Nominees share a commitment to community service

The field of candidate for the 2012 Charlie Smith Award was one of the strongest in the history of the […]

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The field of candidate for the 2012 Charlie Smith Award was one of the strongest in the history of the honors. It was a very difficult choice for the Access Press Board of Directors. Here is a look at the finalists:


Sue Abderholden

“Sue Abderholden’s ability to balance being diplomatic with toughness and assertiveness makes her a particularly effective advocate,” her nomination stated. “She has the respect of legislators and government officials who are willing to listen to what she has to say. She is always well-informed and is able to explain the details of complex policy issues to a variety of audiences.”

Abderholden has devoted her career to changing laws and attitudes that affect people with disabilities and their families. In her current role as executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Minnesota, she focuses on the stigma surrounding mental illness and the broken system of care for children and adults with mental illness. She is a frequent presence at the state capitol.

Prior to her work with NAMI, Abderholden held leadership positions with The Arc of Minnesota and PACER Center. For seven years she was the deputy state director for U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone. In that position she worked hard to make sure Minnesotans with disabilities could communicate their concerns to the senator. As president of the board of directors of the Work Incentive Connection, Abderholden led the development of the organization as an independent nonprofit. She also was instrumental in its merger with Goodwill/Easter Seals, Minnesota.

She has spent countless hours advocating on a wide range of disability issues: health care reform, mental health parity, self-advocacy, caregiver support the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employment, special education, transportation and housing. She believes strongly in the need for people with disabilities to tell their stories to policymakers. She understands the isolation that is caused by discrimination and stigma and has devoted herself to empowering people to come together to create change.

Abderholden was on the White House lawn when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law 22 years ago.

Abderholden holds a B.A. in political science from Macalester College and a master’s degree in public health administration from the University of Minnesota. Abderholden has received numerous awards for her advocacy including the NASW Citizen of the Year, Excellence Award from the NAMI National

Executive Directors Group, Paul Wellstone Advocacy Award from the Minnesota Psychiatric Society, the National Council of Executives for Arcs, the Marvelous Minnesota Woman Award from the Governor in 1991, Betty Hubbard Leadership Award from the Minnesota Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, Advocacy Award from Pacer Center and Leadership Award from the Minnesota S.I.L.S. Providers.

She has also been a Girl Scout leader, a volunteer in Minneapolis public schools, host family for international students at Macalester College, and a volunteer in numerous political campaigns. She and her family have a foster care license and provide respite care to children with disabilities.


Julie Miller Jones

Eating right is important for everyone. However, following a proper diet can pose unique challenges for people with disabilities. For Julie Miller Jones, helping residents of Dakota Communities eat right is a rewarding part of her life’s work in food and nutrition.

Jones is a professor at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, where she has twice won the Outstanding Professor of the Year Award. She also was honored with the Mysner Award, which is awarded by alumni in recognition of the professor who has most impacted their lives. In 2007 the university named Jones as a distinguished scholar and professor and as professor emerita in 2008. She has been involved with St. Catherine University for almost 40 years.

Jones has given much of her time and talent to others. Her work with Dakota Communities is an outstanding example. Dakota Communities is a nonprofit organization that is based in West St. Paul. It houses people with disabilities in more than 30 residential settings throughout the Twin Cities. When approached by the staff of Dakota Communities to help plan menus for their residents, Jones wholeheartedly agreed to help. She brought her passion for healthy and delicious food, support for Dakota Communities and love of teaching college students to the table. She and five St. Catherine students embarked on a seasonal menu revision for Dakota Communities. They prepared recipes as well as shopping lists for staff, keeping in mind the desire for residents to enjoy ethnic foods they might not otherwise eat.

Not only where the Dakota Communities residents and staff delighted with the new and improved menus, many of the residents who needed to lose weight have done so by eating right. Collectively residents lost more than 600 pounds over several months. Weight reduction can have many positive health effects. Weight loss can help people reduce the amount of medication they have to take and can help control diabetes, among other conditions. Jones’ work was especially helpful to a group of people whose weight and weight-related health issues can be challenging.

