"We Are Worth It." DSP of the Year Award Winners

Every fall at PAR's Solutions Conference, we celebrate the "We Are Worth It." award winners. These awards honor outstanding Direct Support Professionals (DSPs) who have demonstrated extraordinary and innovative support and action that lead people with intellectual disability and/or autism to live meaningful and inclusive lives. These winners are honored for transforming lives by supporting people to achieve their personal outcomes while actively engaging in their communities.

2020 Winners

Kaitlyn Walk

  • Central Region
  • UCP of Central PA

Kaitlyn Walk, a UCP Central PA Residential DSP, has made a remarkable difference in the lives of the individuals she supports, most notably a resident named Peggy. Before Kait joined the home, Peggy was on a behavior support plan and had an extremely limited vocabulary, a handful of words at most. Kait changed all that. Day by day, she would sit and talk with Peggy, encouraging her to respond. As the weeks and months went on, Peggy’s vocabulary began to expand. First with repeating words, then small phrases. Today, a year later, Peggy uses words and phrases to communicate without prompting.     

As Peggy’s vocabulary increased, her behaviors decreased. This is a direct result of her being able to communicate her basic needs and wants to staff: “I want to go outside; I need a drink; I want a shower;” and so much more. Thanks to Kait’s consistent encouragement, hard work, and dedication, Peggy found her voice. And we who work with her have found that she has quite a sense of humor!     

Another added benefit of Peggy’s ability to express herself is a newfound confidence, demonstrated by her willingness to assist with her own medical care. Previously, Peggy was physically aggressive, confrontational, and would refuse to go into the doctor’s office. If staff succeeded in getting her into the office, she would not tolerate the exam or let the nurse or doctor touch her.     

During a recent appointment, Kait was asked to accompany Peggy. To everyone’s surprise, Peggy not only listened to Kait, she entered the office with no issues, and allowed the nurse and doctor to examine her. Most critical of all—given the safety protocols mandated as a result of the current pandemic—is the fact that Peggy agreed to wear a face mask throughout the entire visit. The nurse, who has known Peggy for several years, was beyond surprised when Peggy walked in, wearing a face covering, and proudly declaring “I got my mask on!”    

Clearly, Kait’s support of Peggy and the trusting relationship they have developed has had a significant impact on Peggy’s quality of life.


Samuel Fatta

  • Northeast Region
  • Access Services

Sam is an exceptional DSP. He joined the team to stay connected and involved, and without a doubt, he has made a tremendous impact on those he supports. Sam is always seen smiling alongside participants. He is always the first person to volunteer and help.  

During the pandemic, there was an individual and his family in need of support, and the care they typically received in the home was not able to go in due to a bed bug outbreak. Sam volunteered to take the individual to the grocery store, and offer supervision and support through the window of the consumers home. He quickly educated himself in virtual supports and developed a weekly "lesson" about a new animal each week with an individual who loves animals. This weekly lesson has helped her stay connected and have something to look forward to during the pandemic.  

Prior to the shutdown, Sam was always out in the community with his group, be it helping to facilitate a leisure activity or volunteering with participants at Meals on Wheels. Sam is such a valued member of the team.


Nicholas Smith

  • Southeast
  • Spin, Inc.

Nick Smith is an outstanding DSP and provides the highest quality supports in SPIN’s residential and Behavioral Health Homes for over 12 years. Nick is committed to advocating for DSPs with government leaders and media drawing attention and solutions to the workforce crisis and the urgent need for a family sustaining wage for DSPs.      

For years, Will struggled to lose weight. With Nick’s support, he turned his obsession with unhealthy foods into a love of mindful eating. Nick taught Will to compare food labels and find healthy swaps for his favorite snacks. The fun continued as they cooked new recipes together. Will’s healthy habits have paid off as a sought-after player in his basketball league; teammates call him “Slim” running circles around everyone!     

Nick led his team to successfully transition two apprehensive youths into two self-directed men. Nick gains people’s trust instantly. Robert’s growth has been so profound that he is no longer requiring intensive behavioral supports.     

Nick prioritizes partnership with families. In a Philadelphia Inquirer article about DSPs, where Nick was featured, Will’s sister Latisha shared, “Nick really knows Will, and he stays in good touch with me. I don’t worry about Will at all.” Especially at this time of Covid-19 with limited family visits, Nick uses family relationships to help build their social and communication skills: with gentle coaching, they make regular calls, video chats to share how they’ve been and ask after their loved ones. Nick helped stabilize the home during the pandemic assuring the men’s health and safety.     

