Very few of us think that when we start a new job at age 17, we will still be there nineteen years later. Rhiannon Dungy began as a Part-Time Counselor with HCO when she was still in high school. A friend who worked for HCO told Rhiannon about her job, and it sounded to Rhiannon like just the sort of work she would love.
Rhiannon (yes, her parents were big Fleetwood Mac fans) had a cousin with Down Syndrome who lived in the house adjacent to hers growing up, so she was very comfortable around people with disabilities. She found she enjoyed the work at HCO, and the rest of the story is, as she puts it, that she “became a lifer!”
She progressed through the ranks and is now a Coordinator. She is responsible for supervising two houses, one of which is in Lewiston, where Rhiannon also lives with her husband and children. Her programs are very different from each other, but both give her the chance to do what she loves about the job – build connections with people and see individuals grow and become more independent.
“We are there to lead the way,” she says, adding that it is extremely rewarding to see individuals take pride in being able to do more things for themselves, gain independence, and be able to make good choices for themselves.
One of the individuals she works with is a DJ, who volunteers to provide the music at COMPASS dances and other local events. His parents originally set him up with the equipment, recognizing his love of music and talent, and now staff at HCO often help him to pursue his vocation. Another is a great lover of horses. Staff and housemates accompany him to the Equestrian Center, where they enjoy the horse shows.
Most of the individuals work, unless they are retired. Rhiannon says that one woman enjoyed her work so much that she took a long time to think about it before finally deciding to cut her working hours down to three times a week, despite being in her eighties.
“Mornings, when everyone is getting ready for the day, are good times,” says Rhiannon. It’s a fun part of the job to help people get dressed for work, help them do their hair, and see how much they like their jobs. In Lewiston, because of the roads between there and Winona (where most people work), there are often snow days, and then the staff helps people with their hobbies or with planning indoor fun.
Having fresh faces every three to eight hours is an advantage for the individuals in the programs, because someone new comes in who wants to work with the individuals on their personal growth. Rhiannon also points out that it is often easier for staff to lead individuals to try new things than it may be for family members. One man who came to the program was told by family that they had to cook all his meals for him. Now, he takes great pride in being able to make his own breakfast and loves showing off his new skills to his family.
Rhiannon says a very challenging part of her job right now is finding enough staff. She says there are wonderful teams at both of her programs, but staffing is tight. Any disruption, such as someone not showing up for work for some reason or another, leaves them in the lurch. When she is hiring, she looks for people who will be a good fit in the programs. For instance, to work with non-verbal individuals, she will look for someone who is talkative.
It helps to be creative. The ability to keep the programs fresh and fun for the individuals, and being able to defuse frustrations that crop up is extremely helpful. She also looks for people who don’t have a problem with helping individuals with their daily personal cares.
Rhiannon says the hardest part of her job is when individuals pass away. Watching people’s skills decline, as well as helping individuals and staff deal with losing friends or loved ones is especially difficult. She has had the experience of bringing hospice into the home, and she says that it is a wonderful thing for a terminal individual to be able to pass on in the comfort of their own home.
Apparently, back when Rhiannon was 17, she made a very good decision not only for herself, but also for the individuals she has worked with for the last 20 years. It is apparent that she loves her job, and loves working for HCO.
“HCO is like a family,” she says, and the bonds she has formed with the individuals in her programs and with her co-workers are lasting and rewarding.
Rhiannon recently celebrated 20 years working with Home and Community Options. Her son, Gavin, also works for the agency, and Rhiannon loves that he chose to be employed by the same agency that she holds close to her heart.