The 2021-2022 Partners in Policymaking graduated 22 individuals in May, with a large group of friends and family members attending. Graduates and their family members have a wide range of developmental disabilities, as well as physical disabilities.
The keynote speaker was self-advocate and activist Jillian Nelson, who welcomed the graduates into the family of trained disability advocates. Nelson was part of Class 24 and is now a board member on the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities (MNCCD). Nelson works for the Autism Society of Minnesota.
MNCCD has conducted the training program for the past 35 years. Colleen Wieck, who is considered to be the program’s architect, took action when she realized that parents were testifying to legislative committees and could be more effective if they could have training, and cultivate effective partnerships with all decision makers along the way.
The graduates reflected on their experiences. All agreed that Partners in Policymaking helped them become better advocates for themselves and their family members, and to speak out when help is needed. They appreciated learning about disability history, their rights and how legislative processes work. All said they will use the knowledge gained in the future.
Battle Lake resident Darlane Miller was encouraged by a social worker to apply for the program. Miller has two daughters who live with brain damage, and the family struggles to find services in Greater Minnesota. Their closest mental health center for children is in Willmar, more than 100 miles away. That means a two-hour drive with a child in crisis. She now wants to work on advocacy as well as seeking changes in funding her daughters would benefit from
Cassie Kallis, Plymouth, signed up for the class when she was “completely frustrated and burnt out with the school district and special education department.” She is raising three children with Fragile X Syndrome. Her focus is to have her children included in the mainstream of school life.
Jaxson Seguin, Proctor, was encouraged by his mother to take the course. She is a Partners graduate. He found the most moving and inspirational parts of the class was hearing personal stories of class members who have disabilities, and parents discussing the challenges of raising a child with disabilities.
Sequin has a passion for politics and gained skills to take to meetings with his community school board and his state senator.
Theresa Edelman and her husband Matt live with dwarfism. The couple is raising four children with the same disability in addition to autism and intellectual disabilities.
Edelman learned the most from her fellow class members and graduates of the program who were willing to share their wisdom and experiences. The class taught her how to access support systems and to partner with elected officials to make policy changes. Her plan is to find more ways to access support for her children.
Usha Ramakrishnan of Woodbury and her husband are raising a son with cerebral palsy. The teamwork and variety of connections is what attracted her to apply for the class. She found that each class taught her something new, especially the small group discussions. There Ramakrishnan gained experience in communicating as English is her second language.
Ying Liang, Woodbury, has a son with autism and developmental delays. He is in need of constant supervision. Liang credits her new perspective on her son to Partners in Policymaking. She explains this change as having more respect for him and more hope for his life. “Things I once thought were impossible, are now possible,” she said.
Kaylie Schmidt, Otsego, has a son with severe anxiety and autism who requires continual care. Schmidt said she very much appreciated her classmates. “One of the greatest assets of the training is the mix of people that I had the privilege of going through this process with.” Schmidt now considers them lifelong friends and is grateful to learn from them.
Nicole Lucas, Albertville, is guardian for her twin sister, Chelsea, who is deaf and has cognitive disabilities. Almost 30 years ago, their mother attended the Partners program and gained advocacy skills and without a support group, fought tirelessly for her daughter’s education.
As a guardian and special education teacher for 17 years, Lucas found the disability experts at Partners refreshing. As an avid researcher herself, Lucas said, “Each speaker made me think differently, made me inspired and feel supported.”