When he was graduating college back in the early 1980s, working with people with intellectual disabilities wasn’t on Greg Miller’s radar.
“Back then, this field didn’t really exist — there just wasn’t much to it,” he said.
But an opportunity arose for Miller at the then-nascent Target Community and Educational Services of Maryland to work as a direct support professional in a Target group home with three boys with intellectual disabilities as part of Miller’s graduate work at what was then Western Maryland College (now McDaniel).
“After my first week of working with the three boys, I realized this was what I was put on Earth to do,” he said.
Today, Miller is the CEO of Penn-Mar Human Services, a nonprofit that operates 48 residential homes, and cares for about 400 people with intellectual disabilities, and an organization that was just recognized for innovation in that field. The National Alliance of Direct Support Professionals has awarded Penn-Mar the Moving Mountains Award for Penn-Mar’s Career Ladders program, which Miller said was designed to help support those workers who support people with disabilities.
“The country has been facing a long-term crisis in recruiting and keeping direct support professionals, DSPs, the people who provide direct support to people with intellectual disabilities,” said Joseph Macbeth, executive director of the National Alliance of Direct Support Professionals. “The 1.2 million direct support professionals across the country are not considered professionals; they are considered entry-level employees. But they are responsible for the life and death of people with some very complicated medical issues.”
Caught between a rewarding but challenging job and their bills, Miller said, many direct support professionals leave the field, or else take promotions into managerial roles in order to earn higher pay, even if they are not interested in such roles.
“What could we do to help keep folks who aren’t interested in becoming supervisors or managers?” Miller said. “They are really great at providing that direct support. How do we make that a career as opposed to a job?”
So Penn-Mar launched a pilot credentialing program, allowing those direct support professionals who choose to take an additional 100 hours of training and build a portfolio demonstrating a mastery of direct support concepts and practices, leading to increased pay, according to Miller.
“In our organization, our mission, we say, is ‘transforming life into living.’ It’s about how do you take an existence and turn it into something meaningful?” Miller said. “As challenging as it is for us to be doing that for the individuals we serve, if we are not also helping to transform the lives of the people who provide that support, then we’re missing half the boat here. It has to work for everybody.”
“The guy’s a visionary,” Macbeth said. “I love working with executives like Greg because he is an innovator. He doesn’t see a problem and walk away from it. He says, ‘Let’s figure this out.’ ”
And so Penn-Mar set out to create an endowment to pay for training and increased pay for those direct support professionals in the Career Ladders program, fundraising for its people rather than new vehicles or other capital, Miller said.
“Over the last three years, we’ve raised about $700,000,” he said. “Our short-term goal is over the next three years to get our endowment to $5 million. We are about $2 million now.”
About $1.5 million from that is thanks to a gift from one of the families of a person Penn-Mar supports. That person, now an adult, was one of the three boys in the Target home that Miller cared for while in graduate school.
“It’s just funny — it’s a small world, a big circle,” he said.
That path Miller started down as a graduate student is the same one he is on today as a CEO.
“The reason I come to work every day is to help change the lives of the people we support because they deserve that,” he said. “There is nothing more important to me than everyone having full access to everything in the world that you and I have access to.”