Pony Bird


Desiree Greenwood

Her work as a Direct Support Professional and now as a Medication Assistant at Pony Bird provides an ideal training ground for someone working toward a degree in nursing, but Desiree Greenwood says it’s the individuals she gets to care for who are her real motivation.

“You can see it in their faces,” Desiree says. “They truly love the people who take care of them. They light up when you come into the room.”

A student at Chamberlain School of Nursing, Desiree has been caring for individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities at Pony Bird for four years. She started as a DSP before receiving her certification as a MA1. Previously she had worked as an aide in nursing homes.

“The people we take care of here are not sick or unhealthy. They have disabilities and rely on us for living their daily lives. You can see how much it means to them. The work we do for the individuals makes their whole lives better,” Desiree says. “You can see it in the way they smile.”

In addition to the certification training she received to become an MA1, Desiree says she also received guidance from others who work along side her.

“I was lucky to be trained by one of the best nurses ever here,” she says. “She was so thorough. When I got out onto the floor I was confident.”

The other learning curve at Pony Bird is getting to know the residents individually. That comes from spending time together just like any other friendship.

“There’s no training for that. You just have to be yourself and let them get to know you while they let you get to know them and become a part of their lives,” Desiree says. “Like anyone else you have to build that relationship, allow them to open up to you and share yourself with them. You become invested in their lives.”

Getting to know individuals with disabilities has allowed her to grow personally, she says.

“I’m a lot more open minded. When I’m out in public, and I see people who have disabilities, I recognize them as people,” Desiree says. “I can see it in my 4-year-old daughter. It has opened her up to a lot of understanding to the needs of others. I’m so glad I have been able to introduce her to the people here. I think that’s the same for many families here.”

Spreading that message to the community also helps everyone involved.

“People sometimes make judgments for no reason at all. The individuals at Pony Bird are loving people with disabilities,” she says. “They are just like everyone else. They have feelings and emotions. They mature in their own ways. No two people go from teenager to adult in the same way. They are no different. People judge them because they don’t know them.”

Working with people who need care and assistance with their physical well-being is an advantage for a nursing school student.

“I get a lot of experience with the medical terminology, and all the hands-on training helps,” Desiree says. “I have been able to familiarize myself with medications and their possible interactions. I have learned different styles of feeding and how to recognize when someone isn’t feeling well.”

The idea of a future in caring for others began with career classes she took when she was in high school.

“The more I learned about nursing, it just kind of fit for me. I like taking care of people,” she says.

The role of DSP allows the direct care staff to provide much more than just daily care for people who need assistance.

“It’s beyond what you know. It’s not just the physical tasks. You find a friend you can get to know personally,” Desiree says. “This is not just a job. It’s about getting to know people. It’s about community.”

Pony Bird offers a variety of full- and part-time positions including entry-level Direct Support Professional positions with the opportunity for advancement and on-the-job training. For information about all career options visit ponybird.org or call Human Resources at 636-931-5818.

Elizabeth Huber

If Elizabeth Huber had one of those novelty sweatshirts with all her kids’ names on it, she would have run out of space long ago. But when she starts talking about “Brian, and Laura, Bobby and William, Jennifer, Jessica, Laura, and Ron” she sounds like a proud parent.

“I love my job,” she exclaims. “I take care of the individuals – feeding, bathing, changing, making beds, laundry, playing, engaging – whatever they need.”

In addition to the love she gets from the individuals, Elizabeth says she also feels the support of their real families. They often go out of their way to help her or engage her in conversation about how their children or siblings are doing.

She has worked as a Direct Support Professional for 15 years. She began at the home in Mapaville, but in October 2005, when the Drury Home opened in De Soto, she moved there with several residents.

“I’m originally from De Soto. I had seen an ad in the Leader paper. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I walked in the door that first day,” Elizabeth says. “I worked in a nursing home since I was 16, but right from the beginning I knew Pony Bird was totally different.”

Over the years the individuals who live at the Drury Home have made it their own with room decorations that match their individual personalities. There are trains, fire trucks, Disney, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, safari, and Bob Marley adorning the walls.

“It does feel like a home,” she says. “I don’t call it work. When we go on an outing and it’s time to go back, I say, ‘we are going home’.”

Elizabeth is also proud of an employee of the month designation she received that ended up in the newspaper and on a billboard.

“It’s the little things. One of the individuals who usually doesn’t communicate verbally is growing to become talkative. Once you get that smile on their face or a giggle, that does it for you,” Elizabeth said. “We make each other laugh. Laughter is good medicine.”

With the coronavirus pandemic keeping everyone in for the past year, the opportunity to get out again has produced a lot of smiles. The recent summer camp experience included fishing, swimming, s’mores, and zip-lining.

“I had to go first on the zipline, so that I could be at the next stop when one of the individuals came down. That look on his face was priceless,” Elizabeth said.

Getting to return to public outings is an important part of the role for direct support professionals and the individuals, because it helps them to be part of the community.

“Sometimes when we are out with the individuals, people stare, but we always try to engage them. I say, ‘If you have any questions, don’t be afraid to ask.’ They are just like you and me, with different personalities, wants, and needs.”

She has served as a preceptor welcoming new coworkers and helping them get to know the individuals and their personalities. Just as she had good role models when she started at Pony Bird, she tries to set a good example.