Jones has also been a keynote speaker at events around the world, and has given lectures locally and nationally. Her curriculum vitae lists includes than seven pages of presentations since 1996. She has also written articles and books about food safety and other food topics. She is considered to be an expert in carbohydrates, whole grains, dietary foods, food safety and other subjects. One indication of her stature in her field is that she is the 41st recipient of the Geddes Award, the highest award of the American Association of Cereal Chemists International. This award was given in honor of her scientific contributions.


Kim Keprios

Having a brother with significant disabilities has resulted in a lifelong avocation for Kim Keprios. Her accomplishments in the disability community span three decades. Her family ties are part of a lifelong commitment to her work and those she serves.

Keprios is chief executive officer of The Arc Greater Twin Cities, which serves the Twin Cities metropolitan area. It is one of the largest chapters of The Arc in Minnesota. She has a strong interest and background in public policy, and spent a year in a fellowship at The Arc of the United States’ Government Affairs Office.

Keprios is described as “an extraordinary champion for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families.” She has dedicated her life to the idea that people with disabilities can and should be part of the community, to live, learn, work and play as others do. She believes strongly that every life has value and that everyone is capable of making a contribution. She is a tremendous force for change and inspires others to be self-advocates and use their own voices, talents and resources to make a difference.She has been a friend and mentor to many self-advocates.

Her career as a disability service professional began with a degree in therapeutic creation. She joined Arc Hennepin County in 1982 as community services director, advancing to director in 1986. She led the chapter through successful mergers with Arc Carver County and Arc Three Rivers to form today’s organization.

Under her leadership The Arc Greater Twin Cites has developed strong individual advocacy, self-advocacy and public policy initiatives focused on self-determination and community-building. The Lifetime Assistance Program helps people with future planning. Those in special education programs can benefit from GetSet! For special education success. GetSet! For Work is a work preparedness program Abuse prevision and mentoring are other focuses for the organization.

Keprios is a strong believer in the power of collaboration and is involved with many other community groups. She has served in a leadership capacity for years through Greater Twin Cities United Way, where she has served on the board of directors and executive committee. She has also chaired the United Way’s Council of Agency Executives. She currently serves on the board of the Children’s Defense Fund of Minnesota and on the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration advisory committee. She also served as a board member for the Metropolitan Alliance of Connected Communities.

Keprios is active in NF Inc., a nonprofit that provides support and education to Minnesota families living with neurofibromatosis. Keprios and her husband John Everett founded the organization to help families.


Diana Kommer

All artists enjoy the validation of their work that a public exhibition can bring. For artists with disabilities, who may have fewer venues to display their work, the sense of pride and accomplishment gained through an art show is beyond measure. One person who helps artists from around the world is Diana Kommer. She is instrumental in putting together the Sister Kenny International Art Show for People with Disabilities, held every spring in Minneapolis. Kommer has overseen the show for two years. She has worked for Allina Health for a decade and has spent the past seven years as an administrative assistant with Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Associates in the outpatient clinic.

The art show is above and beyond her day-to-day work. Kommer is known for her outstanding dedication to the art show and for making it a good experience for all who participate—artists, their family members, art supporters and staff. Organizing the show is a large task, as more than 300 artists with disabilities from around the world participate in the show. Kommer and her son do a complete inventory of the art and prepare it for the judges to evaluate. The art show has taken place for 49 years but her nomination notes that Kommer’s work and dedication have made a great event even better. It is unusual for such an event to go on for so many years, and to have such significance for people with disabilities.

The art show has the benefit of encouraging the capacity for creative expression by people with disabilities, and increases their sense of pride and personal identity. The show also gives artists a high-profile venue at which to exhibit their works. It also is essential to promoting the programs and services of the Sister Kenny Institute, and given the institute worldwide visibility. Artists participating set their own price for work. When a piece is sold, the artist receives 75 percent and 25 percent goes to support Sister Kenny Institute. Artists receive monetary prizes in six categories.

The show wouldn’t happen without Kommer. Not only does she work carefully with every single entry, she’s also arranges for the gala opening reception, transforming a gymnasium into a place where artists and their supporters can enjoy delicious hors d’ oeuvres to the accompaniment of musicians. All of the artists who can attend wear colorful indentifying ribbons. The event is well-attended and highly anticipated by the artists, their supporters, neighbors and Sister Kenny’s current and former clients. The artists enjoy their new-found celebrity and the time and care that goes into the reception, as well as the exhibit itself.


