Tony Thomas: “Direct Support Professional”

To me our clients are the heroes as they have been sitting at home and not able to do all the things that bring them joy, like see friends and family or go back to work. And through it all they keep positive attitudes and continue to make us all smile with their perseverance. The […]

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To me our clients are the heroes as they have been sitting at home and not able to do all the things that bring them joy, like see friends and family or go back to work. And through it all they keep positive attitudes and continue to make us all smile with their perseverance. The other heroes at this agency are our “Direct Support Professional” staff as they are our frontline workers and have consistently gone above and beyond in their work for the wellbeing of those they care for.

As part of my series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID19 Pandemic, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tony Thomas.

Tony has dedicated his career to helping individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDD) reach their maximum potential and enjoy a balanced, richer life. As Executive Director of Welcome House he has created a model residential and supported living program that promotes independence and community connections. He directs a staff of over 400 and the operations of 48 residential homes and care of 220 individuals (clients).

To serve the aging population with IDD Tony established The Michael T. George Center for Community Living and The Welcome House Community Center, a comprehensive day activity programs for adults with IDD. Recently he initiated Life Planning Conferences for families and caregivers to educate them on best practices for future planning.

Additionally, Tony is active in the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals (NADSP), a leading national advocacy group that he helped establish and he is president and founding member of the Ohio Alliance for Direct Support Professionals (OASDSP). He has assisted in developing the first statewide credentialing and certification program in Ohio for direct support professionals.

Prior to joining Welcome House, Tony served as the director, community services and residential facilities at the Jewish Family Service Association of Cleveland (JFSA) for twelve years. Earlier he served as a social work supervisor at the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities and case manager for the Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities. He earned a Master of Science in social administration from Case Western Reserve University and a Bachelor of Science in social welfare from Ohio State University.

Welcome House is a “hero” organization as they not only provide needed care and resources for adults with disabilities, but quality of life for an often overlooked population.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how and where you grew up?

I grew up in Columbus, Ohio and attended Ohio State University receiving a bachelor’s degree in Social Work. I decided after graduation to work with persons with Developmental Disabilities as I had a very personal experience in college working at a school for children with very significant physical disabilities. That experience made a lasting impact. I decided to work for the Department of Developmental Disabilities after college. I began my career in Youngstown, Ohio in 1979 and then relocated to Cleveland, Ohio in 1980. Cleveland has been my chosen home ever since.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

The book that made a recent impact in my life was directly related to the killing of George Floyd. It was the book by Henry Louis Gates called Stony The Road. It is a book about the Reconstruction era directly after our Civil War. It is a tremendous collection of stories and actual writings of freed slaves. I had to read it to put some perspective on the tragedy that we all witnessed in the passing of George Floyd and the senseless brutality that it represented.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

I grew up in an Italian family and the matriarch of that family was my grandmother, Adelina Thomas. She was an immigrant like my grandfather. They met in Columbus, Ohio and married at age 18. My grandmother used to tell me, over and over again, that your life depends on a good foundation. I used to think she was talking about my big feet but she was talking about the importance of family and what that means for you growing up and how you carry that forward with you for the rest of your life.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization that has stepped up during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?

Yes, this has been the most unique time for me leading a social impact organization. Welcome House is a residential community for adults with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDD), based in Cleveland, Ohio. We provide residential services, physical and mental health services and help our clients develop skills to support full and independent lives. I have been at Welcome House for 21 years and cannot remember of time of this magnitude or a time when it is more essential for me to be an engaged leader. We’ve had to make many changes to the ways our clients live their day-to-day lives in order to protect them from this virus, including halting their work programs, cancelling social gatherings, and more in order to decrease the chances that they could contract COVID. Persons with disabilities are much more susceptible to the harsher aspects of this terrible virus. So, to answer your question succinctly, our sole focus in the pandemic has been the health and safety of our clients. We support 220 persons with IDD and many of them have significant health issues that would put them at serious risk of death if they were to contract COVID.

In your opinion, what does it mean to be a hero?

