Powerful Perspectives: Salwa & Waris

August 23, 2017

This week I interviewed Salwa (left) and Waris (right), two Somali employees who work at Hiawatha Homes, which provides residential services and support for people with disabilities and their families. Hiawatha Homes CEO Cindy Ostrowski was also present at the interview.


TH: Would you please briefly introduce yourselves and talk a little about your background, and what you do with Hiawatha Homes?

S: My name is Salwa Muhidin. I moved to Rochester 2011. This is the first job I applied to and have been here ever since. It’s been six years! I started as a Direct Support Professional (DSP) and now I am a house coordinator. 


W: My name is Waris. I’ve lived in Minnesota for about twelve years. I finished high school and went to RCTC for two years. After I graduated I started working at Hiawatha as my first job as a support professional.


TH: You’ve chosen to stay at Hiawatha Homes for some time. There must be great reasons for doing so. Can you please talk a little bit about that? What makes Hiawatha Homes a great place to work?


W: I applied and worked for about 2 weeks with Mayo and I quit. The reason I chose Hiawatha is because I have little kids. I have flexibility now. Sometimes I need to tell my coworker or supervisor that I need to leave and come back because they might be sick or hurt, or I will have to pick them up and drop them off. At Mayo you have to work the shift no matter what, and it was hard for me. I was making more money over there, but prefer less money so that I can have that flexibility with my family. I have six kids, and sometimes they break their hands, their ears, and I have to deal with emergencies. Working here, they work with you and are very flexible.


CO: And Waris has worked in so many of our homes. Can you please talk about how many homes and programs you are trained in?


W: I’ve worked out in all the houses except for the ones in Oronoco.

C: So about 21 of our 22 homes, which is unbelievable.


TH: So what is that schedule like? 

W: I have one main house, but a lot of times if folks are short staffed, they will call, and of course I will go out and help. I am always willing to help. So now all the supervisors know me and call me.

C: Waris is very reliable and highly skilled.    


TH: What does the work of a Direct Support Professional include? Can you walk us through what that is like?

W: You have to cook, you do laundry, stuff like that, you give the individuals baths, You take them out for community outings and field trips, like to Mall of America, or the park. 


TH: How about you Salwa? What do you like about working with Hiawatha Homes?

S: I’ve had a passion for caregiving since I was a child. I wanted to pursue my education in nursing. As soon as I came to Hiawatha I felt like I was at home. I’ve worked in clinics before but it just wasn’t the same as Hiawatha. I’m driven by the people here. Work is very rewarding. For me it’s not about the money but seeing how you can have a positive impact every day. 


W: Yeah! A lot of people when I went to college they would say, “Oh Waris, why are you working there? Come over here. We pay $21 an hour.” There’s something about the house and people I work with… I just miss them when I’m gone. Before I was looking for money to support my family, but now it’s like, I feel attached to them somehow. I don’t know why.


CO: I know! I started in the field in 1989 and haven’t left. What’s awesome about Salwa is that she worked hard and advanced at Hiawatha. 


TH: Wow! Would you please tell us a little about that? Advancing within Hiawatha?


S: It’s great to know that you can do something greater. It’s not much of a difference, but there is way more responsibility. 

W: She is awesome. She doesn’t treat you as if she is above you. She works with the individuals, she cooks. I love working with her.

S: So the house coordinator advocates for the individuals and supports the staff. There’s a lot of scheduling, and hiring, job performance and discipline. 

CO: Salwa is responsible for two houses. At one time when we had a lot of direct care staff, we opened up the opportunity to take on a second house, and Salwa applied and received that opportunity. Now we try to encourage our house coordinators to work with one house, just because of the sheer amount of direct care they are responsible for and providing, and the hiring practices and training practices. But as Waris pointed out it’s great to have people start as DSPs then team leaders and then coordinators, because they’ve lived the life of a direct support professional and have that respect for other DSPs. Salwa knows what they are going through and can relate.


TH: You mentioned earlier Hiawatha Heroes. Can you explain to us what that is?


CO: Of course! So Hiawatha Heroes, they are all nominated by their peers every month. We can only select 4 heroes per month. And their peers talk about why they deserve to be a hero, how they’ve gone above and beyond, what they do to make others jobs easier, how they touch people’s lives. The management team reads and selects based on their peers’ reviews. Both Salwa and Waris have been selected as heroes!


TH: Congratulations! So what were the reasons for your being nominated and becoming heroes? 


