A man who has made it his work life’s mission to help people with disabilities find meaningful employment is the 2010 Access Press Charlie Smith Award winner. Steve Kuntz is this year’s Charlie Smith Award honoree. The award will be presented Friday, Nov. 5 at the Minneapolis Airport Marriott in Bloomington.
For several decades Kuntz has been a tireless advocate for people with disabilities. Beginning as a direct care staff at Courage Center and progressing into positions in which he has always worked to improve the lives of those of us with disabilities. He has worked persistently to place people with disabilities into good jobs that have allowed people with disabilities to leave productive, meaningful lives. He has worked at Goodwill/Easter Seals and TBI Metro Services (for what is now Opportunity Partners). He is currently a program specialist in rehabilitation services in the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED).
“I’m very humbled and honored to receive the Charlie Smith Award,” said Kuntz. He and the late Charlie Smith were very good friends, and Kuntz served on the Access Press board several years ago, so the award is meaningful personally and professionally.
“Steve is a role model in our state for helping people with disabilities in the field of employment,” said nominator Joani Werner. “He really believes in people with disabilities and their ability to work self-sufficiently.”
“I know he has personally had to fight the system to be able to do his job in the way that it needs to be done to really get good paying jobs with benefits for people and not just place people in “token” positions,” said Linda Wolford, manager, Disability Student Services at the University of Minnesota. “Steve works harder than anyone I know often sending out e-mails at 3 a.m. and working until late in the evening to do what it takes to get people with disabilities employed. His reputation as a successful placement specialist for vocational rehabilitation caused the state to create a position for Steve to hire people with disabilities in state jobs and to help the state become a model employer for people with disabilities.”
Kuntz’s success has attracted the attention of the federal government. When unemployment in the disability community is very high, Kuntz has a placement rate of well above the norm. Yet his clients’ and supporters note that he does his work quietly and without taking credit for himself.
“He is driven by a deeper mission to better the lives of people with disabilities and to do what it takes to make that happen. It is not about ego or publicity but rather about doing the right thing,” Wolford said.
“Steve has a unique ability to encourage people. I wasn’t around when Steve was involved in encouraging Charlie to start Access Press. But, if it wasn’t for Steve’s encouragement I wouldn’t have been able to take on the role of executive director of the paper and been as successful as I have,” said Access Press Executive Editor Tim Benjamin.
“This guy is absolutely tireless and relentless to ensure that people with disabilities have meaningful work,” said Rod Haworth. He is Kuntz’s supervisor at DEED. He said Kuntz has not been afraid to challenge assumptions about people with disabilities and the work they can do. He also has worked since 2006 to make the state and state agencies into model employers for people with disabilities, through various programs including Pathways to Employment, a multi-agency program.
“It’s really through his energy and innovation that we have been able to create programs and give people opportunities,” Haworth said.
One of Kuntz’s many workplace accomplishments is to get people with disabilities working in workforce resource center rooms, to help job seekers. That began with 12 youth interns in 2007 and became so successful, it has been expanded to include adults. That program became a steppingstone for other jobs.
Another accomplishment is launching an employment program for people with disabilities at the Minnesota Department of Transportation, a program featured recently in Access Press.
Kuntz said he believes that people with disabilities deserve a chance to have meaningful work. “People with disabilities inspire me every day,” he said. “I admire their resilience and their wanting opportunities and the American Dream. People want to work, to find transportation and to live independently, and I want to be part of that. The people I work with are truly incredible people and they have taught me so much,” he added.
Kuntz has many stories about clients who have inspired him. One man, Randy Booker, went back to work following a brain injury. Booker has been at 3M for 16 years. “Every Nov. 1, on the anniversary of his starting his job, he sends me a letter and thanks me.” Kuntz’s commitment to the community goes beyond his job. He has served on the Americorps Advisory Committee. He is currently involved in activities including the employer focus group of the Anoka Workforce Center. He also helps people in his free time and stays in touch with friends, helping them in their time of need. One activity he enjoys is making sure friends with disabilities can enjoy Twins games.
“Steve has lived his life in the spirit of Charlie and I can think of no one who deserves this award more,” Wolford said. “He truly embodies the spirit of the Charlie Smith award in the social change that his efforts have brought about and the improvements that have been made to the lives of people like me with disabilities — whether that be through placing someone in a job or just being their friend.
Kuntz is a native of Dickinson, North Dakota. He is a graduate of Normandale Community College and the University of Minnesota. He and his wife Wendy have two children, Alyssa and Anthony. They live in Crystal.
Tickets for the banquet are available by calling 651-644-2133. Read a longer version of this story online at www.testing.accesspress.org