When Direct Support Professional Andrea Miller-Weir began working with 11-year-old Alex Bagley, he couldn’t put his face underwater in the pool. With Miller-Weir’s help, Alex became an award-winning swimmer and Special Olympics athlete. In the years since their first meeting, Miller-Weir has supported Alex through high school graduation, securing meaningful employment, and traveling the world. For her years of service and dedication to the Bagley family, Andrea Miller-Weir is the 2023 winner of the John and Claudia Roman Direct Service Award. This annual award honors a direct service employee of the Autism Society of North Carolina who demonstrates outstanding dedication to individuals with autism and their families.
“Andrea Miller-Weir has challenged Alex and our family to be all we can be,” said Angela Bagley, who nominated Miller-Weir for the award. “I don’t know where we’d be without her. The community, the world, and most definitely, Alex and our family, are the better from having interacted with her.”
Miller-Weir said that her goal for Alex has always been that he lead a full life, and she has found activities to help him meet that goal as he has aged. When he was younger, it was athletic activities; Alex competed in basketball, cycling, swimming, and bowling at local and national levels. “We were always going,” said Miller-Weir. “I didn’t want him to sit and do nothing.” Now, as Alex is 30, they work on daily living skills, including budgeting, grocery shopping, and cooking, as well as volunteering, developing hobbies, and working.
Miller-Weir took an active role in finding a place Alex could volunteer and then transition into employment. She recalled going door-to-door to local businesses, explaining Alex’s skills. One business owner was extremely unsure about hiring someone with autism, so Miller-Weir created a portfolio of Alex’s accomplishments. Alex was hired, and now he’s one of the store’s most beloved employees, with the owner traveling from Fayetteville to Raleigh to see Alex compete in bowling tournaments. “Things like that make the job worthwhile,” said Miller-Weir.
She noted that Alex’s transition to employment hasn’t always been easy, and that at the beginning of his career, he’d ask if he had to go to work if he didn’t want to. “I explained that if I didn’t go to work, then he wouldn’t have anyone there with him,” she said. “It helped him to understand the commitment and that he needed to be at the business when he was assigned to be.”
Miller-Weir was also able to provide a tremendous incentive for Alex’s earnings: She asked him if he’d like to travel with her to England to visit her family. He agreed and saved up enough money for his plane ticket. “By that point, everyone in my family knew Alex,” Miller-Weir said. “My sister made that trip all about Alex – she made sure he saw everything he wanted to see. But I think I got more out of it, seeing him enjoy it, watching him ask questions and get answers.” A few years later, they traveled to Jamaica, and they’re currently saving for a trip to Italy.
In all these locations, Miller-Weir has family, and those family members treat Alex as part of the family as well, giving him a place to stay and ensuring he has a great time, and the Bagleys consider Miller-Weir part of their family as well. “Alex has become a son to Ms. Miller-Weir, and she has become a second mom to him,” said Bagley. “She is like a sister to me and has seen me and our family through many challenging times.”
When many of Alex’s activities closed due to the pandemic, Miller-Weir found a professional upholstery class Alex could take, and he now completes upholstery projects on a volunteer basis. Miller-Weir hopes that it could provide a future career path for him, but she is open to whatever Alex wants to do, as long as he continues to stay active and busy. “Even when I’m retired, I want to make sure the next staff member will ensure that he won’t go backwards,” she said. “I hope there is always someone there to encourage him to live a productive life.”
To that end, Miller-Weir hopes to mentor new direct support professionals. “You have to have a heart for this job. You have to want for your reward to be the elation you feel when your client learns something. The delight when they accomplish something,” Miller-Weir said. “It takes patience to get them to the finish line. But I still remember when he accomplished his first lap in a swim meet after not being able to put his face in the water. I had tears in my eyes. If you want to see someone accomplish something, this is the job for you.”
Tags: ASNC, autism, autism employment, Autism Society of North Carolina, autism support, direct support professional, DSP