“I always have to be busy. I feel like I’m still learning too. When a new individual joins us, I always say, ‘I hope you stay a long time.’”

That’s the plan Elizabeth says she has for herself.

“I found the right place for me. I’ll be here until I retire sometime in the next 60 years.”

Pony Bird offers a variety of full- and part-time positions including entry-level Direct Support Professional positions with the opportunity for advancement and on-the-job training. For information about all career options visit ponybird.org or call Human Resources at 636-931-5818.

Cindy Briggs

For nearly 10 years Cindy Briggs has found a home at Pony Bird. Even though it was the career she was looking for, she didn’t immediately realize it when she applied for the job as a Direct Support Professional providing daily care to individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities.

“At that point in time I was just looking for a job, and the opportunity fell into my lap,” Cindy said. “I have always been drawn to people with special needs.”

She has a family member with spina bifida and worked in the past with the De Soto School District providing services to the children who needed extra assistance. The love she receives in return from Pony Bird residents is the real reward of the job, she said.

“The individuals love you unconditionally. They accept you for who you are with no judgment,” Cindy said. “When I come into work, and they hear my voice, they greet me with joy. They are just so happy.”

Cindy currently serves as the assistant supervisor at Pony Bird in De Soto. She moved up the career ladder from DSP to Medication Assistant before she was given the opportunity to apply for the supervisory position.

“I have had a lot of good role models who have worked with me,” Cindy said. “I am able to use my own abilities and learn from how others do their job. Then I compare it to what I am doing and adjust my approach to make sure we are always doing what is best for the individuals.”

She compared working at Pony Bird to the caregiver opportunities at nursing homes but said the differences in the roles are easily identified.

“We work hard, but we have fewer people to care for, so they get much better care. The DSPs, MAs, and supervisors care for the residents individually,” Cindy said. “They all have unique personalities, and the staff gets to know them for who they are as individuals.”

Her approach to providing care is based on a simple model, she said. “It’s all about letting them know they are loved and returning the love they give.”

Her plan works for everyone. She said that even if she has a bad day, feels tired, or has other personal concerns, when she arrives for a shift and hears the greetings from the residents, she finds herself in a happy place.

“It’s like, OK I’m home,” Cindy said. “Pony Bird is an excellent place. The staff cares about the individuals and treats them like we are all part of one big family.”

Pony Bird offers a variety of full- and part-time positions including entry-level Direct Support Professional positions with the opportunity for advancement and on-the-job training. For information about all career options visit ponybird.org or call Human Resources at 636-931-5818.

Tanya Byerley

With 30 years of service to the individuals at Pony Bird Home, Tanya Byerley said she is not quite ready to retire, but when that day comes she knows she will feel good about the career she made in service to others.

Tanya is the evening supervisor at Pony Bird in Mapaville. She has been caring for residents with intellectual and physical disabilities for 26 consecutive years. She took seven years off until her children reached school age and had worked there for four years prior to that short sabbatical.

“I fell in love with the individuals,” Tanya said. “I love caring for them and assisting them with their daily lives, setting goals and then celebrating when they achieve them. It can be as simple as picking up a spoon or saying a word.”

Tanya started her career as a Direct Support Professional and has also served as an assistant to the therapists, medication aide and charge, before taking on the supervisor role, which calls on the skills of all of her previous roles. “I make sure my charges know that I’m available to help in any way,” Tanya said.

Learning to communicate with the individuals is a key to success for everyone involved. Because they are all unique, they can have different ways of letting you know what they want to say.

“I tell everyone who comes in for a tour or visit, ‘you are coming into their home.’ We have to learn to speak their language,” Tanya said. “They may communicate with their eyes, blink, facial expressions, or stick their tongue out for yes or no. Some use hand gestures or will point to a picture.”

Every night is different even though the evenings follow a familiar routine. She is always available to help a charge or DSP in bathing, dressing, or assisting with an individual when they are not feeling well.

“There are still some surprises even after 26 years. We have new individuals move in and you must learn their styles. Even the long-term residents continue to grow and change through the years,” Tanya said. “It’s not our job to do for them. We are there to assist them. You let them do it.”

Pony Bird staff members frequently refer to the individuals and their coworkers as family, and Tanya said those relationships carried over to her family at home.

“One resident loved my husband. She knew the sound of his truck when he would come to visit. He would say he didn’t stop by to see me; he came by to say hi to her,” Tanya said. “My kids grew up with Pony Bird. If they were here for an outing, they were all part of the family too.”

Working together and communicating between staff members is an important part of providing the best possible care.

“I am learning all the time,” Tanya said. “We come up with new ideas and make sure to share when something changes.”

Her motivation is simple, she said. Treating others the way you would want to be treated in the same situation.

“I pray to God that if I am ever in need of assistance, I want someone to take care of me with the same level of concern,” Tanya said. “People need to put themselves in their shoes and realize, it could be you.”

“They are like you. They may need a wheelchair, or they can’t speak. They really are no different, they just need more assistance. I love taking care of the individuals.”

Pony Bird offers a variety of full- and part-time positions including entry-level Direct Support Professional positions with the opportunity for advancement and on-the-job training. For information about all career options visit ponybird.org or call Human Resources at 636-931-5818.

Mackenzie Naeger

Mackenzie Naeger went to college to be a special education teacher. Now she is using her experience from those years along with her time working as a Direct Support Professional (DSP) at Pony Bird to introduce new people to caring for individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities.

