“We had a saying when I was a peer buddy: see the ability not the disability.” This mantra has been with Joseph Hendrick since fifth grade, when he first started working with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Today, he is a Direct Support Worker (DSP) for three TennCare members enrolled in the Employment and Community First CHOICES (ECF CHOICES) program.
Joseph originally became interested in supporting this population when he met another student who had special needs through an after school program. Faculty at the program saw how well Joseph interacted with this student and encouraged him to join a peer buddy program. His success in supporting individuals with disabilities continued, and in the eighth grade Joseph was even allowed to use his activity period to help out in the special needs classroom at his school. His passion for empowering people with disabilities continued throughout high school and he formed great relationships with many of the students with disabilities.
Joseph graduated from Alcoa High School in May of 2019 and around this time his partner through Best Buddies, Cami, was in need of a new DSP. Her mother introduced Joseph to the idea of working through consumer-direction for her daughter. She was also able to connect him with two other individuals and their families who also had a need for a DSP so that he could have a full work schedule. This was helpful to the members and their families as well as a great opportunity for Joseph to continue doing the work he loved while also earning income before attending college in the fall.
Joseph sees values in sharing the community with the members he serves through his work as a DSP. He says, “I am trying to help them find like their good talents … and stuff they can do for themselves that will help them further themselves.” Joseph tailors activities to the specific needs and goals of the individuals he supports. He goes to Planet Fitness to walk on the treadmill with one member who wants to get better at walking long distances after having hip surgery. Joseph also goes to Special Growers with Cami; this is where she works growing herbs that are delivered to local restaurants. He
drives another member to work as well as swim class. Joseph not only assists the individuals he serves with getting to and from activities, but he also helps them with everyday tasks like going to a local restaurants for lunch so they can practice ordering for themselves or helping them with their writing skills.
Through their engagement in the community, Joseph has witnessed tremendous progress in the individuals he serves. He has seen them become more outgoing and has seen their vocabulary improve. He has also observed them become more excited about getting out in the community. He views working as a DSP as a great opportunity. Joseph says, “It has changed my thought process, like with special needs kids I usually only work with them in set atmospheres like school or [when] I am volunteering …, but just being with the kids one-on-one, just you and them has really impacted me and shown me different ways I can…open up and teach them.”
Joseph’s favorite aspects of the job are the little things. Like the joy on the member’s face when they get a strike while bowling, watching a member’s excitement after successfully using the free weights at the gym for the first time, or singing along with a member in the car on their way to the next activity. Joseph truly enjoys the unique opportunity to be a consumer-directed worker for the ECF CHOICES program.
When asked what he wants everyone to know about individuals with intellectual disabilities, Joseph says they should not be defined by what they cannot do; but rather, “They need to be defined by what they can do.” Joseph was also happy to share with us that he will be attending East Tennessee State University in the fall and will be majoring in Special Education Teaching and minoring in American Sign Language as he continues his pursuit and passion of supporting people with disabilities.
Thank you Joseph for the amazing role you play in making the ECF CHOICES program a success.