When Derek Scott finished his double major in Geology and Environmental Science at Winona State University, he did what you might expect right after graduation: he got a job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Though he did get to work on a trout stream restoration project, most of his job revolved around sitting in front of a computer working with maps day after day. He had been looking forward to more of a challenge and found he was not happy in his job.
At the time, Derek’s girlfriend was working as a Direct Support Professional (DSP) at Home and Community Options. She encouraged him to think about a career change, or at least consider a job at HCO for the interim. He finally took her advice and applied. Derek has since advanced to become a Program Assistant with HCO in early 2018, and his girlfriend is now teaching special education at Winona Senior High School. “It isn’t rocks,” Derek jokes, “but it isn’t sitting at a computer all day, that’s for sure!” Each day presents a new challenge, and Derek has found that it’s a job that makes him feel as if he has accomplished something: giving support to others who need it. Even when things get hectic at times, when he thinks back to his previous desk job, he knows he can handle the chaos.
Derek cares for one man and three women who live together. They range in age from mid-twenties to eighties, and all have very different personalities. A number of the individuals in the home are non-verbal, although one woman does use some sign language. “It can be a challenge to understand non-verbal individuals,” says Derek, “but you learn to interpret signs and also to give the individuals options to choose.” That is something Derek teaches new staff at the program. Don’t just assume that someone who can’t speak doesn’t want to have a choice and a say in his/her life.
The young man, who moved to the program from his family home, has seemed to really settle in. “It is wonderful to see how his independence is blossoming,” Derek says. “He takes pride in helping the women when they need it. He likes to watch YouTube and Netflix while the women listen to music.” Derek can see this individual going on to live with some other men, or even independently, down the road.
Derek works to support these individuals in a variety of ways. He helps with physical therapy like walking, using a stander to assist with improving movement, or arm strengthening exercises. One woman has been exploring new foods with Derek’s help. Though she is mostly non-verbal, she definitely lets you know when she likes something and is always game for trying new things – like avocados! She also likes to listen to music and loves Lawrence Welk. “If it were up to her,” Derek jokes, “we would probably be watching Lawrence Welk nine hours a day!” She recently retired from DAC, and had begun helping pack backpacks full of food for school kids that may not have had enough to eat at home on the weekends. “When the local schools switched over to distance-learning because of COVID, they were no longer doing the backpacks program.” Derek shares. “It was really too bad – it was one of her favorite activities to do each week. So, one thing I came up with is to have her and one of her housemates help me sort and put away groceries on grocery day. So far, they have both seemed to really enjoy it and it gets them working together as a team.”
COVID-19 has affected the individuals Derek supports in a myriad of ways. All of the individuals in the house have difficulty wearing a mask for long periods of time, so it has been extremely important to make sure the individuals keep a 6-foot distance between each other. This hasn’t been too difficult because they all have their own “areas” of the house, but splitting them up during meal times has been a challenge. Staff wear surgical masks during all shifts. Gowns and additional types of PPE are worn regularly based on the level or type of care that is needed. Routine sanitation and disinfection also occur throughout each day in order to help reduce the risk of potential exposure.
The beginning of the pandemic was fairly difficult for a couple of the individuals who are very social and like to have a routine. One of the hardest parts was trying to explain to them exactly what was unsafe and why. Being unable to go to places that they normally would, and not being able to enjoy social outings in the same way really affected them early on. Another individual is much more reserved and prefers to spend time alone, so it was a big adjustment to suddenly have everyone around all the time. She was struggling a lot when Derek first began working at the program, but has become more comfortable in the house over time.
On the other hand, one of the individuals is absolutely loving the changes to her routine. Derek believes that having more one-on-one time with her has really improved the support that they have been able to provide to her. Her personality has blossomed so much during the pandemic, and her roommates and staff have learned much more about her. She sings and hums almost all day now, which was something she hasn’t done for several years.
They all have definitely experienced some “cabin fever” moments here and there, but over time, they have sort of found their “new” daily routine. Staff at the program work hard to get everyone out of the house regularly, as well as keep them connected with friends and loved ones. Van rides occur daily, and they frequently take socially-distanced walks around town. They have been keeping busy by doing a variety of activities around the house, and afternoon naps have also become very popular.
While it was a big change coming to work at HCO, Derek shares that everyone on staff worked to help train him for the job and were very supportive. Sometimes, you just end up learning on the job when something new and different comes at you. “It’s a good environment,” Derek says, “and every day brings something new – even humor.” He never dreads going to work and he likes knowing that he can go home after each shift feeling good about his work.
Despite the career switch, Derek does still follow his passion for stones. He has a small online business selling gems and crystals, and enjoys searching for ethically sourced stones. He likes to know the “name of the person who pulled it out of the ground.” He has been known to take crystals to work on occasion to show to the individuals he works with, and they, too, marvel at the beauty of things that come from the earth.