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Difference Makers | Rita Hager

Rita walking with Harvey

This article is included in our Fall 2021 newsletter. Click here to view the entire newsletter!

It’s a beautiful, crisp autumn morning at Battelle Darby Creek Park.

Rita Hager opens the doors of her van, and out comes Harvey, Josh, Eugene, and Calvin: The Friday Walking Group.

Rita smiles. “I love this group, and I love walking with them,” she says. The mood is exciting, and everyone is ready to get going. A pleasant breeze sweeps by as the group decides where they’d like to walk first.

The Friday Walking Group

Rita, affectionately known as “grandma” by those who know her, is bright, energetic, friendly, and talkative; she’s probably the youngest 80-year-old you’ll ever meet. Walking around the park, she says hello to passers-by and is quick to make conversation with the guys in her group.

Back in 1992, Rita left her career in quality control at General Motors and eventually retired “for good” in 2010. It didn’t take long before she realized that retirement wasn’t for her. Chuck, her son, works for Open Door and told her to come and work part-time as a Direct Support Professional (DSP). He told her, “You’ll love it, and I’m tired of seeing you on the couch!”

Rita has now been a DSP with Open Door for 11 years. She’s successful because she cares—always willing to take time to get to know everyone in her group and connect with them on a personal level.

“The real secret of Rita is the way individuals respond to her,” says Amy Yerian, Program Director of Career Activity Community at Open Door. “When she walks into a room, they start smiling and making gestures for her to come see them.”

Rita chatting with another Open Door group

Recently, one individual who does not touch or get close to anyone gave Rita a high-five. Another will vocalize at certain points and Rita will say he understands what’s going on.

During the pandemic, Rita learned to FaceTime on an iPad with an individual, Ronnie, from another provider. Their staff was not sure if the individual would respond to the iPad, but they were willing to try. When Ronnie heard Rita’s voice he began smiling and laughing. “Oh, he remembers you!” the staff said. After that, they arranged weekly calls.

Rita is always excited when she comes back from an on-the-go adventure and wants to share her experience with others. “I don’t think there is a negative bone in her body,” says Amy. “She is kind, generous, warm, comical, and is one of the truest people I have ever met.”

Others have taken notice of Rita’s excellent work: She was recently named the 2021 Caregiver of the Year by the Ohio Health Care Association.

Rita was surprised—she never thought about winning anything for just doing her job. She attributes her award to the success of her team, including the hard work of her co-workers.

Rita with her award for Caregiver of the Year

For about three years, the Friday Walking Group went to the YMCA three times a week. But they had to cut that out when the facility shut down due to COVID. Now, when the weather is nice, they take regular trips to parks like the one at Battelle Darby Creek to get their exercise.

“What do you want to do? You want to go swing?” she asks. It’s a quick ‘yes’ from the group, and off they go.

Much of the walk is spent trying to keep up with Josh, who is regularly out ahead of the pack. All the guys love to be with each other, love to be getting exercise, and most importantly, love being with Rita.

Everyone in the group has different interests. Some days she’ll ask them, “What do you want to do today?” Then after the group gives their input, they’ll take a vote and be on their way. If it’s up to Calvin, the group will probably go bowling. Eugene is known to be an easy-going guy and will happily go wherever the group wants.

Rita focuses on free or low-cost activities and is aware of the difference those small things can make. She always appreciates it when they receive a pass to a local community event, such as COSI or the Franklin Park Conservatory.

And that’s her biggest challenge: figuring out where to go and what everyone can afford. “Harvey is a history buff. If you want to know anything about presidents, or anything else, he’ll give you all the details! He loves museums. That’s the kind of stuff we need more of,” she says.

Many times, DSPs will pay out of their own pockets to cover costs for the individuals in their group that need help. A couple weeks prior, Rita found her group in a similar situation and helped an individual pay their way into a local museum.

Even with these challenges, Rita is undeterred. “I love the name, ‘Open Door.’ And the phrase ‘What door can we open for you?’ That’s what we do for each other. And trying to inspire their journey inspires me!”

Her advice for newer DSPs?

  1. Be ready to help wherever and whenever you can
  2. Support your co-workers because they’ll need you
  3. Remember that everything you do is focused on the individuals

“This will be your challenge for the day,” Rita says during the group’s next walk on Cobshell Trail as the rising sun begins to warm the air. “You can always find something in nature, right? See if you can find anything unusual.” The guys point to colorful leaves and uniquely-shaped branches. It’s an adventure, and everyone loves it.

They eventually spot another group from Open Door at the park. The groups meet up and exchange pleasantries. Rita turns to the other group and smiles. “We got our mile in, did you?” she asks.

Rita and Calvin
Cobshell Trail
Rita and Josh

Rita doesn’t plan on retiring again. “This is the greatest job I’ve had in my life,” she says. “I’m out five days a week—they’re my extended family and I love them to death.”

She tries to follow the example set by leadership at Open Door who don’t ask her to do anything that they won’t do themselves. To Rita, a leader is someone who’s always willing to pitch in and help wherever it’s needed, even if it’s not in their job description.

For lunchtime, Rita sprawls out a tablecloth and finds a picnic table where the guys can eat. It isn’t long before the scent of peanut butter sandwiches, chips, and pop lures some bees over towards the group.

Minutes later, the bees are multiplying and quickly becoming a lunchtime disruption. Rita doesn’t take this lightly. She turns to the group. “Ms. Rita will keep them away from you, okay? You just eat.”

They’re coming after the sweets. The group chats about what the bees are most interested in, and if it makes any difference to bees if foods have real sugar or artificial sweeter.

Rita has a plan. She pours a splash of a Diet Pepsi on the opposite end of the tablecloth, rolls up an old magazine, and waits.

Lunchtime

One by one, the bees become infatuated with her trap, land, and then receive their punishment. Whack, whack, whack! For the next fifteen minutes, the group shares stories, eats yummy sandwiches, and thinks of where they’d like to go next. Rita chimes in on the conversation as well, all while playing the role of judge, jury, and executioner with a dozen or so of the buzzing pests.

When the meal is done, the group gets up to leave. While Rita couldn’t get all the bees, the picnic table leaves behind plenty of visual evidence of her work. The group had eaten their lunch, and no one got stung. Nothing noteworthy; it was just Rita being Rita.

Now they can start their next walk.

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Are you looking for a career with a purpose? Open Door’s team of Direct Support Professionals help people every day.

Open Door

Open Door is a Columbus-based nonprofit provider for individuals with developmental disabilities. Our mission and vision are to inspire life journeys and cultivate valued roles for all people. What door can we open for you?

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