Meet the other 2015 Charlie Smith Award nominees

  Ambassadors for Respect Ambassadors for Respect is an anti-bullying initiative developed and run by self-advocates in the northeastern Twin […]

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Ambassadors for Respect

2015 Otter Lake 2 015Ambassadors for Respect is an anti-bullying initiative developed and run by self-advocates in the northeastern Twin Cities area. The program was launched in 2011 with a donation by U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank. A five-year grant from the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities has propelled the program into a cutting-edge model for anti-bullying curriculum in schools.

Teams of six to nine young ambassadors work together to present interactive workshops in the fourth grade classrooms of elementary schools. The ambassadors each share their own stories of what life was like when they were in school, including the experience of having been bullied, how it felt to be bullied, and how they responded to the situation.

The ambassadors also share their personal stories of the successes they have had since they were in school and talk about the need for respect and the focus on people instead of labels. They promote abilities versus disabilities, and provide encourage and a positive message. Students then participate in smaller break-out sessions and help identify bullying behavior and discuss strategies for preventing bullying and ways to respond when it does.

Ambassadors for Respect taps into the curiosity of young people in a positive way to learn and accept differences, and urge others to do the same. Students come away from workshops seeing that people have more things in common than differences. Everyone learns to actively help change attitudes.  Fourth graders’ comments show the positive impact Ambassadors for Respect has had. “You guys are awesome! You guys almost brought tears to my eyes! I loved your presentation. I loved the activities, especially writing something that someone said or I said that hurt me or the other person. It helped me understand to be nice”

Ambassadors for Respect continues to grow each year. During the 2014-2015 school year, the ambassadors conducted 23 workshops at eight elementary schools and reached 589 students. Principals at the schools where they have conducted workshops ask them back year after year. Last year, a principal invited the ambassadors to conduct an emergency session in the case of a fifth grade student with disabilities. The student was being bullied his peers.

Ambassadors for Respect was created by self-advocates as a real-world response to the increase of bullying incidences and intensity in schools and in the community-at-large. These self-advocates took it upon themselves to reach out to young people in their school settings to foster an environment of caring for and acceptance of others.

Organizers of the program have begun to meet with other advocates who are interested in replicating the program in the southern suburbs of the Twin Cities. The Ambassadors proudly share the keys to success in their program.



Mary Margaret O’Hara Anderson

Mary Margaret O'Hara AndersonThe late Mary Margaret O’Hara Anderson is remembered for her tireless work for people with disabilities. Her efforts on behalf of Minnesota’s disability community spanned many years and many topics. Anderson died in June.

Anderson is remembered by many friends for working on numerous issues, including personal care attendants, housing, accessibility, education, independent living, employment and transportation and transit access. She was a founding member of the United Handicapped Federation, a group that many of today’s disability service organizations have roots in.

She was a leader in the effort to found centers for independent living in Minnesota and at one time served as director of the Metropolitan Center for Independent Living. She once chaired the Minnesota State Council on Disabilities. More recently she served on the Minnesota Governor’s Council for Developmental Disabilities.

“Mary devoted her life blood and energy to disability advocacy issues,” said nominator David Sherwood-Gabrielson. “Despite the ups and downs of her own health and disability challenges, she worked without ceasing.” He recalled that Anderson had a role in many of the issues involved Minnesotans with disabilities, using her passion for volunteering and organization skills to get things done.

“Because of Mary, our community — whether we think of the Greater Twin Cities or of Greater Minnesota, is a better place to live — for all Minnesotans,” said Sherwood-Gabrielson. “Besides her organizational and volunteer work, Mary was an organization in and of herself in her willingness to connect with people and do the necessary work of advocacy and education.”

Many people have stories about Anderson and her decades of activism, as well her work at the state capitol on a wide range of issues. She would explore buildings inch by inch to make sure accessibility guidelines were met. She was respected for her ability to cut red tape and help people, and to draw media attention to issues that needed correcting.

She also had a sense of humor. One story she liked to tell was about meeting then-St. Paul Mayor George Latimer, when she was checking a bathroom for accessibility. There was the mayor.

One of her causes was making sure people with disabilities could get the vehicle parking tags they need. She successfully pushed state officials to get thousands of expired disability parking tags off of the books, and to increase fines for those who violated parking regulations.

