The essential nature of direct support professionals’ work is right in their title. Caring for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities involves daily direct interaction that cannot be completely replaced by telework.

While Pittsburgh-area direct support professionals, or DSPs, continued to go into work amid a statewide stay-at-home order due to the COVID-19 pandemic, technology became an essential tool to enrich the lives of those in their care. Video calls allowed DSPs to organize workout classes, gardening sessions and crafting activities, all of which helped to simulate a more regular social life for their clients when the stress of quarantine and the pandemic was at its worst.

“Zoom helps because they can see their friends and see what they’re up to,” explained Pennie Wilson, a direct support professional at Emmaus Communities of Pittsburgh, an organization that provides housing and care for those with intellectual disabilities. Wilson was one of the first Emmaus DSPs to start using Zoom to schedule activities for residents. At first, she said, there were only a couple of people who tuned in for her kickboxing class, but its popularity grew.

“Some don’t actively participate, but they’ll still sign on to watch because they want to visit with their friends, which was one of the whole points of the Zoom activities,” Wilson said.

Arc Human Services is a direct care support organization based in Southwestern Pennsylvania that helps individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities live as they choose. Arc provides residential and employment services for individuals who either live on their own or in a community home. These individuals need DSPs to come into their homes every single day.

DSPs often work in the individuals’ homes, providing whatever care is needed, from help with personal upkeep to help maintaining connections to a larger community like a religious group or a job. Some of their clients require help out of bed in the morning and assistance making breakfast, while others require help bathing, grooming and taking medications. In addition, their work often takes them out of the house to help with grocery shopping or trips to the pharmacy or to doctor’s appointments.

DSPs shift their care to match the needs of the individual, but amid restrictions due to COVID-19, many DSPs worked harder than ever to find creative solutions to provide care.

“It’s hard for any one of us to understand what to do anymore,” said Ed Picchiarini, CEO of Arc Human Services. “Our staff are really being patient with the people we service to help them understand these things, like why they can’t hug their best friend or touch the staff. In some cases, they don’t really understand why they can’t do that anymore, and that’s hard both on them and for us.”

As the quarantine required the clients to stay at home all day instead of going out for work, school or other community activities, DSPs had to figure out what they were going to do to facilitate a more “normal” scheduled life for their residents. Their solution worked far better than anticipated and made staff consider whether they should continue online activities, even though Allegheny County entered the green phase of reopening on June 5.

Staff set up FaceTime and Google Hangout sessions so residents could connect with their family members.

Many hidden talents emerged during the quarantine as DSPs set up Zoom meetings for arts-and-crafts classes, storytimes or Disney trivia games. Some staff members host regular gardening events on Facebook Live, while others provide religious services or organize dance parties. One of the residents, Cece Wagner, even put together a magic show for her friends in other homes to watch.

Marnee Miltenberger is a resident at Emmaus Communities of Pittsburgh. She frequently hosts Zoom readings of the novel “Nancy Drew: Message in a Haunted Mansion.”

“I’m good at reading,” she said. “I actually like doing that, because it has a calming effect on me. I get all worked up and frustrated from this quarantine. It’s kind of overwhelming.”

Emmaus resident Marnee Miltenberger reads Nancy Drew to friends on Zoom. (Courtesy photo by Pennie Wilson)

On April 26, the Emmaus Communities of Pittsburgh managed to hold its annual gala for residents. The virtual gala allowed staff and residents to safely enjoy a 1920s-themed dance party, where people could still show off the fancy dresses or suits purchased for the event. The gala raised $50,000 for Emmaus, achieving their fundraising goal.

Inspired by the dedication and hard work of their care providers, some of the support staff at Arc Human Services at Washington started sewing 40 to 50 masks a day on top of their daily administrative duties for Arc frontline workers to use.

At the beginning of quarantine, it was difficult for organizations to acquire the right protective equipment for all of their staff. But through a large donation of 1,000 face masks by a Washington County group called Operation: Face Mask, every staff member at Arc received two masks and a scarf, with more than enough left over to keep stockpiled in case of emergency.

“Because our direct staff are working so hard with our residents, we have our support staff doing anything they can do to help them, like bringing them their favorite food or dropping off games to play at the home for the day,” said Picchiarini. “We make sure that they’re doing OK. We have to support our staff so they can take care of the individuals we serve.”

As the country began to shut down because of the coronavirus, DSPs faced many of the same difficulties as everyone else who still had to go to work every day: They have childcare needs and transportation difficulties. CLASS is a nonprofit organization that provides community living and support services to individuals with disabilities in Allegheny County. Many of their DSPs rely on buses to get to work, but during quarantine, bus routes were reduced by 25%. To ensure that their workers could continue to show up on time, CLASS covered rideshare costs. With 150 employees working in residential care, the rideshare bill totaled nearly $5,000 in just more than the first month into the pandemic, with expectations for the expenses to increase.

Emmaus residents Sidria Williams (left) and Carah Dayton participate in a Zoom pot decorating class. (Courtesy photo by Pennie Wilson)

In addition to running group homes and residential campuses, Allegheny Valley School operates two adult training facilities for individuals to learn new skills and become better established in their communities. “We’re open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day; we are not closed,” said Gary Hoffman, the regional executive director for the Merakey Allegheny Valley School.

The training facilities had to close as a result of the pandemic, but because of the nature of their work and the thousands of people who rely on DSPs, these professionals have not stopped working due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Even as the Pittsburgh area transitions into the green phase, there will not be much change in the work of DSPs. Residents can now go outside to socially distance and talk with family, and DSPs can take the residents out for a drive around town or to get takeout food as a way to escape the house. Some clients who were employed before the quarantine have gone back to work. But the safety of those who live in the residential homes and all of the workers who come in and out of those homes is still the top priority.

“I would still want to keep these online Zoom activities even when we phase out to green standards,” said Tahnee Cie Moorefield, a residential adviser at one of the Emmaus homes. “They’re more accessible to all of the residents because they’re free and easy to organize. I believe they’ve really helped residents feel more connected to Emmaus as a whole.”

In May, speaking through a phone call put on speakerphone in a Zoom meeting as a kind of daisy chain of communication, Miltenberger described how she sings along to songs during the Zoom dance parties hosted by DSPs. While she does not have a favorite song, she does have some favorite lyrics. Voice crackling in and out over the phone and Zoom connection, she sang a song by The Rolling Stones:

“No, you can’t always get what you want… But if you try sometime, you get what you need.”

Grace McGinness is a former editorial intern at Rtvsrece. She can be reached at

Veonna King fact-checked this story.

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