ALBANY, NY – The Justice Center for the Protection of Persons with Special Needs has announced the recipients of its Code of Conduct and Champion Award for 2021. These awards honor individuals and organizations who have worked tirelessly not only to improve the lives of people under the jurisdiction of the Justice Center. but who also took up the enormous challenges faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The agency honored seven essential direct care workers for their exceptional work with the Code of Conduct awards. This award honors staff members who embody the ethical standards outlined in the Code of Conduct for Caretakers of Persons with Special Needs. Employees who help people with special needs are required to sign the Code, which ensures that people “live meaningful self-directed lives in their communities, free from abuse and neglect, and protected from harm.”
This year’s winners include:
- Ihuoma Chukwu, HeartShare Human Services of New York – Ihuoma Chukwu spends her days defending the 14 people who reside in the house where she works. Colleagues say she provided exceptional care during the Covid-19 pandemic, including providing people receiving services with their own mobile phones so they can deal with family members and calling relatives of people nonverbal so they can hear familiar voices on the other end of the line. In recent months, Ihuoma and his team have welcomed into the residence a man who had been hospitalized with Covid and whose father had died of the disease, leaving the man orphaned. On the day of his arrival, Ihuoma made sure that a framed photo of the man’s father hung on his bedroom wall along with his personal effects. The man was greeted with a cake which Ihuoma got with the words “welcome home”. When talking about the people she supports, Ihuoma tells people to make eye contact with those who may appear different and to see who they really are.
- Marie Johnson, Autism Services, Inc. – Marie Johnson has spent the past 21 years building relationships with the people she serves. Marie has connected with a grassroots group and works every day to ensure that they lead independent lives by providing opportunities for them to connect with the community around them. Marie researches events that she thinks the group would enjoy, lets them choose what each would like to attend, and then works tirelessly to make these excursions a success. Her supervisor says she was convinced during an interview with Marie 21 years ago that “she saw no difference between herself and those she would support” and says that Marie’s hiring was the one of the best decisions she made during her time at Autism Services.
- Jeremy Mabee, HOME Incorporated – Jeremy Mabee not only performs his job above expectations, but he constantly supports his colleagues as they learn how to help people with special needs. His colleagues say Jeremy makes a point of getting to know everyone in the establishment where he works so he can advocate effectively. As an example, Jeremy not only used sign language to facilitate conversations with a person receiving services to defuse situations, but he also taught his colleagues ASL so they could communicate more effectively with them. this person, which avoids escalation. Jeremy also assists with life planning or team meetings where he is not required so that he can better understand each individual’s needs in order to serve as their most effective advocate.
- Jenna Pullis-Sayles, Northern Rivers – When Neil Hellman School moved away due to the pandemic, more than 75 children lost their only reliable source of daily nutrition. Jenna Pullis-Sayles, who was already in charge of a program feeding 15 families, jumped into action. She started a program that provided weekly food deliveries to more than 75 children and their entire families. Jenna’s team took care of the organization, logistics and delivery of all meals. In total, the program has provided more than 20,000 pounds of food to vulnerable families. But Jenna didn’t stop there. The team was also able to connect families with clothes, holiday gifts, hats, mittens, winter coats. In total, they distributed over 250 holiday gifts and 1,000 items of clothing. Jenna has done all of this in addition to her usual responsibilities as a Professional Coordinator, where she works with students with emotional and behavioral challenges to help them develop employability skills in the workplace, secure their first job and to take steps towards independence.
- Raechelle Valenti, Liberty ARC – Raechelle Valenti has been a direct support professional at Liberty ARC for three decades. During this time, she became a strong advocate for the people she supports. Shelli, as her colleagues call her, has learned sign language herself in order to communicate better with people in the deaf community. Her co-workers frequently call on her to help her communicate with deaf people to ensure their needs are met. Additionally, Shelli has voluntarily offered to mentor new direct support professionals entering her department to keep them engaged and encourage professional development. Recently, Shelli pleaded for a woman who wanted to get married but whose family did not accept her decision. Shelli has spoken a lot with the woman’s family, making it easier to communicate on the matter. In the end, the woman got married and families on both sides worked together to support the newlyweds.
- Jennifer Whitmire, Empower – Jennifer Whitmire is described by her supervisor as ‘exceptional’, but it is her work during the Covid-19 pandemic that has truly made her an outstanding employee. Jennifer showed up for work every day, even in the height of the crisis, without a single sick call. At a time when many of her colleagues were afraid of contracting the virus, Jennifer has become a role model, especially for new staff. Jennifer took them under her wing to teach and mentor them while taking on additional responsibilities at a new, understaffed facility.
- Evelyn Wilson, OMH- Evelyn Wilson has dedicated more than three decades of her life to serving people with special needs at the Pilgrim Psychiatric Center. She has worked in the residential program and in long term units. Most recently, Evelyn became a founding member of Team Connections, a program that helps people prepare for their discharge and supports them once they leave the facility. Evelyn has made herself available to the families of those receiving services literally around the clock to make the transition back to the community as successful as possible. Evelyn visits patients at home to assess whether they need assistive devices and has helped them obtain clothing and other items to boost their self-esteem. Evelyn also sends a birthday card to each person released to remind them that someone is taking care of them.
Justice Center Executive Director Denise M. Miranda joined Advisory Board Chair Bill Gettman in congratulating this year’s award recipients.
“The Justice Center has always recognized the essential role that direct care staff play in the lives of people with special needs. The COVID-19 pandemic has only underscored their tireless efforts. These award recipients put the lives of the people they serve before their own health and safety in times of real crisis. We thank them and thousands of other direct care staff for all they do every day, ”said Miranda.
Executive Director Miranda also presented four people with the agency’s Champion Award. Applicants may include individual staff, community members, service recipients, or organizations that support the mission of the Justice Center.
This year’s winners are: Willie Mae Goodman (Willowbrook Parent / Governor’s Parents Association), Sue Lanigan (Alternate Decision-Making Committee Member), Todd Paul (Lawyer), Shelia Shea (Mental Health Legal Services) ).
In addition to the award ceremony, the Justice Center released a slide show honoring the direct care workforce and highlighting September as Direct Care Workforce Recognition Month.