CO: So for Waris it says, “Waris was nominated as a Hero because she is always willing to help cover open shifts and gets the individuals out in the community as much as possible. Her peers say that Waris will go out of her way to keep individuals involved in the community, even if that means picking up an individual from another program to join an activity with the program she is working at. Waris is cross-trained at multiple program locations and is always willing to work wherever she is needed.” 

And then Salwa’s says, “Salwa received multiple nominations which emphasized her strong leadership abilities and her true passion to support the lives of the individuals at Hiawatha homes. Her peers say that Salwa listens to everyone and is a very hard working person. Salwa goes the extra mile to make sure individuals are involved in the community, are able to go on trips and are active with things that interest them. She truly exhibits a person centered approach when supporting the individuals living at Ferguson and northern Slopes. Salwa also demonstrates a person centered approach by allowing them to do as much as they are able for themselves when planning trips and other activities. Additionally, Salwa actively provides guidance and support to all of her staff by providing a hands-on approach with issues, she takes the time to address everyone’s concerns and then through her ability to show that she genuinely cares about the staff, does her best to help them succeed. Salwa selflessly gives of her time by filling in shifts and helps others reach their goals, hopes and dreams.”

Pretty cool. It almost brings tears to your eyes!


TH: Can we talk about the person centered approach and the importance of getting folks out into the community? Waris, why is it important to get folks out into the community?

W: Nobody wants to stay home all the time 5 days a week. They want to see a movie. They want to go to Thursdays on First, have a snack in the park, go to a picnic, you know? They want to go outside. So I’ll take them even though I have problems. People say bad things to me like, “Why do you have these people? You are a terrorist!” I have those problems a lot. Some people do say, “Thank you for doing what  you’re doing,” but a lot of the time I see people saying, “You are a terrorist” a lot, a lot. And I think to myself, “Should I take this thing [headcovering] off?” and then I’m like, “No. No. This is my religion, you know?”

C: The people in the community, they don’t even know how they’re acting.

W: The community! They keep saying, “Oh you’re a terrorist” or, “Oh you shouldn’t be watching her, you are raping her.” One time I was picking up my children for Down By the Riverside. One day one guy attacked me when I was on my phone making an appointment for my son. And this one guy, I locked the door to my car, and he starts pushing and rocking my car with me inside of it. He starts shaking the car. I was in the parking lot at Home Depot. My youngest one was with me that day. And so I told him, I was like, “Why are you doing this to me? What have I done to you?” And he was all like, “You need to leave!” So I called the manager and called the police. 

CO: How long ago was that Waris?

W: One year ago… He shook my car! 

CO: Did they catch him?

W: They got his license plate and stuff like that. Home Depot gave them (police) access to their camera footage. 

CO: At least they got his license plate.


W: They egged my house. Did you know that? 

CO: The new house that you just bought?

W: Oh my goodness. I want to move like next year. It’s so crazy they egg us. If something happens on the TV that night they will egg us. 


TH: You live in northwest?


W: Yes! And it’s crazy because my next door neighbor is a police officer. 


CO: Waris and her husband have worked very very hard and bought a house 2 years ago.


W: And we’ve almost paid off our house.


CO: And she lives in one of our neighborhoods


W: It’s a nice neighborhood. They’ve caught one of the guys that was harassing us. He was an older guy they said. But we don’t have any eggs or rocks thrown at us lately. Some people are very nice. Most of the people you know, like 80 percent, would say, “You’re a terrorist. You don’t deserve to work with these people,” and I told one guy, “If you’re a good person, they need good people to work with them, why aren’t you working with them?” One time this old guy spilled water on my boys and I. Someone came up to help us that time. 


TH: What do you do to seek justice? How do you cope and work with this harassment?

W: Sometimes I ignore it. Sometimes I speak with them. 

S: It’s a lack of education in our community.

W: My kids are scared. They don’t want to live here. They keep saying, “We want to live somewhere else. We are scared”. All the people I work with, all the houses I work at, all of them are very nice people. But the people out in the community…

S: I think it’s the way Waris dresses. It catches a lot of attention. 


TH: Thank you so much for sharing that, Waris.Let’s shift gears a bit. Salwa, can you talk a bit about the person centered approach? Walk us through that.


S: It’s very important. It’s helping the person individually, not basing them off of their disability. It’s person centered. It’s how we would like to be treated. We respect their wishes. We don’t think that they don’t have an opinion just because they may be non-verbal. We give them the opportunity to make most of their decisions for themselves. We ask them what’s important to them. We ask them what works for them.