Skilled, caring, charismatic, and determined, Nick is a natural leader. Nick achieves greatness in SPIN’s Leadership Opportunity Program and SPIN’s United Coalition for Racial Justice where he provides critical perspective and resources. Most recently, Kristin Ahrens selected Nick as the first DSP to participate on the statewide ISAC. Nick’s incredible knowledge, skills, gifts and talents were recognized immediately and he was selected to also join the ISAC’s Committee on Racial Justice.       

Nick embodies the words of the great John Lewis, “Nothing can stop the power of a committed and determined people to make a difference in our society. Why? Because human beings are the most dynamic link… “


Mark Kiger

  • Western
  • Fayette Resources

Mark Kiger is a champion of the people he supports. Mark believes that each person is unique and has the right to make choices regarding their everyday life. Mark’s beliefs are evident in his daily practices as a Direct Support Professional.      

Mark views everyone as an individual with unique needs and uses a person-centered approach. During his career with Fayette Resources, Mark has faced challenges working with residents. One of the men that Mark worked with lived with a dementia diagnosis. Mark supported him by helping him sustain connections to his memories and supported him in maintaining his activities of daily living. He did this while also supporting the other resident of this home, who held a part-time job and enjoyed playing sports. He believes it’s all about helping a person with their goals and their needs. There is no blanket approach. He supported this man throughout his battle with dementia, up until his passing. He then supported his team and other residents of the home through their grieving process.     

Mark works to engage people in their community, sometimes through his hobby, growing giant pumpkins, meaning 1000-pound pumpkins. Many of the people he works with find this exciting and enjoy being part of the process. Throughout the year, residents enjoy trips to the pumpkin patch to see progress and gauge if Mark might break records with that year’s crop. He includes individuals in every step of the process, and they love it.  Mark finds ways to encourage community participation and has worked with individuals to define and pursue their interests. If that’s arranging for a trip to watch WWE, searching for a collectible baseball card, or tracking down NASCAR room decor, he supports individuals’ interests.     

To say Mark does this on his own would be inaccurate. Mark is a team player and a strong leader whose peers respect him. He has been with FRI for five years and has been a NADD DSP since January 2019. He employs leadership skills to engage his peers in teamwork that ultimately benefits the residents they support.


2019 Winners

Kristin Tersterman

  • Central Region
  • Keystone Human Services

During Kristin’s eight years at Keystone Human Services, she has shown the invaluable ability to get to know each person she supports and form strong relationships with them. When one of the individuals was diagnosed with dementia, her support was extremely important not only for him but for the other staff as she sought creative ways to support him. When her coworkers were concerned about an individual potentially moving into the home, she calmed their concerns with words of encouragement.

Kristin is a huge support not only to the individuals but also to her coworkers. One individual was having a difficult time at the mall one day and became upset and eventually mall security got involved. The staff person called Kristin who was able to give guidance over the phone on how to calm the situation. Even though it was her day off, she drove to the mall to help support the individual and the staff member. Although her journey has been difficult at times as she fights cancer, she has never wavered in her commitment to the individuals she supports.


Danielle O’Malley

  • Northeast Region 
  • Keystone Community Resources

Danielle has been a DSP for five years. She is the epitome of hard work and determination, which comes directly from her compassionate love and respect for the individuals she supports. Her attention to detail is evidenced by the happiness they exude daily. She ensures the home’s furnishings and décor are to their exact interest and preference, displaying beautiful pictures of the individuals and staff enjoying wonderful memories made throughout the years. Danielle prepares each birthday and holiday with delicious meals and warm and joyful decorations. 

Danielle encourages the individuals she supports to be meaningfully engaged in many local events, some of which include the American Breast Cancer Race to Cure Walk in the city of Scranton and attending the Scranton-Wilkes Barre RailRiders Baseball Games. Danielle serves as a champion of happiness, advocacy, and respect for the individuals she supports.


Amanda Stifnell

  • Southeast Region
  • Access Services

Amanda shows great care and dedication to the individuals she supports. She is considered a friend, even part of the family. She helped one individual acquire the appropriate documentation to get his now full time job and taught him how to make a shopping list and budget his money. Thanks to the great strides he made in living independently, this same individual won a personal achievement award. Amanda cheers him on and encourages him at Special Olympics to get better, socialize, and make new friends.

His father shared: “There were a lot of people both in our family and our community that had their doubts with [my son] and didn’t think he’d be able to do or achieve anything of value. This day he’s proved them all wrong, and I think it’s in no small way thanks to Amanda. I really want to thank her and all that she does."


