Paraprofessional Amy Neeley has worked full time as a caregiver at the Reed Center in Hays for two years and four months. She works for the nonprofit Developmental Services of Northwest Kansas Inc., helping adults with intellectual disabilities.

The money isn’t great, with base pay starting at $9 an hour. But the clients and staff are like a happy family, Neeley said Thursday morning while helping clients get organized to play Monopoly.

Neeley teaches four classes this semester at the Reed Center: Health and Safety, Holidays, American Sign Language and Ancient Cultures.

“I am blessed enough that my significant other makes a wage that allows me to work here,” said Neeley, of Hays. “I couldn’t do it on my own.”

Many of DSNWK’s 350 employees are the caregivers who work in group homes or provide day help throughout 18 counties in northwest Kansas.

Kaitlyn Wagle, of Hays, is a program services coordinator and has worked at DSNWK for nearly eight years.

“I’ve had two or three jobs up until recently,” Wagle said, noting that others who work there do the same to make ends meet. “If you’re living on your own, it’s just not possible on this wage. No one is a fan of the wage, but the people who work here want to stay, that’s why they get two jobs. They don’t want to leave here.”

It shouldn’t be that way, and won’t be, if Allen Schmidt gets his way.

The fate of direct support professionals is a concern to Schmidt, explaining that these are the home health workers, nurse aids and personal care workers seen in nursing homes, assisted living centers, at DSNWK and in other places where the elderly and disabled are cared for.

It’s critical to up the level of pay, Schmidt said, “so that you can get them out of poverty.”

A retired Army and Medical Service Corps colonel, Schmidt moved back to western Kansas a few years ago to find himself first filling an unexpired Kansas senate seat, then named to the Kansas Board of Regents, and now working at DSNWK, 2703 Hall St., to establish an endowment and planned giving program.

As a result, revitalizing rural Kansas and the aging population of western Kansas have become two of his concerns, particularly who will care for the aging, namely direct support workers.

“There’s a shortage of these workers, which is going to directly impact our parents, and eventually you and me as we get older,” said Schmidt on Saturday, who questioned state legislators at the Legislative Update sponsored by the Hays Area Chamber of Commerce in the Ballroom at Fort Hays State University.

“The projection right now, and this is a national prediction, is that there’s going to be 74,000 positions short by 2026 in Kansas,” Schmidt said after the update program. “When you look at the nation, the national level, it’s in the millions. It may be the number one or two employed position in Kansas in 2026. That’s why I’m interested.”

As a state senator, he saw the problem firsthand.

“There are people aging so fast in these communities, that when I represented, for example, Smith County, that was in my senate district, they were 22% over age 65 at that time,” he said. “Now we’re talking about many of these counties going to 35% and 40% over the age of 65.”

“We’ve waited too long to deal with this whole aging population,” Schmidt said. “People in western Kansas are going to move someplace where there’s care, eventually, when they can’t care for themselves because their kids aren’t there.”

Schmidt’s mission is to see direct support professionals get credit for their work in the form of academic credit leading to higher wages, a professional license, a degree or even a better occupation.

Such a program could be modeled after a paraprofessional-to-teacher program developed at Wichita State University, which gives academic credit to paraprofessionals in the classroom, enabling them to work toward a teaching degree.

“I’m thinking of that model for direct support professionals, because if I’m going to be a nurse, occupational therapist, doctor, does it not make sense that when I’m starting into the workforce that I’d do work like this?” Schmidt asks. “Why don’t I get academic credit for that? That’s where higher education is going, applied learning, learning in the workplace.”

Schmidt is working on building a task force, meeting with WSU and gauging interest from FHSU President Tisa Mason.

But the first step, he said, is to get the position included in the Standard Occupational Classification of the U.S. Department of Labor. For that, he asked Rep. Roger Marshall for help at Saturday’s session.

“The first thing we need to do is understand why direct support professionals don’t have a category in the Labor Department,” Schmidt said. “We call them direct support professionals, but until they get a labor code, it’s going to be hard to do all the technical things, like develop the curriculum and professionalize them.”

Direct support workers don’t make a living wage as it is now, said DSNWK executive director Jerry Michaud, also at the Legislative Update. That’s despite the fact they get training and certification to do their jobs.

“They’ve got skills, they are required skills to do that well,” Michaud said. “If it’s professional and it’s trained, then it should be compensated beyond what it is today.”

Low pay means people leave for more money, Michaud said. As of Dec. 31, he had 25 open positions at DSNWK throughout the 18 counties. Losing staff affects the clients, he said.

“Say I’m the person that needs support, and I’ve got a relationship with you on the staff, and you leave,” Michaud said. “Any transition and turnover as it relates to the individual served is a pretty big deal.”

On Thursday at the Reed Center, Wagle handed the Monopoly dice to DSNWK client Michael Karlin, who threw doubles, then high-fived Wagle with a big hoot and holler.

Wagle and Neeley helped him count out eight spaces on the board and move his ship token to Chance.

“They have a lot of come-and-go in their lives,” said Neeley, nodding to Karlin, David Werth and Jimmy Tucker, sitting at the table around the Monopoly board.

“It’s so hard because these guys have so many people come and go out of their lives,” Neeley said.

“It can cause trust issues,” Wagle said. “They can develop some anger, aggression, depression.”

“It’s like any family,” Neeley added. “You bond, there’s no way around it, and these guys are like anyone else, when they lose someone special.”