Anderson was once honored by her good friend, former Congressman Jim Ramstad, with a citation in the Congressional Record. Former Gov. Rudy Perpich declared February 8th 1980 “Mary O’Hara Anderson Day” in Minnesota, She and her husband Mike were the longtime managers of Arbor Pointe Apartments in St. Paul, ranking third in a national survey for outstanding customer service.



Disability Viewpoints: Jo Erbes and Mark Hughes

Disability Viewpoints’ host Mark Hughes is part of a team that won another Hometown Media award. Photos courtesy of CTV

Jo Erbes and Mark Hughes are two key members of the team that brings “Disability Viewpoints” to eager viewers. “Disability Viewpoints” is an award-winning, monthly community access television program. Airing for more than 15 years, the program is the nation’s longest-running cable access show focusing on people with disabilities.

It is carried on several cable channels other than CTV and has been aired on Twin Cities Public Television. Mark Knutson nominated Hughes, Erbes and “Disability Viewpoints” for the award. “The show is an Jo Erbesopportunity for people in the disability community to get their information out,” said Knutson. “The show also covers what is happening at the state capitol.” Knutson noted that without the show, issues important to community members wouldn’t receive coverage.

Hughes, Erbes and their team of co-hosts and guests explore a wide range of topics in the shows, ranging from public policy updates to the latest advances in assistive technology.

Erbes is a longtime show volunteer and helps produce the show, working with a group of dedicated behind-the-scenes volunteers. Erbes and Hughes have helped many of the crew go on to produce other shows, volunteer for other public access program or use their volunteer experience as they pursue careers.

Many elected officials and community activists appear on the show, because they know they will reach a large audience. “Disability Viewpoints” presents information that is important to people with disabilities, and that doesn’t appear on other television shows. “Disability Viewpoints” has won several national Home Town Media awards. The awards are given by the Alliance for Community Media.

The awards honor and promote community media and local cable programs that are distributed on public access cable television channels. Awards are presented to creative programs that address community needs, develop diverse community involvement, challenge conventional commercial television formats, and move viewers to experience television in a different way.

The show is produced at the CTV Studio in Roseville. The North Suburban Access Corporation, known as CTV, is a non-profit organization that provides public access community television to the cities of Arden Hills, Falcon Heights, Lauderdale, Little Canada, Mounds View, New Brighton, North Oaks, Roseville and St. Anthony. CTV is managed by the North Suburban Communications Commission, which is made up of representatives of each of the member cities.

Outside of their work with “Disability Viewpoints” Hughes and Erbes are very active in the community. Hughes is active with Shriners and with various advisory groups including the St. Paul Mayor’s Advisory Council for People with Disabilities. He has also worked on accessibility and public safety issues. Erbes works for the Minnesota Con sortium for Citizens with Disabilities.

In the past she worked for United Cerebral Palsy of Minnesota as executive director and the Minnesota STAR Program.



Drama Interaction

Drama InteractionDrama Interaction is a nonprofit organization that provides performing arts programming for children and adults with a wide array of cognitive and physical disabilities. Through classes and performances, participants experience the joy of performing arts. They receive theater education, helping to build self-expression and self-confidence. Program participants learn and improve on interpersonal, communication and problem-solving skills. The participants enjoy shared social experiences, make new friends and have fun.

Drama Interaction is based in Edina and works with individuals and disability service groups throughout the region. Program founder Bonnie Neumann began the non-profit organization in order to provide the unique experiences of theater and performance to all individuals, regardless of any physical or cognitive disabilities. She is currently the organization’s president and program director.

Neumann has a long resume of service to others through her theater work. She is also known for her efforts toward inclusion. She founded In the Company of Kids Performing Arts Center in 2006 and Drama Interaction in 2011. She is praised as a compassionate and tireless volunteer, who wants everyone to have the chance to perform. She works to develop the creative gifts and strengths in each and every participant through theater, music, dance and puppetry

Drama Interaction seeks to focus on the ability of the participants and the talents each person has. Members of the group develop their own understanding of various disability groups through pursuing their own training about autism spectrum disorders, intellectual disabilities and other disabilities. Keeping various disabilities in mind, every class and experience is tailored to the interests and strengths of those children and adults involved, added nominator Jill Kuzma.

