Kathy McHale, president and CEO of SPIN, began her career the way most of her employees do: as a direct support professional. Today, the head of the Northeast Philadelphia-based nonprofit oversees a staff of 1,300 who care for, teach, and advocate for approximately 3,700 Pennsylvanians with developmental and intellectual disabilities. McHale has worked there 36 years and been CEO for eight.

SPIN began in 1971. The acronym stands for “Special People in the Northeast.” Over the last 47 years, as the language around disability has evolved, so have SPIN’s offerings, which now span Pre-K Counts and Head Start to 24-hour, seven-day-a-week residential lifespan care, from Philadelphia into the Lehigh Valley.

Under McHale’s leadership, SPIN has earned four stars from the Pennsylvania Department of Education for its preschool program and has become an Autism Center for Excellence. It now serves 1,000 children with autism. It also exceeds state averages for direct support professional wages, retention, and positions filled. SPIN has been a Top Workplace for 10 years running and, based on employee survey responses, McHale received the 2019 Top Leadership Award for large companies.

Describe your day.

Today, it’s meetings, check-ins with different staff, and working on the advocacy we’re doing on behalf of teachers and teacher assistants. We’re always striving for a living wage. It’s also planning season for us: We’re doing our annual plan work. It’s always a lot of different things.

How did you join SPIN?

I started at the very beginning, when I was 18 years old, as a direct support professional. That’s our entry level at facilities for people with developmental delays. For 10 years, I did a lot of going from job to job until I came to SPIN in 1983. Here, I found a culture that was all about quality service, dedication to having the right people doing this work, and working together.

How has the organization changed?

Over the years, we have really just made our culture so much stronger. Families come to us for services, and they’re very vulnerable. Our work calls for us to be extremely caring, empathetic, compassionate. We strive to create a culture and an atmosphere where we treat everybody that way.

What do you look for in employees?

When we’re talking about people to work in direct services, whether they are going to teach, or be a teacher’s assistant, be a therapeutic support specialist or direct support specialist, it’s their values.

We tune into the words they use and their body language. We are looking for people with big hearts, who have compassion and can empathize — people who are capable of learning, because there is a great deal of training and development that we engage in with our staff.

Then, of course, we are always looking for people that understand that this is hard work. This can often be a physical job. It’s a get-out-and-do-things job.

Many of our employees, their only qualification is a high school diploma. Other positions require a higher level of education.

We look for people who can learn. That doesn’t just mean cognitively, but they’re really able to change and develop and become great at what they do. They have to have the ability to listen, to understand. It’s a combination of heart and head.

How do your managers support staff in this challenging work?

We have developed our management teams around the concept of people-first supervision, which is a coaching, supportive approach.

Our managers have to be very close to the work that their staff are doing. They have to be responsive. There are absolutely those times that a direct support professional may be under stress in the work that they’re doing. We come in. We see that stress, and we respond with anything from take a break at that moment to a redesign. We look critically at problems.

What do benefit packages look like?

We absolutely consider the benefits that we are providing our staff with as a high priority, with everything from wellness incentives to paid leave time. Our benefit package is 32 percent of what somebody’s salary is.

We bring people out to teach about financial wellness. We have employee assistance programs, from typical to financial to if somebody’s having child-care issues.

We have a child care onsite. We give our employees 40 percent off of the cost of that child care — although it’s not a 24/7 child care, and our staff work 24/7. We have a summer camp for children; our employees get discounts and feel like their kids can be a part of our program.

We bring in people to help with college loans. We’ve brought in services to help people refinance. There are so many young adults who are working here who are just oppressed with college loans. We have a home-buying program that we do with the city of Philadelphia: We pay $2,000 toward closing costs, and the city will match that $2,000, if the home is inside the city. Outside the city, we still offer the $2,000.

SPIN offers tuition support for bachelor’s degrees and tuition support for master’s degrees, and career counseling and support that go with that.

How do employees advance?

We’re very involved with knowing and talking with staff about their aspirations. Where staff may not have aspirations, we’re helping them to develop those.

We believe in leadership at all levels of our organization. We have career ladders, so if somebody comes with a high school diploma, and they never thought that they would ever have any advanced education, we’re inspiring and helping them to take college credits.

We are creating lead positions for people, so that they can see that they don’t have to wait to go from high school to bachelor’s; they can move up as they go. Of course, salary levels increase along the way.

We have apprenticeship programs as well for direct support professionals to become therapeutic support professionals, and teacher assistants to become teachers.

How are your retention rates?

Our turnover is significantly lower in these entry-level positions than at other organizations that do the same kind of work. For direct support professionals — we have about 700 people in that category — the turnover rate in Pennsylvania is 38.2 percent. SPIN’s turnover rate is 22.9 percent. Of the 50,000 direct support positions in Pennsylvania, 20.4 percent go vacant. Our rate of vacant positions is 4.8 percent.

What do you consider your career accomplishments?

To love coming to work for 36 years, that’s a big accomplishment. I think a lot of people feel that way about it. There are a lot of deep relationships here.

This work is very hard to do. We think how we do it and how we treat our staff is the number one most important in terms of the quality we’re going to get. We’ve helped many of our staff to do more than they ever thought they could ever do.

The number of families that choose SPIN and choose to stay if they need lifespan services; the number of people who donate to us, who find us worthy of their dollars, their treasure; the corporate board, they’re so devoted, and hardworking; our incredible volunteers, just the commitment that we have from people. Our community seems to love us.