The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
Assistants provide support for disabled
BY CATHY JETT
Getting hired as a personal-care attendant for a teen with autism changed Ann Marie Brown’s career path.
She was a sophomore majoring in history at the University of Mary Washington last year when she applied for a job helping 18-year-old Russell Cole practice such life skills as loading the dishwasher at his Stafford County home.
Two months after working with him, I had a revelation,” said Brown. “I’ve always been really interested in psychology, so finding a very practical way of using it was very exciting.”
Last fall she switched from UMW to Germanna Community College, where she’s enrolled in the nursing program. She plans to become a psychiatric nurse.
“Just observing behavior and trying to modify it is exciting to me,” Brown said. “There are a lot of people who need these services.”
She’s not alone in recognizing the demand. The disAbility Resource Center, 409 Progress St. in Fredericksburg, has been holding workshops for people who want to learn more about becoming consumer-directed, or personal-care, assistants.
The next one will be held from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Smoot Library, 8562 Dahlgren Road in King George County. Registration is required, and can be made by contacting Kim Lett at 540/373-2559 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We want to enlarge the pool,” said Lett, who is the disAbility Resource Center’s program manager and deputy director. “It is difficult to find and keep personal attendants.”
Personal-care assistants give individuals with mental, physical or other disabilities the support they need to live in their community. This can range from helping someone who has autism learn how to make his own lunch to helping feed an elderly disabled person.
The only requirements to become an assistant are to be at least 18 years old, have a Social Security number, pass a criminal background check and pass a Child Protective Services check if working with a child.
“Some people make it a career,” Lett said. “Some are certified nursing assistants, but you don’t have to have that certification.”
Most assistants are college students like Brown, who want to earn money to help pay for school while gaining experience that will help if they’re going into a career in psychology or social services. Others tend to be military spouses who are looking for short-term work or mothers who want to help others while their children are in school, she said.
Most of the disabled use Medicaid waivers to pay their assistants. The amount will depend on whether the person needing help lives in the northern or southern part of the state. Hourly wages are $11.47 in Fredericksburg and the counties of Stafford and Spotsylvania, but only $8.86 in King George and Caroline counties.
The Association of Personal Care Attendants is lobbying for an increase in rates and to get benefits, Lett said.
Mimi Cole, Russell’s mother, uses a Medicaid waiver for the intellectually disabled to help cover the cost of personal assistants for her son. Most who’ve worked with him over the past 13 years have been college students she’s found through word-of-mouth.
During the initial interview, she stresses the need for promptness and dependability, she said. A behavioral consultant then trains those she hires before they work with Russell.
Currently, Cole has four assistants, including Brown, who take turns working with him after he gets home from school. Over the years they’ve taught him how to brush his teeth, fix lunch and how to find things.
“Everybody becomes kind of dependent on them,” Cole said. “They’re teaching him life skills and give us a break. They’re our lifeline.”
Many of her assistants have been psychology majors, and she gives them a reference when they apply to graduate school or for a job.
“They almost always get it,” Cole said.
The disAbility Resource Center currently helps about 400 people who are disabled and are paying for personal attendant services with Medicaid waivers. Depending on the number of hours they need help, they may have more than one personal attendant.
“There are one or two other facilitation organizations in our area but I’m pretty sure their caseload is as not as large as ours,” Lett said. “There are also families that pay privately for PA services or who may receive them from other non-waiver sources.”
The disAbility Center maintains a directory of personal-care assistants in the area, and people who wish to be included can fill out a form at a workshop or at its office.
“We encourage them to come to a workshop first so they know what it’s about, but it’s not required,” Lett said, adding that copies of the directory can be obtained at disAbility Center or by mail.
The Virginia Association of Centers for Independent Living is developing a statewide workforce of assistants and an online directory. The project is being funded by a grant from the Virginia Board for People with Disabilities.
Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407