They say that there are two most important days in our lives, the day that we are born and the day that we find out why. Many people are never fortunate enough to experience that second day. I was born on June 5, 1980, and I started working for Oak Hill, the state’s largest private provider of services for people with disabilities, on April 30, 2001. I was 20 years old, and I had no idea what I was doing or what I was getting myself involved in.
When I arrive for work, I am greeted at the front door with enthusiastic hellos and excited shouts of my name. An entourage follows me to the time clock, so I can swipe my badge and start my shift; medication passes, dinner prepping, cooking, physical therapy programs, entertaining, in-house walking programs, showering and hygiene needs, story reading, grocery shopping, community outings, medical appointments, digital and analog documentation recording, and the list goes on.
These are the tasks and requirements of the job for which I am paid. These are the things that most people think of when they picture group home work. These are the dollars and cents things that politicians see racking up when we ask for the appropriate funding to keep places like Oak Hill in business.
But what the politicians don’t see are the parts of this job for which I am not paid. They didn’t see me crumpled on the floor of the ICU in Middlesex Hospital holding a sobbing mother, terrified that she would lose her daughter, a resident of one of Oak Hill’s group homes. They didn’t see me at the bedside of another mother, the day before she passed away, clasping her hand in both of mine trying to reassure her that her son would always be loved and cared for as tears streamed down my face. They didn’t see my coworkers and me race to St. Francis, consumed by grief, to say our final goodbyes to one of our participants who passed away of a sudden illness.
They don’t hear the whispers of a good night and I love you as people get tucked into their beds. They don’t see the smiles on my resident’s faces or hear their laughter wafting through the hallways and drifting room to room. Being a direct support staff is also a tough job. From taking care of the everyday needs of the program participants to making life and death decisions, every single day brings its own set of rewards and challenges.
Oak Hill is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year. It is vital that Oak Hill be around for another 125 years, as there will certainly be people in the future who will need the services provided there.
Year after year of state budget difficulties have put increasing pressure on community nonprofits that are already facing huge deficits. As the legislature begins crafting the next budget, this year is no different. Last year, Oak Hill closed three group homes. In January of this year, Oak Hill announced the closure of two more group homes. Each of these places had individuals living in them who called these houses home. I can’t imagine what it would be like to hear from someone that the place where I was living, the place that I called my home, was going to close and that I would soon find myself in complete unfamiliarity.
I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a parent receiving that phone call that my child’s home was closing and that they would need relocation to another setting. This was a point that I made as I testified in front of the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee on March 15. Sen. John Fonfara stated that as a norm, the Finance Committee does not hear from the kinds of individuals and groups that it did that night. He said that the Finance Committee does not normally get to hear about the other side of the financial decisions that get made.
I am telling Connecticut politicians everywhere that the decisions they make regarding budgets and what goes into them and what gets cut from them have an incredible impact on many people and their lives. Whether that impact is positive or negative is entirely up to them.
I came to Oak Hill in 2001 simply because I needed a job. Now there is nothing else I would rather be doing, and nowhere else I would rather be doing it. For 18 years I have watched Oak Hill ebb and flow with the times. I have had to bear witness to the never-ending fight for its life and survival. But in those 18 years I have also discovered what it is that I am passionate about and exactly what it is that I am willing to stand up and fight to defend. Oak Hill is what I am passionate about, and all the people connected to it are what I am willing to stand up and fight to defend. I am the voice of those who cannot speak for themselves.
I request that Connecticut politicians think long and hard and take very seriously the information provided to them from private nonprofits. We are told all the time by the politicians that we are doing heroic work, that it takes special people to do the work that we are doing, that it is God’s work. And while those phrases and sentiments are nice to hear, they don’t get the bills paid. They don’t protect vital services. And they don’t stop programs from closing or prevent people from losing the places they call home.
It is time for the state to do what it is right and start channeling money into the private nonprofits that it relies so heavily on for the delivery of services.
Shanna York works at Oak Hill.
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