When a longtime direct care provider meets with her clients throughout the week, it doesn’t feel like a job to her.
The positive demeanor of Kayla White and Mitch Cobble makes Shelley Whitcomb’s job easy, she said.
That’s why the Seymour native said she felt humbled recently when she was presented the Baxter Service Award from The Arc of Jackson County.
The award is named after Anne Baxter, who used to serve as president of the nonprofit organization that advocates for the well-being and independence of people with mental, physical and emotional disabilities.
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“I don’t know if I feel that I’m that deserving of it because it’s so easy working with (White’s) parents, and so are Mitch’s,” Whitcomb said. “They are supportive parents to the max, great communication. I’m learning more about communication and organization from Kayla and her mom. Kayla is such a joy, and Mitch has such a great personality.”
After receiving the award at The Arc’s annual awards banquet, Whitcomb later went to visit with Baxter.
“She was happy for me. She was very pleased and said I deserved it,” Whitcomb said. “I appreciated hearing that.”
It had been a couple of years since Whitcomb had attended The Arc’s awards banquet. President Kerry Bonney called her a couple of weeks before this year’s event in November to let her know she was receiving an award.
“I was just very excited and giddy. I thought, ‘Oh goodness, they think that much of me,’” Whitcomb said. “It was very special. I just didn’t expect it at all. I was flattered that night to get awarded. It meant a lot to me.”
White and her mother, Beth, attended the banquet and invited Whitcomb to sit with them. Kayla expressed her excitement when Bonney called Whitcomb up to get her award.
“It made me happy,” Kayla said.
Whitcomb said it’s great to have The Arc as a resource in the county.
“I just appreciate the work that they do and the time that they give. I love what they stand for, trying to empower people with special needs to have a voice,” she said.
“It’s that option for them to reach out and learn more about self-advocacy,” she said. “There’s a much-needed liaison between the client and their day-to-day experience with challenges and how they would fit into becoming a recognized citizen that is going to be taken seriously. The Arc really fulfills a need for representing the special needs population.”
After graduating from Seymour High School in 1976, Whitcomb went to Indiana University to study human development. She had considered going into social work after earning her degree in 1981, but she wound up entering the direct support field as a direct care provider.
She has worked in that field off and on for 25 years with several agencies.
She also spent three years as an instructional assistant in a special education classroom at Columbus North High School before fulfilling that role for a couple of years at Seymour High School.
“I attend classes with them — cooking and art class and PE — and help the teacher and take the kids to lunch. Lots of one-on-one,” Whitcomb said. “It’s a learning experience for them, and in school, I learned what the special needs kids have to offer, unconditional love.”
She met Kayla White when she was a sophomore at Seymour. Whitcomb took her to an after-school program, had her interact with people in the community and visited the library to look at books or play card games with her school friends.
Whitcomb also met Cobble when he was a student at Seymour, and they participated in different activities.
When they graduated from high school, they continued working with Whitcomb. Along with being a direct care provider, she is a home health aide with the Help at Home agency.
In those capacities, Whitcomb helps White get ready for the day four times a week and takes her to work at Jackson Developmental Industries in Seymour. After White’s shift ends in the afternoon, she and Whitcomb participate in activities until her mother gets off of work.
The activities are related to life skills goals, including exercising, cooking, making a purchase and interacting with people in the community.
Whitcomb works with Cobble two or three days each week, and they spend more time together throughout the day.
White and Cobble are distant cousins, and Whitcomb said she occasionally does activities with both of them at the same time.
Whitcomb said it has been rewarding to see both of her clients grow and develop.
“It’s gratifying to see they are so accepted in the community,” she said. “I think it’s bringing awareness to the whole population of special needs, that these kids are really out having fun and interacting on an adult level.”
Whitcomb also has liked developing a relationship with her clients’ families.
“Getting involved with the family and being there for the family is really rewarding because I know that they trust me,” she said. “It’s a big responsibility that their young adult is always in good hands with me.”
White said she appreciates how Whitcomb has always made time for her and her mother.
“She has become a friend,” White said. “Me and Beth both love her because she has such good manners that we can’t get over it. If she talks on the phone to somebody, she always says ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ I love that.”
Cobble said he also considers Whitcomb a friend.
“She helps a lot,” he said. “She does a great job through what she’s trying to do.”
The enthusiasm of people with special needs is inspiring, Whitcomb said.
“For me, being a caregiver has enriched my life, and I feel very blessed to have found my niche,” she said. “I feel that we as caregivers become an extension of the family. Even when you stop working with them, you’ll find that the clients will more than likely want to stay in touch with you.”
Whitcomb encourages others to look into the direct support field. She plans to stay in that position for as long as she can.
“I love my job that much,” she said.