Relationships, caretaking essential skills as a direct support professional

From an early age, Jenny Shepperd knew she was a caretaker, a nurturer. Her path as a direct support professional (DSP) has been peppered with opportunities to assist others at various stages in their lives.

“I always knew I wanted to help people. But I didn’t know exactly what that looked like — maybe a teacher or working in early childhood education — but definitely doing something as a caregiver.”

Jenny Shepperd

As Shepperd considered the multiple avenues the DSP career field offers, she also leaned on experiences she had growing up, such as helping her single mother care for her younger sister. Additionally, her older brother was diagnosed with brain cancer when he was five years old. As a result of his chemotherapy and radiation treatments, he experienced brain damage that affected his coordination, reaction time and physical growth.

“Growing up, I advocated for him a lot with my mom to encourage her to let him try things out, even if he failed the first time,” said Shepperd. “He is a prime example of how successful one can be even if they are faced with barriers. He’s a very independent person and sometimes, just needs the opportunity and space to do things for himself.”

Shepperd said Easterseals of Iowa —  a nonprofit that serves individuals and families with disabilities and special needs — always had a special place in her heart for the services it provided to her relatives. As a family, they often participated in the Walk With Me fundraiser event and stayed close to the organization for years.

When it came time to think about her future and career, Shepperd said her mind always went to the services provided by Easterseals and how important they were to families. During college, she applied for – and was hired – as a part time job coach with Easterseals. As she completed her bachelor’s degree in social work, she also gained hands-on career experience that would put her on a path of career fulfillment and growth.

“As a job coach, I’m a support person for our [Easterseals] clients who are placed at local jobsites, such as retail stores or restaurants,” said Shepperd. “I provide additional support our client may need with training, co-worker or supervisor relationships and the soft skills that come with time. It’s individualized for the client, their abilities and the type of work they’re doing.”

Among the multiple professions available as a DSP, Shepperd said she wanted a position where she could build relationships with individuals to increase their confidence and skills as an independent person. As a job coach, she sees that happen every day.

“My job is really to be there as support. I’ve learned to be very patient and let the client be the boss. There’s a certain humbleness I experience when I see my clients working so hard, enjoying this opportunity that many people take for granted.”

Jenny Shepperd

Recently, Shepperd completed her bachelor’s degree and will move into a slightly different role with Easterseals where she is an employment specialist with their TEAM (Transitioning to Employment and Advocating for Myself) program, specifically working in a local high school with their students. The work is a collaborative efforts between Easterseals of Iowa, Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Service and Des Moines Public Schools.

A common question for those in the DSP career field is why they chose this line of work. While some may have defined reasons that drive them to help others every day, Shepperd said her “why” is a variety of small things that add up to her passion for positively impacting others.

“For me, it’s a bunch of little reasons. I enjoy learning about how the brain works and mental health. I have strong connections to individuals with disabilities. And, as a natural caretaker, I enjoy building relationships with people. I’m able to do that every day, and it all adds up to my ‘why’.”

Jenny Shepperd

Iowa Mental Health and Disability Services (MHDS) Regions is proud to champion DSPs like Shepperd as they find a career in the human services field. For more information on this career field, including educational requirements, a variety of job roles and more, check out