First class of the Direct Support Professionals certificate program at NHTI-Concord graduates

On the first day of spring, the first 15 students of the Direct Support Professional (DSP) certificate program at the NH Technical Institute in Concord graduated in front of family, friends and state officials gathered in the Grappone Center.

The event was the culmination of a pilot program that seeks to raise the standard of DSP training in the state with an intensive, 20-week-long immersion in the lives of the people the DSPs support.

A DSP professional serves as the backbone of providing direct services to people with disabilities. These dedicated workers are the ones who get the person they work with ready in the morning and get them to bed at the end of the day. These professionals can be a game changer for the people they work with. They are the professionals can be the most significant in improving the quality of life of the person with disabilities.

 It is not unusual for a new DSP in an area agency to receive training with file folders in an office and presentations in conference rooms, squirreled away from the very people the DSPs would be supporting. But the DSP certificate program, brought to New Hampshire and taught by Robin Carlson and Dave Yeiter, turns that training model upside down.

The certificate program prominently features and requires full participation of a “learning partner” – usually referred to as a “client” in the service system – who becomes the mentor to a DSP student as they collaborate on class assignments. By the end of the course, the DSPs had spent 80 hours in a classroom and more than 100 hours exclusively with their learning partners, working on both a profile of the learning partner's life and a community-based project for the two to accomplish together.

For many, the experience taught them ways to begin shedding the traditional caretaker role of direct support, no matter how well-intentioned, and replacing it with a peer-mentor model that fosters a relationship of equals and genuine community connections. The difference can sometimes appear slight but the outcomes are vastly different for those who are handed back the decision-making power. Placing even minor, simple-seeming choices into the hands of those who can and should choose for themselves changes the DSP’s position from standing-over to standing-with. As graduate Roxanne Esty observed of a simple, everyday routine, “It's asking, ‘What would you like to wear today?’ instead of saying, ‘Here are your clothes.’”

Roy Gerstenberger, executive director of Community Bridges, was among the graduates of the first class and one of its proponents. The Concord agency offered financial incentives to a small group of its DSPs to take the course and work for certificates along with him. Five took up the offer and all five graduated, becoming strong advocates for the training along the way. Their experiences led Gerstenberger to say that Community Bridges was “all in” for getting every one of its DSPs certified through the NHTI course in the next 24 months. “I was convinced before (graduation,)” he said, “but when the learning partners announced their opinions that everyone should experience this class, I feel an obligation to follow through with a commitment.”

After two years of tireless preparation, came the first graduation class of this groundbreaking certificate program. Despite the success of the first effort, the work is far from over. The day after graduation, Yeiter was mapping out class lessons for the startup of the course at Antioch University of New England in Keene. In the fall, Yeiter and Carlson will be back at NHTI in Concord to instruct the next round of students. Carlson is also endeavoring to get the course offered on the Seacoast through Great Bay Community College. The pair is trying to expand the course offering through the New Hampshire community college system and hope one day to have the curriculum installed in the system statewide.


Jeff Symes is a Certified DSP and service coordinator for Community Partners in Dover.

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