Name: Eliza Ruusukallio
Current: Position: Assistant Supervisor, Academic
Current Campus: Autism Spectrum Disorder Residential Program
Year Started: 2015
First Position: Youth Development Professional (YDP), Overnight Shift
What’s your position?
I’m an assistant supervisor
And what did you start as?
I started as a YDP on overnights.
How long were you a YDP before you got promoted?
I just recently got promoted, I wanna say 4 months ago. It’s still fresh.
What’s the biggest difference for you being an Assistant Supervisor versus a YDP?
Not being on the floor directly with the kids now. You know what I mean? Now I’m there with the kids, but it’s more like I’m shadowing the staff, shadowing the student.
Do you remember getting that first YDP job?
I’d recently moved from Florida and the same day [I moved here] I got the job. It’s crazy how it happened. The same day I came in and she was like, “Alright, go in for an observation.” And then from there it was like “boom.”
But I’ve always worked with autistic children, even in Florida.
So you had a background? What were you doing in Florida?
It wasn’t even a title. It was just in high school. I’d skip lunch and from lunch I would go to the autistic room. I was just helping kids in there. So at that point I started to grow with them.
Do you think there are any myths or misconceptions people have about the ASD population or Hillcrest’s ASD kids specifically that you’d like to debunk?
They tend to say ASD is the hardest population to work with. Or you know, our kids are the most aggressive. No. It’s…no.
It’s all about your approach with each kid. I look at every student as a blank piece of paper. And how you color on that piece of paper through the months and years that you’re here with the kids. And inconsistency is something that…it can hurt a student with autism. Because if they don’t have that consistency, their schedule gets messed up. Being that consistent person in their life, showing them it’s okay in those rough moments. People tend to speak a lot about those rough moments and not the highlight moments.
What do you think is the most rewarding part of working with Hillcrest’s ASD students?
How active we can be and how like I can still be a child. Yes, I love my title now, but any way to get my hands dirty again, I’m jumping in. Laughing, giggling, dancing.
Did you get to dance at the holiday party?
Sure did! Sure did!
What’s been the happiest moment for you since you came to Hillcrest?How the students actually see me. They see me as a staff, of course, first and foremost. But also they see me as like..I don’t even know how to put it into words. You just have to be in my position to feel it and see it. It’s a rewarding moment.
When they see Miss Eliza, it’s like “Oh my God! It’s Miss Eliza, everybody! It’s “Liza!” So I try to keep that up. It’s not in a cocky way or nothing, it’s just that high energy and it rubs off. So if I keep it, the kids will look up to me. So I think that’s really rewarding.
Even a kid getting up and walking to the door and opening it is rewarding because you know how long we worked for that student to just open the door, turning the doorknob. I’m doing cartwheels. And they feel it, yeah.
What’s the hardest part about your job?
The hardest part I would have to say is holding a demand. [There are times] when you want to be like “Forget it. It’s all okay. You don’t really have to.” But you’re here. You have to.
It’s finding creative ways to get that demand met. So I think that can be a struggle for me too.
Can you give an example?
Telling a student that she can’t have a hair tie because of her safety plan… It’s sucks in the moment, but it’s also like, “Let’s braid your hair up, girl. Let’s cornrow it. Let’s do some cool things to it.” Finding creative ways so she doesn’t need a hair tie. But letting her know, “This is the reason why.” That can be a struggle.
Who’s been the most influential person in your work life?
I’d have to say Cynthia from the overnights has taught me my ins and outs. And not because of how strict she can be, but because she gave it to me very black and white. “This is what it is. This is how it should be. Now go out and show the best you can.”
And then she also let it be known that you’re gonna fall on your face. And you’re gonna see [her] upset sometimes. But these are the moments where we build. And you go out there and do it again.
So I think her holding that on me has made me become a better woman here and grow within the program.
Yvette Stoddard has been very, very strong by my side. She’s seen me in my worst moments and now in my best moments.
I think a lot of the women here, they definitely bring me up where I need it.
What surprised you most about the job?
I think when I first came into it, I wasn’t so prone to the restraints. I didn’t know how I felt about putting my hands on someone’s child, basically. That’s how I looked at it.
I think that’s the only thing that caught me by surprise, which it does for anybody, typically. I think that’s what sat with me the most uncomfortable. But learning the program, I kind of grew with it, and it’s obviously there to keep the kids safe. I think that’s the only surprise.
And you’re comfortable with it now?
I’m comfortable, yeah. I understand it. I’m coaching it. I’m helping other people understand those moments. [We] have a lot of staff that don’t know how to react. They’re not used to it. And that’s where we come in and coach them. We let them know, “Listen, it’s okay. These types of things will happen. We just have to be willing to respond correctly so that fight or flight doesn’t happen.”
How long do you think it took you to get adjusted to physical restraints?
Way more than 3 months. Wayyy more than 3 months. Only because I fell on my face a lot in 3 months. I was so defeated and I didn’t know my thing. I didn’t know how to find the light at the end of the tunnel. And all these plans that are set in stone. I have to learn them all and I have to know them all.
But [it’s] also understanding that this is a child. Understanding how to react, how to treat them like a normal person. They’re not here because they’re aliens or nothing. No, they’re here because they just need a little bit of help in life.
Do you have any advice for new employees or people going through the application and interview process?
Yes, it is all okay! Everything that is about to come your way for the first 6 months. Just breathe. Okay. Because you’re going to deal with a lot of different personalities, very strong-minded people. You’re going to deal with a lot of [other new employees] that may think they just want to give up. And you’re going to come across a lot of different shades in life. It’s okay to be a different shade than all those shades. You just have to stick to the plan and the policy, and breathe through it all. I think that’s the most important thing. Breathing and being able to talk about it.
What kind of person do you think succeeds working with the students?
I think someone who consistently can take constructive criticism, [someone] who consistently can take situations where you have to think on the fly. You know, you’re gonna be thrown in the fire at points and you have to understand, “Yeah, it’s okay, but how am I going to put it out?”
And it’s not only you. It’s a team effort. Understanding that yes, you might feel defeated, but also like your whole team is going to feel defeated together. Don’t take it personally. Understand that you have other people around you that are going to go through it with you. And we’re all gonna make it in the end.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Yeah, I made it a long way here. It is possible. It is possible. A lot of moments will get hard, but just sticking to it, keeping a smile on your face. That high energy for these kids goes a long way.
Interested in doing what Eliza does? We’d love to hear from you! Click here to see our job openings.
Read Cheri Green’s story here.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.