Judy Lysne remembers her frustration growing up in North Dakota where her friend Richie did not attend the two-room school house with her because he had Down syndrome. Common thinking at the time was that people with disabilities could not learn. She knew this was shortsighted and just plain incorrect.
In l973, Lysne took her belief in the abilities of those who are disabled to the non-profit organization Lifeworks Services and she has been blazing trails ever since in Minnesota and internationally. Building on Lifeworks’ passion for innovation, she has initiated supported employment, giving a community presence to people with disabilities.
Her visionary leadership of Lifeworks Services, a non-profit supporting people with developmental disabilities in jobs, volunteering, art/music, and education, was recognized as she was given the first annual Brian C. Barenscheer Award for humanitarian service by the American Bank Foundation on October 7.
“Judy Lysne exemplifies all that Brian believed,” said John Seidel, president/CEO and trustee of the American Bank Foundation. “Judy’s enthusiasm, dedication and conviction have been instrumental in the enormous contribution Lifeworks has made in its 40-year history, enriching the lives of people with disabilities and the lives of those they touch.”
“Judy brought the bank and its employees to a new perception of disabled adults by encouraging us to hire them to work in our bank. They are phenomenal, inspirational employees and they have changed us and our culture.”
“Unemployment of disabled people is four times the national rate,” said Seidel. “This should be a big concern not only of business but of the entire community.”
Judy Lysne joined Lifeworks in l973. After serving as co-president with Jim McCaul, she assumed the president’s job in 2000. In her 32 years with Lifeworks, she has focused on the abilities of people with disabilities. She knew the answer was not sheltered workshops but real jobs in the community.
She started as a teacher in Lifeworks’ preschool program. Then she moved into administrative positions where she could build the capacity of the non-profit to fulfill its mission.
Founded in l965, Lifeworks started as the Development Learning Center (DLC) serving families of children with special needs. Rejecting the traditional way of caring for people with mental retardation, they wanted to educate their children and give them a place in the community.
Lifeworks established Minnesota’s first home visiting program for infants just before Lysne joined the organization. Families who were struggling with the birth of a child with special needs gained support and information quickly at home.
In 1988, the public schools in Minnesota became responsible for direct service to children and Lifeworks, then known as Dakota, Inc., began to directly serve only adults.
Never a sheltered workshop, Lifeworks learned how to place people with developmental disabilities in jobs in community businesses and then train and support them on the job. In 1985 when the first five people were employed, they earned $840. By 2004, through Life-works, 593 earned $3.74 million working in more than 200 Minnesota businesses.
In l996, Lifeworks began providing school-to-work transition services to students in special education. Students explore career options and get real work experience in a variety of industries while still in school so they are ready for a job, or already hired, at graduation.
Lysne was a leader in lobbying for a change in the way counties supported families of children and adults with disabilities. In 2001, the legislature made it possible for families of children and adults to control their own budgets for services. Those families began to hire family members, neighbors, or friends to support them.
Lifeworks’ Customized Support Services team guides the support manager (the individual, family or guardian) through the process of hiring, training and supervising staff, and manages the formal employment relationship. This brings more continuity in the care and improves quality.
Lysne is entrepreneurial. When the economy softens and jobs are more difficult to find, Lifeworks increases opportunities for those it serves with re-training, life enrichment programs, art and music programs, and volunteerism. A painting created by one Lifeworks artist was recently selected to be in a juried art show. The walls at the Lifeworks centers are covered with art created by those they serve.
For years, Judy Lysne and her husband, who also works with disabled people, have hosted officials from Denmark who have come to observe and learn from the success of the supported employment program. Denmark has always provided excellent support for people with disabilities and their families but until seeing Lifeworks was never convinced that supported employment could work.
“I can understand the skepticism both here and abroad,” said Lifeworks Board Chair Steve Wexler. “When I was at Norstan, one of my staff suggested bringing Lifeworks in. I was a big skeptic but after seeing the capabilities of people with disabilities and watching how well they integrate into an organization, I became totally supportive. The Lifeworks clients become an inspiration to the employees and actually made us more efficient as well as improved our company’s morale. It is my goal to convince more businesses to be involved in supported employment.”