Neumann’s work is praised by those she works with. One testimonial stated, “Bonnie is the perfect blend of cheerleader, facilitator, show person and theater coach. She grew up in theater, starting dancing when she was young and continuing to perform her whole life. She designed the adaptive theater class many years ago with the help of special education teachers. Bonnie wanted everyone to have the chance to experience theater and it just so turns out that theater gives everyone a chance to act out and process some of the little nuances of human interaction. Thus it makes the perfect class to work on social skills too!”

In spring 2015 Drama Interaction received funding from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council and the Legacy Fund to provide adaptive theater programs for adults to Chrestomathy’s sites located in Minneapolis, Burnsville and Eden Prairie. Chrestomathy is a day activity and habilitation program.

Kuzma said, “The work of the Drama Interaction organization has not only impacted the lives of its clients and families, but they have also been active contributors to community fundraising and support of various advocacy groups.”




Carol Fury-Fistman

Carol Fury-Fistman

Carol Fury-Fistman has a lifelong passion and commitment to serving people with disabilities. In 2001 she founded the nonprofit Assistive Technology of Minnesota, which is known as EquipALife. Her years of service span a 43-year career. She has co-authored state statutes, set up programs for people of all ages and been a champion for assistive technology.

At age 15, she was a volunteer paraprofessional in the Chaska Public Schools, helping the first student mainstreamed there. One of her first involvements in system change work was on a development team through the University of Minnesota Institute on Community Integration, to create the Minnesota Developmental Program System. This was one of the first tools created to evaluate the skills of persons with developmental disabilities. It was needed to help move people out of institutions and into appropriate community settings.

In 1980 she built, licensed and operated an intermediate care facilities for individuals with behavioral and intellectual disabilities, to meet needs during a state moratorium. Also in the 1980s she cofounded the Project SWAN day training and habilitation program. SWAN stood for Strategic Work Activities Now and was a pilot program for Hennepin County.

Fury-Fistman served on the Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted School Board for six years, where she served on the school district’s special education cooperation and worked on standards for paraprofessional certification. The standards she worked on are now required for public schools across Minnesota. She also designed the first community-based residential program for people with traumatic brain injury. ReSTART became a national model.

But Fury-Fistman’s crowning achievement may be EquipALife. EquipALife has received major grants to help people obtain needed assistive technology, and to help people with disabilities develop, expand or maintain businesses. It has also been a partner with the Twin Cities Marathon to provide volunteers and promote wheelchair racing. That is just one example of Fury-Fistman’s commitment to make sports accessible.

Fury-Fistman founded the Minnesota Regions Assistive Technology Collaborative, which ensures that services are available throughout Minnesota. She has led a variety of needed assistive technology training programs, for educators and for those involved in the assistive technology assessment process. She has raised money from private foundations to help people buy the assistive technology they couldn’t otherwise afford.

Fury-Fistman has been honored by the Minnesota State Council on Disability and the Minnesota STAR Program for her work to get assistive technology to those who need it. “To this day, Carol works tirelessly to make sure every person in need of equipment gets the right tool for the right task,” said nominator Wendy Arneson. “This is evidenced by the fact that she will respond to requests for assistance no matter what time or day of the week.”



Dianne Goodwin

Dianne GoodwinDianne Goodwin is founder and president of Minneapolis-based BlueSky Designs, Inc. BlueSky is a for-profit assistive design, manufacturing, and marketing company that provides advanced tools that allow people with various physical disabilities to do alone what they previously couldn’t do without a caregiver’s help.

BlueSky’s very first commercial product was the Freedom Tent, which enabled people in wheelchairs to pitch a tent and camp. It received editors’ pick awards from two publications and a Da-Vinci Award for universal design from the MS Society and Ford. Other innovations followed, including the Mount’n Mover, which attaches to a wheelchair and allows the user to attach devices for use and move them aside when not in use.

The Mount’n Mover enhances a person’s level of freedom and independence. As one user said, “I can now eat and talk at the same time.” More than 3,000 Mount’n Movers have been sold to individuals, rehabilitation centers, veterans’ hospitals, schools, and other assistive organizations and facilities in 25 countries. There are several accessories for the Mount’n Mover, including tools that allow it to be used while standing or while in a bed.

