Kirk Matthews was winning. He had only to sink the eight ball into one of the pockets of a new pool table, and he’d have the victory.
“Eight ball, corner pocket,” he said.
“Corner pocket, you got it,” answered Dave Zambito.
Matthews lined up his shot on the table. He stared at the cue ball, pulled back the stick, and with a soft whoosh, he let out the breath he’d been holding as he pushed the stick forward.
The cue ball connected with the eight ball. The black orb sped into the corner pocket. And then the cue ball followed.
“Well, you scratched,” said Zambito.
“Ohhh,” said Matthews.
The two men are pretty regular pool opponents, they both said. They’ve also worked together for the last four years.
Matthews has a traumatic brain injury and lives in the Henrietta group home where Zambito supervises residential care for adults who have epilepsy and brain injuries.
He had been a direct support professional there for the better part of a decade. “We work with the guys who live here to do the things that they want to do to live the life of their choosing,” he said.
But Zambito is unusual in this field. He’s a man in a position in which nearly 9 in 10 workers are women.
Matthews said he’s glad to have a support worker like Zambito. “He’s a nice guy,” Matthews said.
“I’m going to be honest about that,” he added with a chuckle.
And for Zambito, his maleness is part of what bonded him with the men who live in this home.
“I had kind of a reckless teenage years,” he said. “I’ll hear stories of stuff that happened to some of the individuals I’m working with, and it could have very easily happened to me. I immediately connected that way.”
Zambito is not the only male support worker in the area. Mark Leader works for the same company, Epilepsy-Pralid, but at different locations around Rochester.
Leader said his entry into the field of caregiving came at a young age. As a child, he spent afternoons at a psychiatric center with an older family member.
“At 10, 12 years old, I was playing checkers with the patients, as they used to call them,” he said.
People with severe traumatic brain injuries were often institutionalized then, some 40 years ago. Leader said when he started his job, he joined a system that was changing. Psychiatric hospitals were being replaced with less isolated community services.
“I wanted to treat people like I would have liked people to have treated my family member. I saw some really rotten things that bothered me,” he said.
Despite a growing number of men who are not working, and a growing number of direct support jobs that need filling, few men are joining the ranks of Leader and Zambito.
“Caring for other people has traditionally been what I would call women’s work,” said Janette Dill, a sociologist and health policy researcher at the University of Minnesota.
Dill said two main sentiments conspire to keep men out of the caregiving field: They don’t feel capable, and they don’t feel valued.
“Wages are a reflection of prestige and value in society,” Dill said. “When wages go up, those go up, too. Everything right now communicates to the world that we don’t value direct care workers.”
She’s convinced that men are more than capable of doing the kind of work they’ve traditionally left to women.
“Men are very capable of being very compassionate and competent caregivers, it’s just that our society doesn’t socialize them to think of themselves in that way, and it also doesn’t reward people for doing that kind of work, so there isn’t a lot of motivation for men to learn how to be good caregivers. But absolutely, they can be,” she said.
Getting more men in the field is crucial now, said Joseph MacBeth, the CEO of the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals. In the next 10 years, industry estimates project 1.3 million new direct support jobs, he said. “We can’t fill them with women alone.”
MacBeth said retention is key. Even when men get hired for the job, they rarely stay in the field as long as Zambito and Leader have.
“There is a lack of a career ladder where people who stay in this work and advance their skills -- there is no way to pay them more.”
Funding for direct support professionals’ wages is set by the state. The nonprofits that employ those workers say paying more is beyond their means.
Zambito accessed one of the rare promotional opportunities, moving to a supervisory position recently, though he still does direct support-type work with Matthews and other residents at the home.
Matthews said he appreciates what he learns from Zambito and the other workers at the group home. But he said he eventually wants to move out.
Zambito said he wants to help Matthews get there.
“It’s a weird position to be in, where you want one day to be out of a job,” said Zambito. “But Kirk’s been growing and growing in independence. We’re helping him work toward that goal.”
And Matthews has his eye on a certain spot.
“I’m going to move right next to my mom’s house. There’s a white house there,” he said.