“I started out as a DSP caring for individuals in all the homes,” Mackenzie said. Now she serves the organization and its six residences as the staff recruiter and trainer. “I get to teach, inspire, and advocate for the individuals who live at Pony Bird.”

In addition to instructing new employees about policies and procedures, she also gets to introduce them to the uniqueness of everyone they will serve.

“The individuals are just like us. I tell staff to put themselves in the individual’s shoes. It gives you a new perspective, making sure the individuals get the care they deserve,” Mackenzie said. “I always explain to staff that we all have things we can’t do or that we want to be able to do. You have to know them for who they are. They’re smart, kind and loving.”

Reaching out to schools and attending job fairs are part of the recruitment work that she does, along with posting advertisements in the local newspapers and reviewing all applications. She sets up job interviews for the best candidates to meet their potential coworkers and learn about the homes where they may be working.

“It’s not an easy job. You have to assist the individuals with everything they do, in every way shape and form, but it is so rewarding at the end of the day when you know you have made a difference in someone’s life,” Mackenzie said. “I tell people in the interview that you have to have the will to offer compassion, to get beyond yourself.”

Caring for others requires more than just personal effort, and support for that is provided from team members on all levels.

“It’s about teamwork and helping each other out,” Mackenzie said. “When I was a DSP the training was exceptional. I know that the supervisors and administrators have my back 100%. When I suggest new ideas, they are supportive, and they give me ideas to help me grow.”

Prior to coming to Pony Bird, Mackenzie worked in a nursing home. While some believe that Pony Bird is like a nursing home, it is not. Pony Bird’s emphasis on supporting a person’s physical health empowers every individual to be a part of their community – to get out of the homes and volunteer, or swim, or go to camp, or spend time with their friends beyond the walls of the homes. Pony Bird is about inclusion, choice, opportunity, and making sure every person is able to live the life they want to live.

“The big difference is the integrity of the care we are able to give to each individual. Everything we do is well above the standard of care every day,” Mackenzie said. “It’s more than just a job; it’s being a part of their lives.”

Inspired by the people she serves and encouraged by the work of the people around her, Mackenzie said Pony Bird provides entry level opportunities and long-term career options.

“It’s a wonderful place to work. The training is exceptional, and I can move up in the organization,” Mackenzie said. “The thing that inspires me the most is that I love advocating for the individuals. They are happy and full of compassion. I want to be able to give back to them.”

Pony Bird offers a variety of full- and part-time positions including entry-level Direct Support Professional positions with the opportunity for advancement and on-the-job training. For information about all career options visit ponybird.org or call Human Resources at 636-931-5818.

Jennifer Leusman

Jennifer Leusman started her Pony Bird career as a Direct Support Professional, which led to her current position as the clinical nurse at the Mapaville location. She completed her nursing degree from Mineral Area College while she learned on the job providing services for individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities.

“I have always wanted to take care of people,” Jennifer said. “When you build a connection, you become like family. It’s not only about their specialized needs. They are people who deserve the best care they can get.”

That on-the-job service allowed Jennifer to apply what she was learning in school and better understand the concepts while she was in the classroom.

“It really helps you make the connections to see the explanations in a real-life situation,” Jennifer said. “What you learn can be adapted to the whole person.”

Jennifer was working at a group home for individuals with disabilities in St. Francois County when she saw an online ad about the DSP opportunity at Pony Bird. She knew about the organization’s great reputation for providing care and wanted to be a part of that team.

“When I came to Pony Bird, I was a little scared. The individuals communicate differently. You just have to learn to understand what they are saying to you,” Jennifer said. “When you see how much everyone cares for the individuals, you want to strive to be a part of that level of care.”

Her experience providing daily direct support to the individuals helps Jennifer appreciate all the work the staff does.

“I couldn’t do my job without the DSPs and charges. They are with the individuals 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” she said. “They provide hands on, one-on-one attention. It’s not just a job to them; they become a part of the lives of the individuals and their families.”

Sometimes people have misconceptions about the needs and lives of the individuals Pony Bird serves.

“They understand everything around them. They laugh and love life like everyone else. They have sad days and good days,” she said. “They are not just people who need wheelchairs.”

Pony Bird has locations in De Soto and Mapaville and provides services for individuals in their personal homes. This nurse highly recommends Pony Bird as a place for a job or a career.

“It’s is a wonderful place to work,” Jennifer said. “It’s like going home to see your family every day rather than going to work.”

Opportunities are available for entry-level Direct Support Professional positions or for nurses with experience. As Jennifer Leusman proves, one can lead to the other with Pony Bird’s expansive training opportunities and staff-centric culture.

Pony Bird offers a variety of full- and part-time positions including entry-level Direct Support Professional positions with the opportunity for advancement and on-the-job training. For information about all career options visit ponybird.org or call Human Resources at 636-931-5818.

Betty McKim

“Been there. Done that.”

For some it might be a boastful credo, but to say that Betty McKim has done it all at the Pony Bird over the past 43 years is not much of a stretch at all.

Betty has been supporting individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities since day one, and her roles have been as diverse as changing air filters on the roof top air conditioning units or bringing in minnows to swim around the feet of delighted residents.

“In the beginning we did everything: trimmed the shrubs, mowed the grass, hung laundry on a clothesline. We even made the cloth diapers and cooked the meals,” Betty said. “I was there when it first opened. It has been a part of my life. Fortunately my husband understood my passion for the people there.”

