When the movie Rain Man premiered in 1988, Dustin Hoffman won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Raymond, a character described as “an autistic-savant.” Rain Man became the highest grossing film of the year, and it garnered three more Oscars, including Best Picture.
Sandra Reese remembers seeing Rain Man when it came out. Like most people at the time, she was not very familiar with autism spectrum disorder. But the subject intrigued her, particularly because she had recently been hired to work with people with disabilities at the Cerebral Palsy Center—now known as the Frazer Center.
Sandra has been with Frazer longer than any other current staff members. A lot has changed during her 36-year tenure, but Sandra’s love for the adults she works with remains constant. “I have a connection with them. They’re what keeps me coming back,” she says.
Sandra’s penchant for helping people started early. She grew up in Oakhurst and went to Decatur High School. She spent a lot of her free time with the elders in her community, helping them with errands, cleaning, washing and braiding their hair, whatever they needed.
After graduating from high school, Sandra took a summer internship with the Oakhurst Boys & Girls Club, then studied to become a Certified Nursing Assistant. She returned to a full-time position with the Boys & Girls Club and stayed for a couple of years before searching for something new. That’s when she saw an ad for a position at the Cerebral Palsy Center.
“I was welcomed with open arms. The staff was very friendly,” says Sandra. One perk of the job was being able to enroll her son and daughter into the Child Development Program. Her niece with cerebral palsy also attended as a child.
When Sandra first started at Frazer, there were only about 15 adults with disabilities coming to the Center. Over the years, Frazer’s Adult Program has expanded to serve about 60-80 adults.
The job of Direct Support Professional (DSP) has expanded too. DSP trainings and expectations were not nearly as stringent as they are today. The documentation required by the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD) for each adult receiving support services has grown exponentially. DSPs now need to have administrative skills in addition to the soft skills required to provide effective, compassionate support.
Sandra continues to evolve along with the profession. “Her longevity in the field sets her apart,” says Unondus Walker, Director of Frazer’s Adult Services. “Sandra’s dedication is unparalleled, and her commitment to providing exceptional care and support to individuals with developmental disabilities is unwavering. Over her 36 years, she has grown with the participants and become a cherished part of their extended family.”
Sarah Greenlaw is one of those extended family members. She was attending Frazer when Sandra was hired. Today, they enjoy one-on-one time in the community. “We talk,” says Sarah, “and sometimes she makes me laugh.” Sarah has a goal of reading more library books, so Sandra is working to get her a library card and make sure Sarah understands the responsibilities that come with it.
Sandra fosters a family atmosphere with her co-workers as well. “She plays a crucial role in molding the newer generation of DSPs,” says Unondus. “Sandra willingly shares her knowledge and expertise with enthusiasm and patience, nurturing a culture of learning and growth among her colleagues.”
That nurturing may be one of Sandra’s most valuable contributions at Frazer. According to the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities, the state has been in a DSP workforce crisis since before the pandemic. There is a 45% annual turnover rate among DSPs, and demand for services is only growing as the life expectancy of people with disabilities continues to rise.*
Although Frazer Center pays a wage that is above the state and national average for DSPs, we are not immune to the hiring crisis. Sandra says the benefits that Frazer provides are a big help—lots of paid time off, health insurance, and guaranteed regular hours, among other benefits. But it’s the familial environment that really keeps her coming back.
Sandra credits Unondus Walker with setting that tone. “She listens to you, she has your back, she helps out. She has sympathy. We laugh a lot. I can praise Unondus to the high!”
Shining the spotlight on others is something that Sandra does well. She’d rather the focus be on her colleagues—or even more so, on the adult participants. They are the ones who keep her motivated and centered in her purpose.
Things have changed a lot since Rain Man premiered. Although some argue that Hoffman’s portrayal is problematic, the movie did a lot to spread awareness about autism spectrum disorder.
In her own corner of the world, Sandra Reese has done a lot to spread awareness about people with developmental disabilities and to shatter the stigmatic stereotypes that were prevalent for so long.
Sandra’s work is essential to Frazer’s mission of fostering more inclusive communities. We are so grateful that she said YES to the Frazer family, and we celebrate her 36 years of dedication!
*Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities: EXPERT UPDATE - The Direct Support Professional Workforce Crisis