In her 42-year career working as a caregiver at Hammer/Northeast Residences, Barb Matter has been a firsthand witness to change that dramatically improved lives for thousands of Minnesota citizens with developmental disabilities.
In 1981, fresh out of college armed with a social work degree, Matter began her career at Hammer as a direct support professional.
“I fell in love with the work and never left,” said Matter, now 64 and nearing retirement. “Working hands-on with people we support and their families has brought me so much joy.”
At the time Matter became part of the direct support workforce, many people with disabilities still lived in institutionalized settings.
One of the first people that Matter supported was a teenager named Mickey. He lived in a boy’s dorm when Hammer was on one campus in Wayzata. Matter was a resident counselor on Mickey’s floor and the two formed a bond; Matter stayed close to Mickey and his family in the following four decades.
“Mickey’s long relationship with Barb is priceless. She brings out a playfulness in him that he doesn’t show other people,” said Mickey’s sister Julie Wesley-Wong.
Now aged 55, Mickey was part of the first wave of people with disabilities who left institutional settings for the community. For many years he has lived in a Hammer group home with three other men.
His sister calls Mickey “a delightful man” and is proud of the opportunities he’s enjoyed. He has socialized, found peers, and participated in activities like scouting, weightlifting, and being on a bowling team.
“In the late ‘80s we got the funding and licensing to move into our group homes,” Matter said. “I was determined to make sure it was their home. The people we support are part of their community; we mow and shovel and are good neighbors.”
Matter said the goal of supporting people like Mickey is to “push their limitations” and be by their side through the course of a lifetime. “We teach skills like cooking and laundry, support them with work and their jobs so they are contributing,” she said.
In her long career, Matter was promoted from in-home caregiver to manager and is now a director. She has trained and mentored many people on the direct support staff, like Sedinu Nagbe, who now works at the group home where Mickey lives.
Nagbe and her family came to the U.S. from Liberia when she was 12 years old and began her career at Hammer when she was 21.
“I was just looking for a job, but I’ve become committed and have now done this work for 17 years,” Nagbe said. “Barb has been my boss and my colleague. She’s supportive and helped me learn. Barb has qualities I admire, the way she gets to know the individuals and the history of the people we support.”
Just like the rest of the population, many adults supported through Hammer/Northeast Residences have greater needs as they enter their senior years. According to the National Down syndrome Society, about a third of people with Down Syndrome who are in their 50s have Alzheimer’s disease.
Mickey’s family and the staff are prepared for whatever his advancing years may bring. “We’re thinking about what’s next for him, so he can age in place,” said his sister Julie.
“He’s 18 months younger than me and he’s always been my little buddy, but now we have to think about how he can age with dignity.”
In the closing years of her career, managing end-of-life care has been part of how Barb Matter has supported the people with disabilities that she works with. “Back when people were institutionalized, they didn’t live as long,” Matter said. “Now we’re with them into old age. At Hammer we’ve now supported 24 individuals through the end of life with hospice care.”
As Matter retires, she knows she will miss her work, her colleagues, and the people she’s supported “who are in my heart.” But she is proud to have been an eyewitness to the sometimes overdue but profound changes that have led to fuller lives for people with disabilities.
“We have work to do, especially to bring up the pay for our direct care work staff who give so much,” she said. “But in a little over one generation, yes, we have seen real progress.”