Zakaija is holding a framed letter from the Recreation Leadership team that explains her DSP Award. She is smiling and standing next to a flower arrangement.

“I feel great and overjoyed with being chosen. I also did not expect it,” Zakaija said about being recognized by the Gateway Coalition as Community Living’s Direct Support Professional of the Year. The Recreation Department on the other hand was not surprised at all by her achievement. They nominated Zakaija for the award after seeing her provide exceptional support to participants day after day and year after year. Zakaija started her journey as a Direct Support Professional (DSP) 5 years ago, right after she graduated high school. Zakaija’s sister was working with Community Living in the day program and encouraged Zakaija to apply. She decided that Teen Club would be the best fit and has been an amazing addition to the SOAR team ever since.

The Recreation Department’s leadership team said, “Zakaija demonstrates her ability to provide exceptional service delivery in a variety of ways. When it comes to communicating with participants, Zakaija has a quiet, calm, and caring demeanor that the individuals we support really respond well to. Zakaija often uses nonverbals to communicate with individuals who are overwhelmed which is an attribute of hers that is very valued. While remaining poised, compassionate, and supportive to the participants in the SOAR Program, Zakaija is the epitome of a professional in all aspects of her role. When someone needs a little encouragement to do something independently, she is there to cheer them on. When someone needs an extra pull on a scooter to get going, she is right there to get the momentum going. When someone is having a rough day, she finds just the right way to get them involved in a preferred activity. When someone has reached a heightened state and becomes aggressive towards themself or others, Zakaija is there—calm, cool, and collected ensuring the environment is safe for all. They gravitate toward her presence, and she is frequently requested by participants as they want Zakaija to hang out with them.”

“The commitment and dedication Zakaija has to building connections with all the participants in the SOAR Program is remarkable!”

Zakaija said, “My favorite activities are when everyone’s together doing something or when we go on field trips, specifically when we go to food/drink places.” Zakaija’s interactions with participants during group outings show how much she values best practices and inclusion. The Recreational leadership team said, “Zakaija ensures that the individual(s) that she is supporting are being included in every possible way and goes above and beyond to guarantee her participants are never left out of any activity. While on field trips to the pool, Zakaija will take the time to walk up the multiple flights of stairs to get to the top of the water slides, numerous times over, without a single complaint at the request of her participant who needs support on each step. Zakaija walks up all of those steps to support the participant along the way so that they can experience the slides like any other member of the community may choose to do. While at the Zoo, Zakaija supported a participant who was in a non-motorized wheelchair. This particular participant wanted to see ALL the animals at the zoo and Zakaija was determined to make that happen. With the help of other staff, Zakaija took turns pushing the participant’s wheelchair up and down the biggest hills to make certain they were able to see all the animals. Zakaija wanted her participant to have the whole experience and worked as a team with other staff to make it happen. Zakaija is such a patient, kind person who is participant centered. She sees potential in everyone and is always looking for opportunities to get participants involved in activities.”

Zakaija also mentioned that her favorite thing about working in the SOAR program is the close relationships she’s made with not just participants, but staff too. The Leadership Team said Zakaija is a great mentor to other DSPs in the SOAR Program. “She never hesitates to offer assistance during difficult situations and will be there to support to the best of her ability. We are very thankful to have a staff member like Zakaija as she is so consistent, dependable, and flexible. Zakaija leads by example for our newer staff and role models the importance of remaining calm in difficult situations. When new hires start in the SOAR Program, they will get to shadow the more experienced staff and Zakaija is one of the DSPs that will show new hires all the essential aspects of supporting individuals with disabilities.”

“She is always willing to go with the flow and does whatever it takes to ensure that participants are living their best life at camp.”

On April 19th Zakaija was presented with the 2023 Gateway Coalition DSP Award in honor of Community Living. The event took place at the Renaissance Hotel and there were 18 agencies represented, with award winners. We are honored to recognize Zakaija as DSP of the year for the impact she has made on the SOAR Program. She provides exceptional support to participants, is dedicated to best practices, is a valued mentor and a caring friend. Community Living is so grateful to have Zakaija in our community!