Her primary job has been helping to provide activities for the individuals who live at Pony Bird and for those area residents with special needs who come to visit for day programming.

Specialized equipment allows individuals to cook food, cut pieces, sand and paint whatever materials Betty can find. A family of eagles made out of gourds was a memorable project.

“We create the decorations for each season. In the fall we built a family of scarecrows, and a barn out of cardboard. We left it up until Christmas when we made ornaments out of pull tabs,” Betty said. “We had one individual who was a Jehovah Witness, so we created decorations that were seasonal but not religious to make sure they could participate. We made Raggedy Ann and Andy and snowmen. Making sure we know the individuals, makes us more creative.”

The individuality of the people she helps makes each day a joy.

“They all call me by my first and last name like it’s just one word – ‘BettyMcKim’,” she said. “It’s too bad people can’t see all the abilities they have. Too many people only see them for their disabilities.”

In the spring the individuals get to help work in the Girl Scout project garden on the campus.

“They get to feel the plants, the dirt, and the water. We grow lettuce, and they help to bring it in and wash it so we can eat it,” Betty said. “We make casserole from the vegetables. They have to chop them up using a food processor that works with a pressure switch to activate it. They help to wash the dishes after.”

One memorable activity involved some minnows Betty brought in from a bait shop.

“We took off their socks and shoes and had them put their feet in a pan of water so the minnows could swim around their feet. They could feel the water and the minnows,” Betty said. “I guess I was just good at making something out of nothing.”

She creates card games and dice games that allow the individuals to participate along with the staff members. With special card holders, they are able to see the cards they have and engage in conversations about how to play the game.

“We would square dance, playing music like Turkey in the Straw: circle to your right, circle to your left, do-si-do, meet in the middle. We make it up as we go along,” Betty said.

Taking the individuals into the community allows them to learn more about the world and introduces them to other people. Betty remembers taking one resident to a motorcycle shop in Festus where they started a bike to let him hear and feel the roar.

“When you are out in the community, you might see a mom with a little kid staring at the individual,” Betty said. “I say ‘Hi. What’s your name? This is my friend. She likes fingernail polish and music.’ They may stare, but they can be engaged. ‘See her chair. This is how she gets around. She can control it by pushing this button.’ I feel in my heart we have made a tremendous impact on the individuals and the community.”

While her total focus for the past 43 years have been on the people at Pony Bird and everyone they encounter, Betty readily admits that she has received more than her share of love in return.

“The rewards are unbelievable. I feel so blessed to have been a part of their lives and their families,” Betty said. “All the staff, the administration, the board members, they are all really special people.”

The coronavirus has restricted her interactions, and some personal circumstances have limited her role to just one day a week on an as needed basis, but every day she gets to visit with her Pony Bird family, Betty McKim feels the same love she has known for 43 years.

Pony Bird offers a variety of full- and part-time positions including entry-level Direct Support Professional positions with the opportunity for advancement and on-the-job training. For information about all career options visit ponybird.org or call Human Resources at 636-931-5818.

Emily Espelien

When Emily Espelien returned to Pony Bird for the second time looking for a job, she not only found her career, but also her life’s calling.

“I have been interested in nursing for a while, but now my focus is on special needs nursing,” Emily said. “My children are young, but when they get a little older and I get more time, I plan to get my nursing degree and stay at Pony Bird.”

Ten years ago, she worked as an aide at Pony Bird in Mapaville. Her family moved to Arizona where she took a job in medical billing for a hospital emergency room. Five years ago, they returned to the area, and she was looking for something more fulfilling.

“I knew medical billing wasn’t for me. I knew I wanted to return to Pony Bird,” Emily said. “It is really important to me to be in service of others. To get beyond myself gives my life purpose.”

Dealing with billing paperwork, medical records, and insurance claims did not provide opportunities to directly help others.

“I want to provide the hands-on support that makes someone’s life better,” Emily said. “Pony Bird brings out the best of humanity in people.”

When Emily returned to the area she was hired as a Direct Support Professional. Within a year she was ready to begin testing for certification to become a medication assistant. She now serves as an MA1 charge. All the training for her climb up the career ladder was provided by Pony Bird and with her coworkers.

“All positions have preceptors, where someone who is already in the job is there with you to help and answer questions,” Emily said. “You can always pick-up new ideas. Especially when you can work in every home. The co-workers at each home provide an insider guidebook. They’ll say, ‘Hey look what I figured out the other day.’ I love the spirit of all the people I work with.”

Emily’s rise through the ranks is not uncommon.

“So many of the managers and administrators here have been promoted. They have done the work, and they know how much staff members are investing in their jobs,” Emily said. “I’ve had administrators pull me aside to give me a compliment or encouragement; that’s so much better than a pizza party.”

“Surprise meals are common in the healthcare business”, she said. “The meals are appreciated. The encouragement and my co-workers are also really great”, but she said, “it’s really the individuals who live at Pony Bird who mean the most.

They have so much to offer. We should not be measured by what we are able to do. We should measure people by what they can give to others. Once you get to know them, they pour so much love into your heart,” Emily said. “The individuals all become like personal friends. I feel like I’m a member of this club with the ability to communicate with people who don’t always use words.”

