Training, growth leads McHugh to an evergreen career in human services

“Nothing compares to helping someone else.”


As Bonnie McHugh, a knowledge acquisition and transfer specialist with Optimae LifeServices, reflected on her career in human services, she kept coming back to the idea that no matter where a person is in their career, the ability to help others live a better life never gets old.

“I started as a direct support professional (DSP) when I was just 17 years old — still in high school and really, just needing a job,” McHugh said. “I was not expecting to fall in love with this type of work. I quickly realized that the support and care I provided helped people improve their quality of life.”

What started as a part-time job quickly turned into a stable career path for McHugh. Looking back, she said that although she didn’t know much about the field or type of work DSPs performed, the education provided to her on the job gave her the skills needed to work with clients effectively.

“Many of the agencies a DSP can work for have a strong emphasis on training, teaching the skills a person will need to work with clients and their co-workers,” McHugh said. “Once I realized that, I became even more invested in learning all I could so I could advance my own career and try out different roles.”

As she accumulated years of work and service under her belt, McHugh earned the opportunity to lead teams and build training programs. In the type of agency where she works today, training is then cascaded to the different type of DSPs and staff, depending on their role with clients. She said the idea of an agency growing and promoting their own is what makes the field of human services a viable career option.

“The health and human services field has a clear career path that many people don’t realize. There is a strong emphasis on training, which gives people the opportunity to move up, gain more skills and advance. Agencies see the talent in their own people and want to grow that.”

Bonnie McHugh

McHugh is a textbook example of this. Since starting as a DSP in 2006, she advanced to become a team lead, service coordinator, intake coordinator, intake director, and now, the knowledge acquisition and transfer specialist, where she supports the staff training program at Optimae.

“When I started, I made a lot of mistakes that could have been prevented with training,” McHugh said. “Now, I’m proud to work for an agency where education is a core value. Through my own training, I became very passionate about what this hands-on education can do for DSPs. Ultimately, it leads to less mistakes being made, more confidence on the part of our care providers and a higher quality of service to our clients.”

One of the other aspects McHugh loves about her job is the wide range of people she helps each day. Optimae provides health care and human services for individuals with disabilities and mental illness, with programs such as community-based, behavioral health, home health, rehabilitation and residential care services. Each year, they reach more than 5,300 Iowans through their services.

“We believe that anyone can learn anything,” McHugh said. “We are in this position to see success happen nearly every day, from people who come in with nothing to being able to live independently. The best feeling is when we can help people get their lives back and they no longer need our services. That sort of rewarding work has a ripple effect in your life.”

As more Iowans seek access to rehabilitation services, McHugh said she hopes to see brain health (mental health) programs become as prevalent and “normal” as physical health programs. Regardless of the diagnosis, the focus should be on helping the person get to a better place in their lives. By growing the number of DSPs in the human services field within Iowa, she said we are planning for a better world.

“I truly believe the DSP role is one of the most important jobs within an agency.”

Bonnie Mchugh

“It’s a foot in the door to a world of opportunities, all focused on creating a higher quality life for people with disabilities. I can’t imagine doing any other type of work now that I’ve had these incredible experiences, which all started as ‘just a job’ when I was 17.”

Iowa Mental Health and Disability Services (MHDS) Regions is proud to champion human service professionals like McHugh as they find a career in this rewarding field. For more information on careers like Bonnie’s, including educational requirements, a variety of job roles and more, check out