Longtime leaders feted: Many are honored for work during 2017 session

When the Minnesota Legislature convenes in 2018, two longtime disability community champions will be missed. The Arc Minnesota’s Steve Larson, […]

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When the Minnesota Legislature convenes in 2018, two longtime disability community champions will be missed. The Arc Minnesota’s Steve Larson, who is winding down his work as senior policy director, will step down in July after his successor is named. Anne Henry, a mainstay at the Minnesota Disability Law Center, will retire this fall.

The two were honored May 23 with lifetime achievement awards from the Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (MNCCD). Despite the uncertainties of a special legislative session, a large crowd gathered at the Minnesota Department of Transportation
(MnDOT) Building to recognize Henry, Larson and several others who made a difference in 2017.

Larson was honored for his decades of advocacy work. Henry was saluted for her work on justice issues. Both said the award means a lot to them, and that they value their work with MNCCD. Board Chairman Randall Bachman said Larson and Henry have much in common.

“When I think of both of them certain adjectives emerge: commitment, caring, persistence, knowledge, and wisdom. Both are idealists but grounded in the practical nuances of what it takes to impact public policy. Both exemplify the fundamental values that drive them to fight for the righteous cause. Both are well spoken and well respected both within the circles of the disability community, and with our broader partners at Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS), and with the legislature. Both have built a personal legacy that is the envy of anyone who advocates for health and justice.”

Larson is closing a long career that began in Olmstead County and continued with DHS. His advice to the group? “Hang in there … You have to be in this for the long haul.” The Arc Minnesota, where he has worked since 2003, has records indicating that in Larson’s first legislative session, parental fees were a concern. Years later he and others are still working on the same issue.

Larson urged self-advocates to continue to show up and make a positive difference through events including Tuesdays at the Capitol.

Henry said her work with MN-CCD has had a great impact personally as well as professionally. She has enjoyed seeing self-advocates develop their skills, calling that transformation “astounding.”

But Henry cautioned the group that their work isn’t over, especially with major and detrimental changes looming at the federal level. “As Mother Jones said, ‘Don’t mourn – organize’.”

“Who is going to take over your spreadsheet?” Bachman said to Henry. She is known for keeping a spreadsheet of all disability-related legislation.

The gathering was as much a time to look back and honor people, as it was to focus on what lies ahead. Ms. Wheelchair Minnesota 2017, Sheri Melander Smith, told those present that their participation during the 2017 legislative session didn’t go unnoticed. “It really does make a difference when you show up.” She urged the group to make the most of their lives, to be happy and to be powerful.

Other MN-CCD All-Stars honors were also given. Citizen advocates from the Minnesota Brain Injury Alliance showed up in force to receive the Outstanding Advocate Group Award. Members of the group joked that they would have to each keep the plaque for a couple of weeks, and have it travel like hockey’s Stanley Cup award does.

MN-CCD Executive Director Sheryl Grassie said the self-advocates are “very near and dear” to her. She called them
“fixtures” at Tuesdays at the Capitol events and noted that the members were up for anything they needed to do. The group was very involved in calling for changes to the MA spend-down limits.

Melissa Haley was honored as the Outstanding Citizen Advocate. Haley was honored for her behind-the-scenes work on legislation and with DHS. Her main focus is on autism policy and spending, with an emphasis on the parental fees issue.

Her response to the award? “It’s never about one person,” Haley said. She promised to persist when working on issues at the capitol.

Lookman Lasisi and Phillip Conley Jr. of Apple Valley Lifeworks were honored with the inaugural Outstanding Staff Award, for helping their clients get to the capitol and meet with their lawmakers.

They agreed that while it’s not always easy to get people to the capitol every Tuesday, it is an important task. Conley said the two direct support professionals had to step out of their comfort zone and “practice what we preach” to their clients.

MN-CCD also recognized six people for their advocacy work during the session: Heidi Myhre, Kurt Rutzen, Kelly Kausel, Lori Noland, Maia Uhirch and Devona Thomas.

Sen Jim Abeler (R- Anoka) was honored as a legislative champion.

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