June Lacey

“Someone who always is thinking of others first” is an apt description of June Lacy. The Ashby resident doesn’t let osteoporosis, severe arthritis and scoliosis affect her abilities to contribute to her community. Even a stroke couldn’t slow her down. She finds a way to help others every day.

While others would have given up, Lacey has chosen to uplift and help others. She always has a smile and a cheerful greeting for everyone she meets. Lacey is a lifelong community volunteer who helps individuals and organizations in many ways. Whether she is visiting nursing homes and care centers, collecting items for the needy or helping at community events, Lacey is always there for others. She has been known to hand her coat, gloves and hand them to a homeless person, so that person could stay warm.

Lacey not only displays organizational skills and initiative in founding and helping to support events, she uses her talents of song, poetry and comedy to entertain and cheer up others. She loves to make other people happy. Her award nomination stated, “She is amazing!”

Lacey, a longtime supporter of Courage Center, recently started a Midwest Walk and Roll event for the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. The foundation helps people with spinal cord injuries. The Walk and Roll has become very popular.

She also founded Project Bear Hugs, which provides stuff animals to comfort people in a wide variety of settings. Bears delivered to shelters, nursing homes and hospitals provide great comfort to people who need cheer. Lacey noted that people who may not feel free to talk about their feelings to another person may be able to hug, talk to and be reassured through the presence of a stuffed animal.

Lacey has helped raise funds and awareness for other organizations including the Multiple Sclerosis Society, the Muscular Dystrophy Association, the Arthritis Foundation, the American Cancer Society, the Susan G. Komen Foundation, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the American Heart Association, American Diabetes Association, the Salvation Army and the Disabled American Veterans. She has been a fixture at countless community events including the Minneapolis Aquatennial and St. Paul Winter Carnival. The events she has helped with also are a long list of fundraising walks, rummage sales, community festivals, bike rides, sports events and more. She was a key part of Ms. Minnesota Wheelchair activities.

This longtime disability rights advocate has taken on a number of projects that have improved the lives of others. One project was to contact federal officials to make the case for a lift or ramp at the Mall of America, so that access could be improved for special events there. She is also known for her work to improve the lives of veterans with disabilities.


Steve Larson

With a broad and deep expertise in disability issues, Steve Larson is a strong advocate who has devoted his entire career to improving the lives of countless people. His work has had a statewide impact, through a long and varied career and his service with the Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (MN-CCD). He has always worked to ensure that people with disabilities are fully integrated into the community.

“Steve pursues his passion and dedication with a keen mind, a kind heart, and an uplifting sense of humor,” his nomination stated. “There are many Minnesotans with disabilities whose everyday lives have been impacted by the work of Steve Larson.”

Larson’s career began in April 1974 when he and his wife Joan were hired as direct care workers at Mount Olivet Rolling Acres in Victoria. He became a program director at Bear Creek Services in Rochester in May 1976. Within four years, he became director of that community-based program for persons with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

He went on to become Olmstead County Human Service, where he worked from 1987-1997, attaining the rank of program manager for developmental disabilities while making major advances in community services for county residents. He then became the state of Minnesota’s director of disability services, where he worked until October 2001. There he was responsible for managing statewide programs, developing an annual budget and legislative agenda, and supervising 70-plus staff. One of his significant accomplishments involved opening up the developmental disabilities waiver program so thousands of Minnesotans with disabilities their families who had been waiting for services could secure them.

Larson was hired as Executive Director for The Arc Minnesota in the fall of 2002. During that time, he was not only the administrator of the agency, but he served as chief lobbyist/ public policy director and the point person for local chapters as well. In 2007, he decided to focus solely on public policy and proposed that the agency hire a separate person to be administrator/Executive Director. Larson has served as senior policy director since February 2008. In this role he has worked on many issues including working to reverse the 20 percent relative personal care attendant cut passed during the 2011 legislative session. He is well-known at the local, state and federal levels of government, working as an effective advocate for people with disabilities. His expertise is sought by everyone from self-advocates and families to key policy makers.