A Mount’n Mover is seen on CBS TV’s show NCIS: New Orleans. Patton Plame, played by actor Daryl “Chill” Mitchell, is a high-tech information specialist, and uses one of BlueSky’s products.

Goodwin has served in national roles with the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society (RESNA). Since 2006, she has served on the board of AccessAbility, Inc. and previously on the Projects with Industry, Business Advisory Council, Minnesota Rehab Services, and on the Courage Center Assistive Technology Advisory Board. She cofounded the Minnesota Assistive Technology Consortium.

BlueSky works with health institutions serving people with disabilities, including Veterans Administration hospitals, Courage Kenny Institute, Gillette Children’s Specialty Health Care and the University of Illinois-Chicago Assistive Technology Unit.

One of her more unusual projects was helping mystery writer Nevada Barr develop a character who uses a wheelchair. The resulting novel, Destroyer Angel, shows character Heath Jarrod with new assistive technology and includes the designer of the technology in the story. Readers gain a new perspective on people with sudden disabilities, learn about how technology makes a difference, and discovers that people with disabilities are people first – and not always perfect and charming characters.

Goodwin holds a B.S. degree in recreation and biology and an M.E. in biomedical and rehabilitation engineering. Her nominator, Margaret Owens Thorpe of the University of St. Thomas Small Business Development Center, said that while such credentials could have led her into engineering design at a major corporation, Goodwin is the rare person who can combine that capability with entrepreneurship, management, and marketing to take her products to the end users to the marketplace.



Highland Friendship Club

highland friendship clubThe Highland Friendship Club provides fun and meaningful activities for Twin Cities area teens and young adults with disabilities. Many people make the organization a success. It has an executive director, several part-time staff, a dedicated board and dozens of volunteers.

HFC’s goal for its members is to create friendships, have new experiences, build life-skills, and better know their community. It provides opportunities for fun while teaching young people with disabilities what is safe and not-safe social behavior when learning to make new friends, with those lessons carrying over in real life and adulthood.

In June 2002, Pat Leseman and Rosemary Fagrelius sat at the Leseman kitchen table pondering a long summer of empty hours ahead for their teenage sons, Michael and John. Frustrated at the lack of age-appropriate, interesting and accessible social opportunities for teens and young adults with disabilities, Pat and Rosemary decided it was up to them to create fun, interesting opportunities for their sons and friends.

Armed with creativity, knowledge of their community, a blank calendar and a list of their sons’ friends and classmates, the two mothers began filling the calendar with interesting, age-appropriate activities and events like adaptive recreation teams, trips to the zoo, movie nights, ball games and service projects. Assuming that other parents were equally frustrated, the women called other parents of adolescents with disabilities to see if they were interested in being part of the effort. The Highland Friendship Club was born.

Participants can take part in a full schedule of activities. Volunteers raise scholarship money so everyone can pay the fees.

The volunteers who started the group and who keep it going spend many hours planning a diverse range of activities for the participants. Young people don’t have to sit home and feel left out. They can meet new friends and do the same things everyone else their age gets to do. One recent offering is the ability to act in movies such as the Underland series, led by staff member and St. Paul Public Schools Special Education Teacher Dusty Thune. Not only do cast and crew enjoy the fun of making movies, the premieres are worthy of Hollywood. Everyone has a great time.

HFC’s work is relevant and important for several reasons. One is because of the many opportunities it provides. Without this group, young people would sit home or only enjoy limited chances to get out and enjoy themselves with their peers.

Another reason is that for many young people with disabilities, they are all too often given the messages that they cannot do things. Disabilities can create barriers, yet participation in HFC has given many young people the confidence to seek jobs and take part in other school and community activities.


June Lacey

Joyce LaceyJune Lacey is a dedicated volunteer who puts in countless hours on a wide variety of disability service and human services causes. Her work proves that people with disabilities can volunteer and make a positive difference in their communities.

Lacey has lifelong disabilities and lives with severe arthritis, scoliosis, heart issues, loss of vision and a seizure disorder caused by a head injury. She doesn’t let her disabilities keep her from helping others and inspiring others.