CO: It’s a person centered philosophy that Hiawatha Homes has had for years. But now the federal and state governments have made requirements of providers that we are all utilizing these positive support practices. So our agencies are participating in a person centered positive support practices training through the University of Minnesota and Olmsted County. So we are actively involved in training a lot of our staff. It’s more of a philosophy than an approach. Like Salwa said, I think each person you talk to or interact with will know if you are person centered based on how you are treating them. It’s all about treating them with decency, with respect. It’s about dignity and putting them first. A lot of the people that Salwa and Waris work with may not be able to use words to communicate but they can talk with you through their eyes and their body language. Our staff becomes experts with non-verbal body language because it tells you everything: if they are happy, if they are sad, if they are feeling good that day. Salwa and Waris could go in and after three minutes of being with someone they could know if they are sick, or not feeling well, they can tell just by their body language and how they are responding. 

W: I’ve worked with individuals that some staff would tell me were aggressive and that they wouldn’t like me and that they would fight me. So I would go up to them, sit down, rub their legs a little bit and they’d become calm. The staff would be like “How did you do that? They fight with people like you all the time.” I said, “I know, but I am able to make them calm down.” Gentle touches make people calm down. 

C: It’s a gentle and calm approach.


TH: Is this person centered approach built into the training at Hiawatha Homes?

CO: Absolutely but some people are just naturally better at it then others. We all train so that when staff walk in the door they know we are all about being person centered: We teach it in new hire paperwork. We’re doing one page profiles with each person we support as far as  what’s important to and for them. It’s very important for our staff to know that. It helps us know how to best support them.

S: So you may wash your face with cold water, but some people like to wash their face with warm water. You learn by their body gestures whether they like something or not.

CO: Something as simple as brushing your teeth; some people use cold water and some people use warm water because they have sensitive teeth. It’s just an example of what we teach our staff because they could be hurting someone without even knowing it if they are using super cold water to brush their teeth. It’s those little things that make a huge difference. 

Person centeredness is with our staff to. So while we do expect our staff to be on time and where they need to be when they are scheduled, we do understand that life happens and we do work with our staff to be flexible around those things. And we have that culture. So if Waris can’t make her shift for whatever reason so many people will step up to fill in for her.


W: I’ve never had any problems with the people at work with covering my shift.


TH: What’s it been like being a person of color in your role? I’m assuming you have a lot of time to expose others to Somali culture and what it’s like to be black or African. Can we talk about this a little bit please?


S: For me, especially with how proud my family was about me being promoted, and the fact that everybody is accepted by Hiawatha, I feel very honored to be in my position. I can relate to people and teach them about our culture. So I know a lot of staff are interested in the Somali culture and they ask a lot of questions, and about sambuus and how to make it.

CO: And we’ll ask, “So when does Ramadan start?” We always try to plan our picnics around it. I started in 2006. Where I worked before we didn’t really have a diverse culture. Coming to Hiawatha Homes has been great. I just love to learn about new people and their backgrounds. I had planned the picnic with our social committee and no one had really thought about when the picnic was, and so we had all these meals and boxes to go, and a lot of our staff would take our food to go, and we were all like, “Why aren’t they eating?” And of course it was because they were fasting for Ramadan, but we didn’t know until they told us. We had to learn. So now we plan all of our picnics and events around times like Ramadan. We plan our picnics now so that all of our staff can participate.

S: Isn’t that awesome?! It’s great to know that they respect our culture and the religion. 

C: And also, the pork. So when I came everyone was all like, “Well, we’re having a barbeque!” We always make sure we have chicken or something else at events. We are always planning around that. One year we had foods from different cultures. It’s a lot of fun. We need to do that again!



Hiawatha Homes is great example of an organization that has chosen to embrace difference. I was inspired to see an organization trying hard and succeeding at harnessing difference for the better. I love the idea of the person centered approach. I think we should all take on a person-centered approach to some degree. I was also inspired by Salwa’s leadership qualities and Waris’ work ethic and resilience. The way Waris and her family are treated in public concerns me. I hate to say that I am not surprised that she is treated this way. While I was listening I couldn’t help but think of where in my life I could use a more person centered philosophy and ways I might be able to support families like Waris’ who experience verbal and physical harassment on a regular basis. 



Think of one person in your life that you care deeply for. What can you do to honor their experience as an individual? In what ways could a more person centered philosophy help strengthen your relationship with this individual? Take the time to think about and implement this and let me know how it works. I can already think of one person whom I will be taking a more person centered approach with. Let me know how yours goes. You know where to reach me. 



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