these students, what starts out as a summer job will be the beginning of a career in the disability services industry.
That was the case for Ben Dunn, who worked as a camp counselor at a program for kids with developmental disabilities the summer after college. Ben had studied special education and psychology, but realized he didn’t want to become a teacher.
He found his passion through that summer program and stayed. “It was a lot of work, but it was so much fun,” says Ben. “After the summer camp, I continued working as a job skills coach and then in community integration. That’s where my passion is, and I actually ended up working with a couple of the guys that were in the summer camp.”
Summer programs, which can range from camps to career discovery programs, provide kids and adults with disabilities with options for recreation, friendship, and building work skills. High school students and recent grads like Ben fill a crucial gap in staffing. Nationwide, more than half of providers have had to discontinue programs and services due to DSP shortages, according to research by ANCOR.
Many students find out about summer programs through other academic organizations and activities on campus. Erica Himmel first heard about summer programs while volunteering with the National Honor Society at a prom for individuals with disabilities.
“At the prom, I was told by some of the coordinators of the opportunity at the summer camp,” says Erica. “I enjoyed my experience with the individuals at the dance so much that I had to apply to further my experience in the field.” Erica worked that summer as a support staff and the next summer as the camp’s supervisor.
Some students are drawn to summer programs because they have family members or friends with disabilities. “My cousin has a son with autism and cerebral palsy that I have always been close with,” says Erica. But for many, it is their first formal exposure to the industry and to working with people with disabilities.
Students may be unpaid volunteers or paid employees, depending on the agency and program. The average hourly wage for a DSP nationally is $12.31, according to Payscale. Paid positions allow students to maintain the income they need over the summer while gaining valuable work experience and exploring a career path they might not otherwise have considered.
After summer is over, many of these students will go off to college or other fields — but some enjoy the experience so much that they take a full-time job with the agency.
During college, SETWorks Client Success Manager Jocelyn Leatherman worked as a counselor at a summer program for individuals with disabilities. Jocelyn says she first learned about the camp through a paid externship program at her university.
What started out as a way to earn money over the summer and gain work experience for her psychology degree sparked an interest in the disability services industry. “I tried to work in various human services areas, and this is the one I liked most,” Jocelyn recalls. After the summer program was over, she went on to become a community support coach, and later a community services coordinator and quality assurance manager at a disability services agency.
Like Jocelyn, many summer program DSPs go on to hold higher-level roles such as support coordinators, managers, or even agency executives. Erica worked for several years as a direct support professional, later becoming a community support specialist for a mental health organization and eventually a service coordinator, before deciding to stay home with her children.
Others go on to different fields, but the experience they gained will help shape their future careers. For Jocelyn, her experience working at disability service agencies led to a career at SETWorks, where she blends her passion for the disability services industry with her knowledge of technology and using data to drive success.
Ben went on to become a site safety leader for General Mills — a role he says was heavily influenced by his experience working with people with disabilities. After retirement, he plans to return to the disability services industry.
Students may not know these summer job opportunities exist or how to get involved, so it’s important for disability service agencies to do more to raise awareness and attract students. That could mean advertising on campus, getting more active on social media, engaging student ambassadors, and offering perks that students are interested in. Ben stresses that students don’t have to have a degree or even know anything about the field to get started — they just have to have a passion for helping people and a desire to make a difference.