Lacey is a resident of Ashby, in west central Minnesota. She is a well-known leader with the nonprofit Project Bear Hugs. She delivers stuffed animals, food and clothing to hospitals, shelters, veterans’ facilities, nursing homes and victims of disasters. The donations are welcomed, especially the stuffed animals. Stuffed animals bring smiles to many faces and comfort at a time of stress and sadness.

Lacey co-directs the Strides for Strokes Walk for the Fergus Falls area, and the Midwest Walk and Roll for the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. She also sells Herberger’s gift card books to benefit the Reeve Foundation. She has raised thousands of dollars through the walks and other fundraising efforts. Having the Strides for Strokes Walk in western Minnesota allows many people to participate in the walk, as not everyone can go to events in the Twin Cities or St. Cloud area.

She volunteers with the Disabled American Veterans, Wounded Warriors project, MS Walk, 150 Bike Ride, MS Tram, MS Root Beer Float Days, Community MS Booths, 30/60 MS Bike Ride and Challenge Walk. She served on the steering committee for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation Race for the Cure. Her other cancer-related volunteer work includes American Cancer Association Relay for Life, Golf for the Cure, Bike for the Cure and Shop for the Cure.

Lacey has also helped with the Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon. She serves meals at the Salvation Army and Union Gospel Mission, and helps with the annual holiday drives at both places.

She also enjoying visiting nursing homes, hospitals and shelters, and entertaining those who stay there. Lacey has changed many lives for the better and she continues to do so.

As a public speaker and volunteer legislative lobbyist, Lacey seeks to raise awareness of disability issues. Accessibility issues are a major focus of Lacey’s. She worked to raise awareness of needed changes at the Mall of America so that accessibility improvements were made for public events such as book signings. She raised concerns with the U.S. Department of Justice about access.

“She makes a difference every day with her volunteer work, providing an individual with disabilities can make a huge impact,” said Joyce Lacey, June Lacey’s daughter.



Dick VanWagner

Richard VanWagnerHelping individuals with disabilities find rewarding employment and fulfilling careers has been the life work and focus for Dick VanWagner. Retirement hasn’t stopped him from giving back to his community. He continues to help others through his work at Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute and beyond.

VanWagner began volunteering at Courage Kenny in 2013. He first served as a mentor for the Job Start Awards. This was an internship program for individuals in Courage Kenny’s Vocational Services Department, which provided clients with work experiences out in the community.

As a mentor, VanWagner would work one-on-one with individuals with disabilities who were in the internship program. He would typically remain in touch with those he had mentored, to help them in their pursuit of career goals and provide encouragement.

Even after the program ended due to funding cuts, VanWagner didn’t lose touch with those he had helped. He has helped Courage Kenny staff in their efforts to design a replacement for the programs, so that more people with disabilities can seek internship opportunities with local companies in the future. He was the first person to step up and volunteer for the Job Start Awards. Courage Kenny Vocational Services Supervisor Lynn Vincent, who nominated VanWagner, said “He set the stage for what a program mentor could be and was a role model for other mentors.”

“Dick has been a true advocate in our community for people living with disabilities,” said Vincent. “Dick is highly respected in the disability community for his ongoing efforts to create and inclusive work force.  He has created so many connections by engaging with the business community, civic leaders, attorneys and others to raise awareness, eliminate misconceptions and create more opportunities for people living with disabilities to successfully join our work force. Yes, Dick has helped hundreds of people gain jobs but he’s done so much more for an underserved population and has bettered Minnesota through his advocacy and his passion for helping others.”

Since Job Starts Awards ended, VanWagner has taken on additional volunteer activities including helping with other Vocational Services Department programs. He also served on the volunteer recognition committee in 2014 and on the Judd Jacobson Memorial Award panel in 2014 and 2015. The award is for business entrepreneurial efforts by people with disabilities. VanWagner’s detailed review of each application is appreciated by those he works with.

VanWagner genuinely wants to see success for the people he volunteers with and does what he can to help everyone find employment that meets an individual’s skills and needs. He uses his skills and his consulting company, VanWagner Consulting Services, to help others. He is regarded as a team player by those he works with at Courage Kenny.



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