He also contributes much volunteer time to the disability community, serving for many years as district chairman for the Polaris District of Boy Scouts. The district is specifically focused on special needs scouting. Larson’s work with the district opened up many opportunities for young people.



Alan Peters

People and dogs in need find each other thanks to Alan Peters, founder and executive director of Can Do Canines. What Peters started as a program to train homeless dogs to become the “ears” for people who are deaf or profoundly hard of hearing has expanded to serve people with many other disabilities. Today, Can Do Canines trains dogs to assist people with physical disabilities, diabetes, seizure disorders and autism. For more than 23 years Peters has worked to improve and expand Minnesota’s assistance dog program by developing the highest standards in training and graduating almost 400 assistance dog teams. Peters serves as an ambassador to civic and professional groups to raise awareness of the positive affect assistance dogs can have on an individual, families and the community at large. This work provides society with a better understanding of disabilities and opportunities to help every person lead a more independent life, thanks to a specially trained dog.

Prior to the founding of Can Do Canines, it was much more difficult for area residents to obtain an assistance dog. Many programs charged for their services or only trained dogs for a limited number of disabilities. Can Do Canines has grown to become the largest organization accredited by Assistance Dogs International in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois.

A passion for work with assistance dogs prompted Peters to leave a successful private business career.

He not only followed his dream, he and everyone else at Can Do Canines work hard to reach new milestones each year. Whether it’s an individual turned away by their programs or a dog abandoned at a shelter, Peters works tirelessly to find a positive result. He also makes sure that all clients, regardless of ability to pay, can have an assistance dog.

His unwavering dedication to the assistance dog industry has resulted in a $4 million capital campaign and a permanent home for Can Do Canines. This effort will make it possible for the organization to continue to grow and service clients in the future, and to help the organization generate needed revenues.

The work of Can Do Canines and Peters has not only changed the lives of those who receive assistance dogs, that work has also had a positive impact the lives of the dog recipients’ friends and family members.

Not only do program graduates get a sense of freedom and independence, their family members and friends know there is a safety net for their loved one.

A parent of a child who received an autism assistance dog wrote, “I never in a million years dreamed that a dog could make such a difference in my son’s life and ours.”


Joan Willshire

When it comes to addressing and resolving many issues that face Minnesota’s disability community, Joan Willshire is described as “relentless.” Her leadership and passion, as head of the Minnesota State Council on Disability (MnSCOD) and as a volunteer, is widely admired. Even after her husband’s death from oral cancer, Willshire became more energized to help others and draw attention to this health issue.

Willshire has dedicated her adult life, both professionally and personally, to improving the quality of life for individuals with disabilities. When not directing the MnSCOD staff, coordinating board activities or working on legislative issues, she is a dedicated volunteer. She has been a member of the Minneapolis Advisory Committee on People with Disabilities for more than 20 years. Willshire served for several years as chairperson and was instrumental in the committee receiving national recognition for its work on access and inclusion.

Since 1986 she has been an active and contributing volunteer at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society

MN Chapter, working on numerous projects and committees. She has spearheaded fundraisers for oral cancer, and has been a tireless advocate for oral cancer education and research since her husband’s death. She works with the Oral Cancer Foundation and raising thousands of dollars to promote awareness and find a cure.

Professionally, Willshire has been the executive director of the Minnesota State Council on Disability since 2003. She has worked at Courage Center in the medical supplies field.

In her work at MnSCOD she has outpaced other previous directors in her involvement and leadership on disability issues. She established regular statewide town hall meetings where disability issues could be discussed. She was instrumental in establishing partnerships with other state agencies that leveraged funds to address and resolve disability issues. In these partnerships, employment issues were addressed, emergency preparedness material was developed and distributed and critical transportation policy was created that ultimately provided services in additional rural counties.

She is an effective and hard-working legislative liaison, meeting with and discussing disability issues with most every legislator in office. She doesn’t hesitate to provide leadership and support on critical issues at the legislature or in the community. Her personal disability experiences give her insight and passion that other leaders in state government often lack. She also makes it a priority to network with other disability organizations throughout the state.

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