How Hope Johnson fosters independence and joy

by Danae King from The Christian Science Monitor, Columbus, Ohio

Adults with disabilities don’t always have opportunities to connect with their communities. One provider makes sure they feel integrated – and seen.

154474Hope Johnson, a direct support professional with I Am Boundless Inc., poses for a photo July 13 in Columbus, Ohio. Danae King

November 17, 2023|

Heather Hawk strikes a pose in her patterned swim dress, one hand behind her head and another on her hip, preparing for sunblock to be applied. 

“Beautiful!” exclaims her companion, Hope Johnson, acknowledging the pose before spraying the sun protection.

Ms. Johnson is at a Columbus, Ohio, splash pad with nine adults, overseeing them while they frolic in the water during a summer outing. Part of her job as a direct support professional is to assist people with disabilities with everything from daily tasks to their jobs. 

She and the group, whose members she likens to family, meet each week to participate in activities through the Without Walls (WOW) program, a division of the Columbus-area organization I Am Boundless Inc.  

Ms. Johnson, a community integration specialist who was recently promoted to a supervisor of the program, has been a pivotal part of WOW nearly since its inception in late 2020. Since that time, she and the program have helped more than 120 adults in the central Ohio area – fostering a sense of connection between participants and their community.

154474Courtesy of Hope JohnsonParticipant Jack Wenzke and Hope Johnson ride a train during a June 2023 trip to the Columbus Zoo, in Ohio, as part of the Without Walls program for adults with disabilities.

Ahead of the curve

Programs and services for people with disabilities, like WOW, are moving away from siloing and separating those they serve from society to helping them become more integrated and accepted. 

The WOW program is ahead of the curve in the disability services community, says Sean Luechtefeld, a vice president with the American Network of Community Options and Resources, an association for service providers. 

WOW offers participants choices and opportunities they may rarely get otherwise. Excursions into the community, for instance, offer refreshing alternatives to the isolated activities found at traditional adult day programs, says Kelly Schuck, community life engagement project manager with the Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities.

The department officially began offering funding for community integrated services in July 2022, she says. “We appreciate providers that are doing this differently and setting the example,” Ms. Schuck says.

Ms. Johnson helps the adults she works with by giving them access to the same places she visits with her own family: the library, the zoo, museums, the Ohio State Fair, swimming pools, restaurants, and the movies. She also takes requests and then tries to work them into the schedule.

Nicole Neri, who is in her 20s, says she feels like she’s a part of something when she attends WOW. For the past two years, she has been helping another participant, Mark, who is legally blind. 

“I help Mark every day,” she says. 

“She keeps him by her hip,” Ms. Johnson says. “She makes sure he’s safe.”

People are much happier when they have choices and aren’t isolated, says Mr. Luechtefeld. He says Ms. Johnson goes above and beyond. 

“She treats the 22 folks that she works with, and [that] her team works with, as one cohesive unit and has been the glue that holds that unit together,” he says.

His association named Ms. Johnson the 2023 Direct Support Professional of the Year for Ohio in April. She was selected out of 24 nominees, he says.

This type of work is “incredibly rewarding,” adds Mr. Luechtefeld. But it “can also be incredibly challenging.”

 Fewer people are becoming direct support professionals, he says, adding that a decades-old shortage is fueled in part by people feeling undervalued and underpaid. 

Ms. Johnson says she loves her job, which she found when her now-supervisor, Lynsey Cooner, reached out to her a few years ago after working together previously. Ms. Johnson worked one-on-one with people with disabilities in their homes before she began helping Boundless clients get out into the community.

The adults she supports make her happy, she says, especially when she is having a tough day. “Sometimes I’m not in a good mood, but I can’t stay mad,” she says. “They’re all very smart; they’re all very quirky.”

Her focus is on making sure their integration is safe and nurtured. “The idea of them being treated poorly hurts my heart,” she says, adding that if onlookers stare or comment, she pulls them aside to talk about it.

“Someone I want in my life”

Lisa Wenzke, a Columbus mother, first met Ms. Johnson earlier this year at a Special Olympics track meet, where the WOW leader was cheering on her participants. Ms. Wenzke was impressed by that dedication. 

“All I could think is, ‘This is someone I want in my life. This is a wonderful person,’” she says.

Ms. Wenzke’s son Jack, who is in his early 20s, now sprints to the WOW/Boundless van, greeting those on it with fist bumps and a smile. Ms. Wenzke says her son is “a man of few words,” but he is quick to verbalize how Ms. Johnson makes him feel. 

“Happy,” Mr. Wenzke says, adding that Ms. Johnson is always in that mood, too.

“I like going to the zoo,” he says of his favorite activity with WOW. “My favorite animal is the cheetah.”

Mr. Wenzke also says he likes seeing the friends he has made through WOW and going bowling and to the movies with them.

Through the WOW program, Ms. Johnson aims to help individuals gain a sense of belonging, says Ms. Cooner. 

“They want to have fun; they want to have relationships with people in the community,” she says. “Just because they have special needs doesn’t mean they have to be isolated and put away.”

Sometimes all they want is to be known. Ms. Johnson made that happen for Joe DeRubertis by taking him and a WOW group to a local Bob Evans restaurant every few weeks, starting in late 2021. 

There, Joann Navarro, a server, has memorized their drink orders. As soon as the vans pull up, she starts preparing their hot chocolates, Cokes, and strawberry lemonades. The recognition of their names and drinks makes them feel seen, and like they’re a part of something, Ms. Johnson says.

Participant Rebekah Eberle says she feels happy when the group goes to the restaurant. She likes Ms. Navarro and says she feels like she belongs when the server remembers her order

“It makes me feel good,” Ms. Eberle says.

To Ms. Johnson, the job is more of a calling, as she genuinely appreciates spending time with those who participate in the program. They know her family and, to her, they’re a part of it.

“Without each other, we’re not the same,” she says. “These guys are my life.”

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Page created on 12/13/2023 4:53:53 PM

Last edited 12/13/2023 5:13:20 PM

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