The Direct Support Professional role is an entry level position at Pony Bird with on-the-job training that can lead to additional opportunities or become perfect fits for compassionate people who want to provide special needs care.

“There is a stigma that direct support work is not skilled work, but this is not just any entry-level job,” Emily said. “As a DSP you wear so many hats, working with so many different individuals so you have to be knowledgeable and adaptable.”

Part of that adaptation seems to come naturally for the people who work at Pony Bird.

“This work attracts compassionate people. We all communicate with each other. On good days or bad days, we have real connections,” Emily said.

People, just like Emily, have found their life’s work, their mission at Pony Bird.

Pony Bird offers a variety of full- and part-time positions including entry-level Direct Support Professional positions with the opportunity for advancement and on-the-job training. For information about all career options visit ponybird.org or call Human Resources at 636-931-5818.

Devin Darbonne

Devin Darbonne was working at Pony Bird in 2011 when he got the opportunity to work with his father in Louisiana. He was doing electrical work, welding, and drilling in the oil fields, but something was missing in the experience.

He came home to Jefferson County in 2014 and reunited with his friends and family at Pony Bird. He returned to his job as a care aide, which is now known as a Direct Support Professional, providing services for individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities.

“When you walk into work and get greeted by those smiles, you really feel good about yourself,” Devin said. “It’s the greatest feeling to know how much they look up to you. I feel like I’m just here taking care of my friends.”

On-the-job training is provided by the senior staff, so now with seven-plus years under his belt, Devin shares his knowledge with others the same way he learned his skills for providing the best possible care. “These guys become part of your family,” Devin said.

Most of his working experience has come on the overnight shift. Devin said he enjoys the relaxed nature of the nighttime rounds, but he really likes being there in the morning to help the individuals get their days started with a positive experience.

“It can be a little hectic in the mornings, but we make sure everyone is ready to face the day,” Devin said.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, and hopefully again soon, outings were opportunities for individuals from Pony Bird to get out and enjoy the community. Visiting parks, attending baseball games and other activities allow residents to be engaged and included.

“They want to be a part of the world and see what everyone sees,” Devin said. “There are things they need help doing, so they count on us to help them.”

Any misunderstandings about the individuals and their capabilities can be overcome with a little insight. The same goes for the role of direct support professional.

“I would like for people to come out and see what happens at Pony Bird every day. If they would just tour the place and see what we do; if they could just see the world through the eyes of these individuals, they might see things differently.” Devin said. “These are my friends. We are all a family at Pony Bird.”

Pony Bird offers a variety of full- and part-time positions including entry-level Direct Support Professional positions with the opportunity for advancement and on-the-job training. For information about all career options visit ponybird.org or call Human Resources at 636-931-5818.

Melissa Podorski

Melissa Podorski knew about Pony Bird but had never visited until her brother was required to earn volunteer service hours as part of the A-plus scholarship program. He invited her to meet some of the people he worked with.

“I fell in love with the individuals immediately,” Melissa said. “They have always brought a smile to my face.”

When she finished high school in 2004, she joined the Pony Bird team providing supports and services for individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities. She was hired as a Direct Support Professional and soon earned her certification as a Medication Assistant. She has worked as a charge on the day shift, midnights and served as an evening Recreation Coordinator.

“I fell in love with taking care of people. I like getting them to exceed the expectations they have of themselves,” Melissa said. “We take pride in the care that we give them.”

She has worked at Pony Bird since graduating from high school, except for a six-month stint she spent in another organization. That experience heightened her awareness of the elements that set Pony Bird apart.

“I missed the individuals and the care we could give them. I felt I didn’t have the time to care for people the way I wanted to at the other place. At Pony Bird, I can spend the time the individual needs,” Melissa said. “Sometimes we will get new people who come to Pony Bird from other facilities, and they may have bed sores. That doesn’t happen at Pony Bird.”

The on-the-job mentoring that allowed her to move up from DSP, to recreation coordinator and medication aide, also differentiates Pony Bird from other organizations.

“The training here is very hands-on. It’s not just book learning,” Melissa said. “The requirements for most CNAs (certified nurse assistants) is what you can learn by the book, but at Pony Bird it is customized to each individual.”

“The care provided has to be specific,” she said, “because every person that Pony Bird cares for is an individual first and foremost. Maybe they have a particular type of cup that works best for them. One may like a certain song, and another does best with a quiet atmosphere,” Melissa said. “You build relationships with each of the people you care for.”

Melissa described herself as the quiet type when she first started working at Pony Bird, but she has seen personal growth of her own in making sure others needs are met.

“At one time people would have said, ‘she never says anything.’ Now they know who I am. Even though I work midnight shift, they recognize me,” Melissa said. “I’ve become a committed advocate for the individuals. It comes with the territory. Every person we serve deserves to have someone advocating for them.”

She has seen how the individuals at Pony Bird also affect the lives of people in the community. Melissa recalls taking a one of the individuals to see her favorite country artist in concert at the Family Arena in St. Charles.

“A married couple sat in the seats next to us, and she struck up a conversation with them. She talked to them the whole show, except for when they were all singing along,” Melissa said. “I’m sure it wasn’t what they expected when they went to the concert, but by the end, it was like she was part of their family. She is very social.”

Melissa sees Pony Bird as an extension of her family. Melissa says she will always be working to improve her skills and she feels confident she can with Pony Bird’s support.

