Direct Support Professionals Recognition Week is September 13-19, 2020. Now more than ever, DSPs everywhere deserve our full support and appreciation for the life-saving work they do every day. It is our privilege to celebrate the work they do to help people with disabilities make the most of their rights and opportunities:
In 2017, Andia “Andi” Bernard came to an epiphany. “I was sitting in my office at work and I was just not happy,” she recalled. “I felt so empty–I knew what I wanted to do and I wasn’t doing it.”
Andi had been a 20+ year veteran in retail management, often enjoying her work and creating a beautiful life with her family. She witnessed Hurricane Sandy tear through Staten Island in 2012. “When I went into the community and saw the devastation, I was so distraught. I always knew I had a heart to help people—that is one of my callings and my passions. I kept delaying it and delaying it until one day I went home to my husband and said ‘I just gave my two-weeks notice. I don’t want to be in the business world anymore and I’m going back to school to get my master’s in clinical social work.’”
First Steps in the Field of Disability Services
While starting school at Nyack College, Andi said she was most intrigued by working either with people with mental health challenges or in hospice care. Her daughter, Kenya Richardson, now AHRC NYC’s HR Coordinator, was working in recruitment for the agency at the time and realized Andi would be a perfect fit as a Direct Support Professional at the Laguna Lane residence on Staten Island.
“My mom wanted to find a position somewhere that related to what she was learning and would give her experience working with/supporting people in the way we do [at AHRC],” Kenya said. “She has always been a very caring and compassionate woman, and so I felt this would be something that she’d not only be good at and enjoy but would also provide her with the experience she was looking for.”
Like many first-time DSPs Andi was initially intimidated, but her feelings changed as she began to form relationships with the residents. “As I got to know the people that we support, I’ve been here for a year-and-a-half and I can literally say that they have become a part of my family,” Andi said. “When I leave for work, I feel like I am leaving my home to go to my other home. Once you get to know their behaviors, and you try to help them with those behaviors, you get to know them as human beings. I have to be there to tell them ‘You matter.’”
Andi works closely with the women she supports in areas such as cooking, hygiene, and community outings. “It brings me joy to see the independence in them. If they need me, I’m right there next to them,” she explained. Last summer was her first time going on a vacation with the residents. “It was so exciting be in an environment they were not used to. It was beautiful to see them in their natural element somewhere else.”
“A Natural-Born Leader”
At Laguna Lane, three of the four women Andi works closest with became sick with COVID-19 but have since recovered. “I’d be lying if I said wasn’t scared because I do have my family to go home to. But if I can’t take care of them in their sickness how can I take care of them when they are healthy? I prayed a lot—I’m here to help these people, I’m here to nurse them back to health, please protect me and my family. I’m so grateful that after everything I have not gotten infected.”
Andi has gained a unique perspective on direct support since switching careers. She hopes people see the humanity in the people we support. “Too many people will look at someone with [a disability] and they think they are not capable of doing anything, that they are not capable of taking care of themselves. But that is just not the case–they are human beings just like you and I are. They deserve the respect that I give to anyone else.”
The passion Andi has for her work is palpable in the residence and at home.
“In the time she’s been here I’ve heard so many stories about the women over at Laguna Lane that just show how much she cares for them, and from what I can tell, how much they appreciate and care about her!” Kenya said. “My mom is someone who is always looking to learn and grow, and I believe that’s something she can absolutely do with AHRC NYC. She is a natural-born leader so that combined with her increasing knowledge of the field and her genuine compassion for others makes for amazing possibilities of where her career can go.”