We can’t think of a person who represents the heart of Aspire Living & Learning better than Marilyn Nyanyo. Marilyn is a Program Manager at a staffed residence in Massachusetts. Today Marilyn was honored at the national “Celebrate Our DSP Heroes” event by MITC Software, for her exceptional work during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The state of Massachusetts was hit hard by the pandemic last spring. When the stay-at-home orders were announced, a few of Marilyn’s team members left to take care of their children or protect family members. But with Marilyn leading the way, most stayed on as essential workers. Helping the four women who live in the home became a marathon of calming fears, creating meaningful activities, and following evolving safety procedures. It also became a time that revealed the true heart of our direct support professionals.
When Marilyn’s program had to quarantine, the staff worked 12 hours a day and then more. Marilyn lived at the house for a week at a time. “Once you’re exposed you don’t want to bring it home or spread it around. It was really, really tough…The individuals just didn’t understand and they were feeling the pain too. Some days everyone was crying. We were really scared.” With the stress and exhaustion of taking care of everyone, Marilyn and the staff had to dig deep to meet the new COVID demands on top of their regular responsibilities. “When you love what you do, you go the extra mile.”
Marilyn speaks highly of the support she and the rest of the staff received. “The senior management and administration were very helpful to us. They were coming in the morning bringing us coffee and volunteering to bring us dinner and lunch. Each day we had people coming around checking on us to see what we need. And just to talk. I really appreciate that they were checking on us. You know you’re not alone.”
Marilyn also supported one individual in the hospital because the overwhelmed nurses could not address her behavioral needs. Marilyn was the first outside person to be with a patient there. Seeing people in the COVID ward was wrenching. “I just cried…those who were going through that, who didn’t have anybody there for them, that really broke my heart.” Marilyn realizes the pandemic has brought them all closer to together. “It gave me a different perspective about how we relate to each other and how the team works. It gives you a sense of belonging and love for one another.”
That feeling has its roots in Marilyn’s experience as a part-time relief staff when she was still in college. “I have the heart of helping people, and I really put myself into my work.” She was planning a career in business management and accounting, until she made those first connections to individuals with disabilities. “I come from Ghana, in West Africa. You move from where you are to be with different people. It creates a family, they become your family.” Marilyn switched careers. At the time, she was working for more than one agency, but chose us for a full-time job because of the teamwork she experienced. “I knew a lot of people who started as DSPs and worked their way up. That inspired me.” She worked her way up, too, and became a shift supervisor and then the house manager.
Marilyn is clear on the commitment needed to do this work well. Beyond the pandemic, Marilyn is focused on empowering the four women living in the home. Each resident has their own staffing around the clock to help with communication and participation in all aspects of life. The women themselves interview and spend time with potential staff, so they have a real say in who works with them. Ensuring a good match to what the person wants is an important source of control and quality of life. Marilyn makes sure the relationship is a good fit right from the start.
Marilyn also prizes communication from the heart. She makes time to talk—with her own supervisor, with the staff through supervision, and with the four women they all support. This connection keeps everyone working together to identify and solve problems before they escalate. “We help each other.” Marilyn reports that families are key too. Their engagement and support mean everything. “The families support us and ask us what we need. They thank us, and that is something money can’t buy.” The paycheck is important, but the individuals and their achievements mean just as much. “Sometimes when you are looking for work you are looking for the paycheck. In human services, you have to go above and beyond to teach individuals. And they teach you.”
When Aspire Living & Learning launched our new name, Marilyn was thrilled. “We aspire to achieve something higher, to help individuals feel a sense of belonging in their community… Day by day we are all living and learning. The individuals are learning, and I’m learning day by day too.” She feels great about a name that showcases what she does every day. We couldn’t agree more. Congratulations, Marilyn!