“The leadership team is always encouraging you to get better and constantly bragging about the work you do. Once, they brought in a new individual and the program manager introduced me, saying ‘she’s going to take great care of your daughter’,” Melissa said. “Even if they see you out in the community, they ask about how you’re doing; they ask about your family. They really care about you.”

In addition to the consistent training, Pony Bird continues to add new technology and equipment for the benefit of the individuals and the staff.

“When I first started, we didn’t have a lift system. Now there is one in every room. The lift systems help us move individuals who are not able to move themselves. It keeps us and the individuals safe” she said. “There are just so many things that inspire me at work every day.”

Pony Bird offers a variety of full- and part-time positions including entry-level Direct Support Professional positions with the opportunity for advancement and on-the-job training. For information about all career options visit ponybird.org or call Human Resources at 636-931-5818.

Jackie Wiles

With almost 20 years of working in skilled nursing facilities as a certified nurses aide, Jackie Wiles was ready to move on from her CNA career. Now serving Pony Bird as the Independent Support Living House Supervisor at a personal residence, she doesn’t want to do anything else.

“Before I came to Pony Bird I said I wouldn’t do aide work again. Now I’m planning to do it until retirement,” Jackie said.

Most of the individuals served by Pony Bird live in homes at Mapaville and De Soto, and when Jackie joined the team as a Direct Support Professional in 2016, she was working at the original location in Mapaville. In August 2019, she took an assignment at a home for three brothers with cerebral palsy who live together. When the supervisor position at the ISL became available in June 2020, she took on the extra responsibilities.

“The individuals we work with are so amazing. You could be having the worst day and then their smiles and giggles just turn your day around,” Jackie said.

Along with a team of highly qualified staff, the twin brothers in their 30s, and their younger brother, get around-the-clock assistance with their daily needs, meal preparation and activities in the community, seven days a week.

“They really are capable of so much more than people give them credit for. They face some challenges, but they work daily to be as independent as possible,” Jackie said.

The brothers enjoy attending outings in the community. During the coronavirus pandemic, they have been restricted to physician appointments and other essential trips, but the brothers and their caregivers are anxious for the days when they can get out to visit the community again.

“We have started a bucket list of things we want to do once this thing passes, and we can get out safely,” Jackie said. A return to the St. Louis Zoo and the new aquarium is high on that list.

Jackie came to Pony Bird on the recommendation of her sister Cathleen Hardin, who has been caring for individuals with significant intellectual and physical disabilities for more than six years.

Even though she brought years of experience from her previous jobs, Jackie said the training program taught her much about direct care and the unique needs of individuals served by Pony Bird.

“They are very thorough with the training. Now I am doing training for new hires, and we make sure every staff member feels comfortable with their tasks. All new employees also have the option for additional training. We want them to feel confident and willing to ask for more information,” Jackie said.

Concern for the staff is a key concept for the leadership team and sets Pony Bird apart from other places she has worked.

“The administration really goes above and beyond in showing they appreciate what you do,” Jackie said. “They are always finding new ways to show gratitude and making sure the individuals are getting the care they deserve. They never let quality care go unnoticed.”

With experience at other facilities, on day shifts, midnights, in the residential homes, and now in independent support, Jackie can make qualified comparisons. “Anyone who is looking for a job in a great place, doing work that is very rewarding, I highly recommend Pony Bird.”

Pony Bird offers a variety of full- and part-time positions including entry-level Direct Support Professional positions with opportunity for advancement and on-the-job training. For information on all career options visit ponybird.org or call Human Resources at 636-931-5818.

Nick Keating

A love of music led Nick Keating to college hoping the fulfill a dream of teaching students to enjoy it as well. When he took a job as a Direct Support Professional at Pony Bird Home, he found his true heart’s desire.

“I fell in love with it on the first day,” Nick said. “If you’ve never cared for anyone with a disability before it might seem kind of shocking at first. Once you make them smile you’re hooked.”

Nick will celebrate his two-year anniversary at Pony Bird in March. He has taken on an additional role as a preceptor for new employees, training them on the equipment, procedures and introducing them to the individuals Pony Bird serves.

“That’s the most important thing. Everyone is an individual, so you have to know them personally to be able to provide the best care possible,” Nick said. “Everyone trains in all of the buildings. Even though the procedures are the same, the individuals are all unique.”

Because of visitor restrictions, due to the coronavirus pandemic limiting outside contact with the individuals, the personal connections between staff and residents are even more important.

“We are their lives right now since they don’t get to have visitors. We have to be their families and friends,” Nick said. “The individuals do require a lot of care, one-on-one. We make sure they receive as much love as possible.”

While in high school, he worked as a restaurant cook and landscaper. Those jobs provided experience working with others and following processes, but they were redundant and unrewarding.

“I was just going through the motions. We all had our jobs to do, but they also blamed everyone else when something wasn’t right,” Nick said. “That’s not the case here. Everything is about teamwork. We all help one another to make sure the residents get everything they need.”

Beyond the personal introductions, direct support professionals learn about equipment, lift systems, CPR, wound care, diabetes treatment and monitoring, bathing, feeding and more. Working side-by-side with preceptors, they get experience and instruction on improved practices.

“A lot of people think it is just about meeting the basic needs for the individuals. That’s only a part of the job,” Nick said. “Most of the time you are assisting them to reach their programming goals, stretching them, and interacting.”