I see heroes every day at this agency. They are the frontline staff who work tirelessly day in and day out, putting the needs of vulnerable populations before their own. They come in every day, and work and work on overtime and in overdrive to protect the people we support. That is what it means to be a hero to me.

In your opinion or experience, what are “5 characteristics of a hero? Please share a story or example for each.

Selfless thinking, empathy, quick to react, concerned about other first, dedicated to your client and to your organization. Recently we had a staff person who leads a small home of persons we support display all of these qualities. When two of the guys she supported were diagnosed with COVID, she did not shrink from her work, rather she expanded her energy and made the house safer and got the gentlemen the care that they needed. It was selfless, it was empathic, she was quick to react, and she was concerned about others first, and she was totally dedicated to her clients. And she went “above and beyond” in her work style.

If heroism is rooted in doing something difficult, scary, or even self-sacrificing, what do you think drives some people — ordinary people — to become heroes?

I think what makes ordinary people become heroes is a deep feeling of connectivity to others. If you have a good “foundation” you can appreciate others on so many levels. (Thank you Grandma Thomas)

What was the specific catalyst for you or your organization to take heroic action? At what point did you personally decide that heroic action needed to be taken?

When a dear friend of mine passed away in late March from COVID, it was time for me to take action and take a different approach. She was a former colleague of mine who became a close friend and was one of the early persons in this county to pass away from COVID. Up to that point, I was thinking that COVID would be with us for a few months and then disappear. I realized then that it was here to stay, that is was deadly, and that I needed to take more decisive action to protect our clients and staff.

Who are your heroes, or who do you see as heroes today?

To me our clients are the heroes as they have been sitting at home and not able to do all the things that bring them joy, like see friends and family or go back to work. And through it all they keep positive attitudes and continue to make us all smile with their perseverance. The other heroes at this agency are our “Direct Support Professional” staff as they are our frontline workers and have consistently gone above and beyond in their work for the wellbeing of those they care for.

Let’s talk a bit about what is happening in the world today. What specifically frightened or frightens you most about the pandemic?

There are two things that frighten me the most; first, that we do not have a cure and this virus spreads like a California wildfire, and second, that people are still not taking the virus seriously, which puts vulnerable populations (like the clients we serve) even more at risk.

Despite that, what gives you hope for the future? Can you explain?

Hope for the future comes in many forms, but I get more excited when I see more people wearing masks in public and think this behavior needs to stay in place for a long time. If you think about it, we are only inconvenienced for a few short months or maybe a year out of an entire lifetime of living. Is that really too much to ask to help save and protect the lives of others around you?

What has inspired you the most about the behavior of people during the pandemic, and what behaviors do you find most disappointing?

I find the behavior of having large parties with no masks or social distancing as the most troubling behavior in this pandemic. I feel inspired when I get photos from our DSP staff who are taking all the right precautions with our clients to keep them safe while also helping keep life as “normal” as possible with walks in the park or other safe outdoor activities.

Has this crisis caused you to reassess your view of the world or of society? We would love to hear what you mean.

I think my entire world view has changed on how I can help create better health with our staff and clients. We are about to announce a new flu shot policy to help our staff get more engaged with protecting their own health and the health of those around them, which is a new concept in healthy thinking…”I’ll get a flu shot (or COVID vaccine) to protect myself and also help reduce the risk for those around me”.

What permanent societal changes would you like to see come out of this crisis?

Mask wearing, mask wearing, mask wearing…in general having our society prioritize behaviors that help protect others.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Please, please start your day thinking of how you can help others and brighten someone’s day. This pandemic has caused so much “despair thinking” that I think younger persons need to change their thought patterns to start with things like “what is good in the world?” and “how can I help?”

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

When flu season starts: get flu vaccine, wear a mask, wash your hands……. I guess you would call this the FLU MOVEMENT…..taking our health and the health of others more seriously.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Chief Justice John Roberts, as I find him the most interesting person right now in our country. He is not political but his recent rulings make me think he has a keen sense of where this country needs to go to heal itself.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can learn more about Welcome House on our website, and keep up with the activities of our clients on social media.


Instagram: @welcomehouseinc

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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