Karrie Schindler

  • Western Region
  • Mainstay Life Services

Karrie has supported Maryann since 2013, helping her make progress towards personal goals and be a part of her community. Recently Karrie had the opportunity to impact Maryann’s life much more deeply. After Maryann’s mother passed away in 2018, Maryann left to live in Florida with family. One night Karrie received an unexpected call from Maryann saying “I am at the Pittsburgh airport and I don’t know what to do.” Karrie immediately drove to the airport and welcomed Maryann into her own home as a member of the family while her support team at Mainstay figured out what to do. Karrie and her family then became Life Sharing providers, helping Maryann feel safe and cared for during an incredibly stressful time. Karrie has demonstrated sensitivity, compassion, and understanding, helping Maryann living a meaningful and joyful life in the community now as part of Karrie’s family.


2018 Winners

Alene Tesfay

  • Central Region
  • Friendship Community

Alene began working at Friendship Community in May of 1991. He has served the majority of individuals at the Lititz program and has formed trustworthy relationships that have evolved into authentic friendships.

The parents of the individuals at the Lititz program have expressed gratitude to Alene and Friendship Community for the consistency of care for their loved ones. Recently, Alene attended an individual’s parents’ 50th anniversary party. Over the years he has attended holidays and other family celebrations where he was not only serving the needs of individuals, but participating in the celebrations as an honorary family member. 

Alene consistently prioritizes innovative and inclusive community opportunities, whether it is taking individuals to a local fishing derby where they catch multiple fish together, or assisting in a roller-skating rink experience where he pushed individuals’ wheelchairs while he skated.

The individuals at the Lititz program have thrived due to this long-standing friendship and it is evident when Alene walks into the home how much they truly care, appreciate and love Alene.


Luz Diaz-Vincent

  • Northeast Region
  • Keystone Human Services

Luz Diaz-Vincent has worked for Keystone Human Services for 15 years. As a DSP, Luz has supported many individuals, assisting them to find valued social roles, developing relationships and advocating for person centered services. 

Recently, she has been instrumental in helping an individual who has significant medical and mental health issues. The team was brainstorming different ways to help bring meaning and motivation into this individual’s life. Luz stepped up to the plate and began working one on one with him. By respecting his choices, empowering him to make decisions and teaching him coping skills, she helped him to regain his confidence and explore new opportunities.

Currently, this individual is an active member of his community. Luz helped him find inclusive and meaningful activities despite his chronic medical and mental health issues. He volunteers several times a week and has built a social network that has been vital to his recovery. When he is having a difficult day, Luz is always a patient and active listener. She encourages him to express his feeling and provides reassurance. 

Luz never shies away from a challenge and is always thinking of creative ways to facilitate inclusivity for the people she supports.


Walter Hardy

  • Southeast Region
  • Delta Community Supports, Inc.

For 28 years, Walter Hardy has provided extraordinary, innovative support to people with intellectual disability. Walter has a keen understanding of techniques to calm individuals with conflictive behaviors.

His work with Steven, who habitually hit himself, offers an example of Walter’s unique skills. When treatment began, Steven had a restricted program to address hitting that was hard enough to detach his own retina. Walter noticed that Steven was fascinated by the silver paper inside a cigarette wrapper. The paper stimulated Steven while keeping his hands busy. He observed that Steven liked the texture of a potato chip bag. Steven stopped hitting himself when he played with one.

Walter began using these appropriate distractions to help Steven change his behavior. He also built a tire swing Steven could use when he needed outdoor time. To expand the positive impact of his methods Walter created a video which helped Steven's family members and support community learn to use the creative behavioral techniques.

In this case, and countless others, Walter shares his deep insight to help people with intellectual disability become healthier, happier, and better able to connect with the community around them.


Tamara Pudder

  • Western Region
  • Lakeshore Community Services

Tamara has been employed in Lakeshore’s Warren County area for over 15 years. In addition to her duties as a full time DSP, Tamara is always helping other staff and supervisors without being asked. While this isn’t uncommon for Lakeshore staff, she has gone way beyond what is expected.

Tamara has developed a special relationship with several older individuals at Lakeshore who have little or no family or community relationships. She has expanded her relationships by devoting many hours of her personal time taking consumers on activities and community outings.

Tamara’s devotion to one consumer, Roseanne, has been especially noteworthy. Roseanne recently needed to be placed in a nursing home and Tamara  has continued to maintain her relationship with her. She has taken Roseanne and others out to dinner and social activities and provides direct care for them when needed. When Tamara arranges these dinners and outings, she uses her own funds, and transports Roseanne at her own expense. Tamara incorporates both Roseanne and Connie, the individual she currently supports, in her personal family activities and community events to hep them expand their friendships and bond with others in the community.