The individuals of Pony Bird face many misconceptions as they go about their lives in their homes in Mapaville and De Soto, and when they are out visiting places in the community. Clearing the air about those perceptions is part of the role as well.

“I like to say they are just like you and me,” Nick said. “Their hearts are the same as ours, but they actually are probably much more appreciative of the things that people do for them and how we make them feel.”

The blessings of his own life are the primary motivation for wanting to help the residents who face significant intellectual and physical challenges.

“I see this as my career. I have been given the opportunity to learn leadership and have the chance to move up as a Charge or Medication Assistant,” Nick said. “Regardless of the role, everyone here works with love. That’s the No. 1 priority.”

Pony Bird offers a variety of full- and part-time positions including entry-level Direct Support Professional positions with opportunity for advancement and on-the-job training. For information on all career options visit ponybird.org/employment or call Human Resources at 636-931-5818.

Pam Thurmond

(Photograph taken pre-COVID)

At work and in the community, Pam Thurmond is recognized by her giving spirit. Sometimes those interests intersect. She relies on her friends at the DeSoto Elks Lodge to provide support for Pony Bird. By facilitating a collaboration between Pony Bird and the Elks Lodge, the individuals benefit from social opportunities, and members of the community get to better understand the lives and capabilities of the people who live at Pony Bird.

“When we are out in public, I introduce them as my friends,” Pam said. “The individuals here are like us, they just have a few different challenges. They can’t take care of those challenges on their own. That’s why we’re there.”

Pam joined the Pony Bird team more than eight years ago and has worked her way up from aide and Direct Support Professional to Medication Aide and Charge. All the training along the way has been provided by Pony Bird with certification from the state of Missouri.

“A lot of the training is onsite which is great for our work schedules,” Pam said. “And I have always wanted to take care of people.”

The relationship between the staff and individuals is a big part of what brings her to work each day. “They are family. We are all family,” Pam said. “I love making them laugh and smile. We all work together.” That work changes every day, she said, depending on the resident’s abilities and outlook.

“We offer individualized programs with goals and activities specific to each person. Some might need to work on their fine motor skills, so we focus on that for them,” Pam said. “There are always things we can work on. Sometimes there are things they couldn’t do today but could do tomorrow.”

When they succeed, everyone celebrates, and when things don’t go as well, plans are adjusted. “Just like anybody else, they have good days and bad days,” Pam said. “Every day is different.”

The residents excel at adapting to challenges and that has shown in reactions to the requirements of the coronavirus epidemic and Pony Bird Home’s adherence to personal safety measures.

“It affects us all, but the residents have been so receptive. They see us all in our PPE (personal protective equipment) and they still know us by our voice, by our eyes. They pick up on who you are; you can see that in their smiles.”

When interacting with the community, Pam said, she asks people to put themselves in the place of the individuals or imagine how they would feel if their loved one needed the same level of care.

“I’ve become more aware of the needs of other people. Think about how many times a day you adjust yourself in your seat. How many times do you move each day? They need help to do that. I help them move and stretch. You have to be aware of the things around them.” Being the person who fulfills the needs of others fits Pam’s personality perfectly.

“You have to want to help people,” Pam said. “You get out of it what you put into it.”

Pony Bird offers a variety of full- and part-time positions including entry-level Direct Support Professional positions with opportunity for advancement and on-the-job training. For information on all career options visit ponybird.org/employment or call Human Resources at 636-931-5818.

Ruby Meyers

(Ruby with Marilyn pre-COVID)

After Ruby Meyers arrived in the United States from the Philippines in 2006, she was a stay-at-home mom then took a job working in a factory. By 2010 she was looking for something new and found an opportunity that fit her nature.

“I really wanted to be in the healthcare field,” Ruby said. “I came to Pony Bird with an open mind, and it didn’t take long for me to see that the residents are people who really need assistance.”

The ability to summon a nurturing approach comes easily to Ruby. She acknowledged that caring for others requires a commitment, but those who feel the calling will reap rewards.

“You have to be able to give 100 percent. Deep in your heart you must believe in taking care of people,” Ruby said.

In 1977, Pony Bird was opened as a home for children with significant intellectual and physical disabilities. Now it serves individuals of all ages.

“You have to know how to take care of people as individuals,” Ruby said. “You have to understand their medications, their diabetes treatments, their likes and dislikes; everyone is unique.”

She started at Pony Bird as a Direct Support Professional but has earned her way to a role as Medication Aide and Charge who provides medication for patients and coordinates their care as directed by nurses and doctors. The training for that promotion comes through classes and on-the-job training from the nurses in each home and with certification from the state Department of Health.

“There are supports that happen here that you don’t see other places. I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else,” Ruby said, “I know the individuals really love me and are happy to see me when I am there.”

People who only see the individuals we support from afar don’t understand all that they have to give and how much they communicate. “You may think they don’t know what’s going on. They know, and they understand. You can see it in their eyes,” Ruby said “It’s a shame when people judge them by their appearance.”

In addition to the support of medical staff, Pony Bird coworkers rely on the understanding of the leadership team.

“I really respect my supervisors and the administration. I’m not a person who needs to hear personal praise. I know I have their support based on their actions,” Ruby said. “I get along with everybody.”

Her personal journey has brought her a long way, but she said she knows she has found home at Pony Bird.

