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Six years ago, Chauntese Lewis was looking for another job to make extra money. Lewis, a licensed cosmetologist by trade, said her salon was “pretty successful,” but the pay wasn’t always steady, and she needed something to help her lock down her dream home. 

That opportunity came when she expanded her partnership with Oak-Leyden Developmental Services, an organization in Oak Park that focuses on helping children and adults with developmental disabilities. 

“I had already been cutting some of the participants’ hair,” she said. “They would call me, and I would say, ‘Sure, bring them to the salon.’” 

It wasn’t long before Lewis started thinking, “I could do this.” 

Lewis is one of Oak-Leyden’s 85 direct support professionals, whose main responsibility is to work directly and assist people with intellectual or developmental disabilities in their everyday lives. Last week, Sept. 12-18, Oak-Leyden celebrated Lewis and dozens of others for Direct Support Professionals (DSPs) Recognition Week. 

“I enjoy taking care of them, and I treat them like they’re just regular people,” Lewis. “We have girl talk. The guys, we have guy talk.” 

Lewis, who’s grown accustomed to the long hours and extended shifts, works mainly out of Geneva Community Integrated Living Arrangements (CILA) in Northlake. Lewis and many of Oak-Leyden’s DSPs are typically placed in 12 homes and two lifelong learning centers in the Chicago area, said Elisabeth Loren, the organization’s director of development. 

Lewis noted that her work often feels more like a “getaway,” as there are days when she and the residents are spending time together, playing games or listening to the Beatles. 

Lorraine Hemphill, another DSP at Oak-Leyden, echoed Lewis. 

Hemphill, who began working with Oak-Leyden in 2010, spoke about the four women she works with at a home in Westchester. She talked about their independence and how her role is to be there for them. 

“Sometimes they want the help, and sometimes they don’t,” Hemphill said. “Our job is to do the best we can and to just help the ladies as much as we can.” 

Hemphill went on to say that she started working with the disabled community decades ago alongside her mother — and decided to continue the work in her mother’s memory.   

“My heart is in the work,” she said. “As a tribute to my mom, I continue doing this work, and I really feel that I may retire from doing this work because I do love good work.”

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