MN Work Incentives Connection Founder Honored
On May 11th, Barb Smith of the Minnesota Work Incentives Connection received the Skip Kruse Memorial Return-to-Work Award for “tireless energy, compassion and vision, demonstrated in promoting the use of Social Security Administration (SSA) employment support programs for people with disabilities.” Barb is only the second non-SSA staff member to receive such an award. SSA Area Director Paul Demers and Joani Werner, Area Work Incentives Coordinator, was kind enough to nominate Smith for this honor on behalf of Minnesota’s local SSA offices.
Smith cites many people as inspirations for her work. “Skip Kruse possessed the qualities of a great advocate. To be put in the same category with him is a tremendous honor. A driving motivation for me is the experience I have had with people with disabilities in both my personal and professional lives. I am inspired by the many people with disabilities who have triumphed over significant barriers to employment. To accomplish what they have takes courage, persistence, optimism and likely a good sense of humor.”
Praise for Smith has come in from many quarters. John Schatzlein of the Work Incentives Advisory Group cites Smith for making a difference in the community. “Barb and her staff have significantly improved access to information about the benefits and service provisions available in returning to work for a person who has acquired a functional limitation.” Joani Werner noted the outstanding service Smith provides, “Barb is very dedicated to helping our clients understand the complexities of Social Security’s return to work programs!” Tim Benjamin of Access Press also notes her unwavering commitment to what’s best for the people. “I’ve referred many people to the Work Incentive Connection to get a work analysis done, and every one has come back to me with only praise for Barb, the staff and the whole organization. They truly have the best interests of the individual in mind, rather than the interests of some other institution.”
The Kruse award is a well-deserved recognition of Smith’s local, regional and national leadership on work incentives issues. In 1993, Smith initiated the Minnesota Work Incentives Coalition, which sponsored training on a variety of Social Security, Medical Assistance and other work incentive topics. Smith was also the Coalition’s liaison to the Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities. She served on the Consortium’s Work Incentives Committee, which promoted legislative changes leading to the creation of Minnesota’s Medical Assistance for Employed Persons with Disabilities (MA-EPD) program.
In January of 1999, Smith led the creation of the Minnesota Work Incentives Connection, which helps people with disabilities navigate complex rules regarding the impact of work on their government benefits. Services are statewide and include: a toll-free telephone hotline; comprehensive Benefits Analysis reports; outreach and training on topics related to work and benefits; a State Work Incentives Support Center; and an Employment Support Network. The Connection conducts extensive evaluation, which demonstrates that receiving such assistance helps people with disabilities work more and reduces their dependence on government benefits over time.
Smith is currently leading the Minnesota Work Incentives Connection’s move from state government to nonprofit status, so that it can remain a long-term resource for Minnesotans with disabilities. “Barb is most deserving of this prestigious award because she has demonstrated outstanding leadership.,” said Rehabilitation Services Director Kim Peck. “She has been successful in building the continuum of benefits planning services for Minnesotans with disabilities that are provided by the Work Incentives Connection.”
Smith is one of a handful of national experts in the field of benefits planning, assistance and outreach. She co-chairs the SSA Chicago Regional Commissioner’s Work Incentives Advisory Group (WIAG), which includes advocates and SSA employees from all six states in the Chicago Region. WIAG’s goal is twofold—to provide the Regional Commissioner effective and timely guidance on how best to administer SSA’s employment support provisions, and to provide real solutions to real problems for people with disabilities who want to work. The groups other Minnesota representatives, Barbara J. Kuhn, Anne Lewandowski, Lolly Lijewski, John Schatzlein and Joani Werner, all had high praise for Smith. Schatzlein’s comments were typical, “Barb Smith certainly has been a tireless advocate to the SSA DEWIT advisory committee and has been a major influenecial force representing Minnesota’s persons with disabilities who desire to achieve better return-to-work options and incentives.”
Anita Boucher is the evaluation and grants director of the Minnesota Work Incentive Connection