ALLY People Solutions, has seen a lot of change since its inception 50 years ago when a group of determined mothers set out to change disability services for good. It’s always been part of the historic struggles for the rights of people with developmental disabilities.
ALLY began in 1965 as a parent effort to provide education and socialization to their children with intellectual disabilities. The group has since evolved into a broad network of career and life support services for the 285 adults who now participate in ALLY’s programs.
Today, the group serves as a powerful example of what long-term community engagement looks like.
“For 50 years, we’ve been helping create a genuine relationship between the individuals we serve, the community who supports them, and the businesses who employ them,” said Erika Schwichtenberg, director of development and communications for ALLY People Solutions.
At the time ALLY was founded, doctors and state officials regularly encouraged parents to institutionalize children with intellectual disabilities— sending the children to state hospitals, which kept residents in dehumanizing and
ALLY (originally known as the Merriam Park Day Activity Center) revolutionized this approach. The original group of parents knew they wanted to provide socialization and recreation for their adult sons and daughters, who were normally isolated from their peers. Even more importantly, they were committed to building a culture that would treat their children as people, not as problems.
As the program developed, parents of participants shifted their focus to developing job skills. If their sons and daughters were going to live independently, they would first need the skills necessary to earn a living wage. By this time, in 1985, the group had grown to 65 participants. The agency moved to the St. Paul Midway neighborhood and rebranded itself as the Midway Training Services (MTS).
Participants worked both on-site and in local businesses. As former board member Mickey Michlitsch said, “There would be a staff trainer and five or six workers, and we had jobs at a window company and other companies, like machine companies, and direct mailing companies.”
As MTS developed, it took advantage of government funding for disability services, as well as new legislation prohibiting discrimination against those with disabilities. They pushed for more workplace integration—putting MTS participants at jobs alongside non-disabled workers—and acquired a fleet of vehicles to help participants get to their new jobs.
In the 2000s, the organization began focusing on digital imaging services—converting physical records to digital ones—which remains a mainstay of ALLY’s employment opportunities. As more participants joined the program, the group added new locations, expanding to five sites around the metro area.
Finally, in 2013, MTS adopted its new name, ALLY People Solutions, to better reflect their mission as “allies” of those with disabilities.
Today, ALLY provides a broad range of services. Its largest focus is on employment. “We have our individual placements with fifty-two area businesses that hire our program participants,” Schwichtenberg said. “We also have supported employment services, where a job coach is on the job with participants.
The ALLY employment model is “person-centered,” meaning participants go through a discovery process to figure out what jobs or services would be most fulfilling to them. “We’re not just filling jobs or reporting numbers,” said Schwichtenberg, “we’re focusing on the individual’s needs and employment goals.”
To provide this level of service, ALLY employs about 70 staff members, as well as a team of volunteers, who aid individuals and families in discovering the services that are available to them, and opportunities that best fit goals, skills, and desires of program participants.
ALLY also sets itself apart by ensuring higher wages for its participants. Organizations that provide employment services for people with disabilities are allowed to apply for a Special Minimum Wage Certificate, which permits them to pay disabled employee workers less than minimum wage. For the last three years, ALLY has refused this exemption, meaning that all participants in ALLY’s programs earn minimum wage or above.
ALLY also provides a variety of life skills services to participants, including self-advocacy training, volunteer opportunities, counseling, and recreational programs.
One ALLY participant has enjoyed particular success because of the recreational programs. ALLY participant Tony Harold-Pappas, who has been with ALLY for three years, found his artistic calling through one of the painting programs.
After taking his first class, Harold-Pappas knew he had found his passion. Since then, he has been constantly painting and has sold so many paintings that he says he can’t keep track of them. In January, he
achieved a major artistic milestone when the Ordway chose him as a featured artist in a month-long exhibit. For Harold-Pappas, the experience is therapeutic as well as recreational. “Painting is an outlet for me,” he said, “so if I have something building up inside me, I can paint instead of doing something destructive.” He reflects on his work with pride. “It’s a joy every time I see my paintings,” said Harold-Pappas. “I’m proud of what I’ve done, and how far I’ve come.”
As it passes the 50-year mark, Schwichtenberg said that ALLY is going to continue supporting and removing barriers for people with disabilities. “We’ve seen a lot in our fifty years. Before, it felt at times as if we would take a few steps forward and one step back. Now we’re ready for a renewed growth phase, and ready to engage the community we’ve worked to co-create.”
In addition to providing its normal host of services, ALLY will look to expand in a few ways. According to its strategic mission for the next three years, ALLY is committed to increasing collaboration with other organizations, while also increasing revenue. They will expand their education and advocacy efforts, and finally look to formalize a volunteer program for other people looking to get involved in ALLY’s work.