Pony Bird offers a variety of full- and part-time positions including entry-level Direct Support Professional positions with opportunity for advancement and on-the-job training. For information on all career options visit ponybird.org/employment or call Human Resources at 636-931-5818.

Ray Hartman

Ray Hartman’s Pony Bird story is not completely unique. With nearly 30 years of service to the individuals, he is not alone among long-term employees. The fact that he left once for greener pastures and returned when he found the other work not as fulfilling happens regularly too.

“I just celebrated 25 consecutive years of service, but I also worked for about three years from 1989 until 1992,” Ray said. “The other job wasn’t rewarding. The pay was good, but it was the same thing day after day. With this job I get to make memories that last for decades for me and the individuals. My brother is a writer. I tell him that I write chapters every day in people’s lives.”

Much had changed since he was first hired as a “lifter” in 1989, but the needs of people with significant intellectual and physical disabilities remain the same. The joy the residents provide to the staff at all levels continues to be Pony Bird’s calling card.

“I don’t see the individuals as any different than me and you,” Ray said. “They want to be able to help themselves, and fortunately they have me and other staff members to help them out.”

The job of lifter is gone these days, as Pony Bird is equipped with state-of-the-art mechanical lifting equipment for assisting residents with mobility. New technology allows those who use a wheelchair at all times to stand comfortably.

Now, Ray dedicates his time to direct support and community outings. He and a group of Medical Assistants and other Direct Support Professionals take residents to appointments and interactive activities.

“My job is to get them out and have fun. Even with the doctor’s appointments, we might stop and get ice cream before we head for home,” Ray said. “One time when we went to Bass Pro Shops, I noticed another customer watching us as we went through the store. After we checked out, he followed us into the parking lot. He personally thanked me for helping get the residents out into the community. I get that more and more these days.” Ray emphasizes, “Individuals with significant disabilities have as much right to be out in the community as anyone else.”

Pony Bird differs from other places he has worked because of the training provided and the support for staff through the administration and the Friends of Pony Bird organization. Friends of Pony Bird is an advocacy group that provides generous support to staff and increases awareness of Pony Bird throughout the community. “Life takes over sometimes, and the Friends of Pony Bird are there for the employees. I have seen them help others through some tough times, like personal issues and financial binds,” Ray said. “That kind of support is not available in other places.”

The facilities have also changed since Ray first showed up for work more than three decades ago when 16 individuals called Pony Bird home. With new homes in De Soto and Mapaville, the maximum capacity is 60 residents now.

“I love what I do, but it’s not a job for everyone. It can be physically demanding and mentally challenging, but that’s the case anywhere you work,” Ray said. “The bar here has been set pretty high, and we want to keep it high. The residents have a beautiful home, and they are well taken care of. It’s a wonderful place.”

Ray said he has changed too since he first joined the Pony Bird team. “If you can be 1000 times more responsible, I guess that’s what I am now,” he said. “The individuals deserve our best, and I try to give 110 percent all the time.”

Pony Bird offers a variety of full- and part-time positions including entry-level Direct Support Professional positions with opportunity for advancement and on-the-job training. For information on all career options visit ponybird.org/employment or call Human Resources at 636-931-5818.


Mel Pullen

Mel Pullen grew up in Mapaville, and even though it is a very small town in central Jefferson County, she knew little about the area’s biggest employer.

She knew that Pony Bird was a home for people with profound mental and physical limitations near the town’s main intersection of Missouri lettered highways A and Z. What she didn’t realize was the impact that the people who live there and the people who work there have on each other’s lives.

When Mel turned 18 she applied for a job, got an interview, took the tour of the buildings on the campus, met several of the residents and received an offer to start working.

“I told them, ‘I don’t think I’m mature enough for the job,’ and I know I wasn’t,” Mel said.

She took another route, working in a childcare facility. An encounter with one of the kids there changed her perspective and led her to call on Pony Bird again.

“We had a little boy in my daycare with special needs,” Mel said. “No other daycare would take him. He had a feeding tube and ear implants. We took him in and I took some MA1 (medical assistant) classes. I fell in love with him. I realized, this is my calling.”

She returned to Pony Bird as a Direct Support Professional providing assistance to the individuals and extra hands for the nurses, therapists, doctors, and other medical staff. With on-the-job training and guidance from her supervisors and co-workers, she earned her state certification and a promotion to medical assistant.

“I came in and I said, ‘I’m going to give this a try.’ Within the first week I was hooked,” she said. “Caring for people with special needs is my grail. This is a natural fit for me.”

While she said her connection to the individuals and the home feels innate, she also credits the support and instructions all coworkers receive.

“We have the best orientation and training program I have ever seen. They always offer extra training, and they make sure you are comfortable with every task,” Mel said. “It’s OK to say, ‘I just don’t feel it’s for me.’ You are going to come out with an appreciation for others who do the job.”

She also credits the pay, benefits, holidays and bonuses offered as a unique aspect of the Pony Bird experience. But for Mel and most others, it is much more than just a place to work. It’s an opportunity to be a part of a big extended family with residents and coworkers.

“Every individual has a story. They don’t just live in a home; they have fulfilled lives. There are just some things they need help doing. I’m there to help people who need assistance,” Mel said. “Even the past employees who move out of state, or if your career takes you somewhere else, you are always part of the Pony Bird Family.”

If you would like to explore available opportunities at Pony Bird visit our employment portal here.