People and Places — May 2021

MOHR awards go virtual for 2021 Virtual services swept the field in the 2021 MOHR Life Enrichment Awards, as member […]

A child at MRCI

MOHR awards go virtual for 2021

Virtual services swept the field in the 2021 MOHR Life Enrichment Awards, as member organizations adapted to reach individuals with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Opportunity Partners
Opportunity Partners

“Creative, innovative services help people with disabilities live their best lives,” said MOHR President Julie Johnson.

The 2021 winners are:

Achieve Services, Blaine, was honored for The Morning Show.

The show is the brainchild of behavior specialist Ralph Vossberg. The new virtual services program is filled connection gaps created by the pandemic. The Morning Show is patterned after radio and television programs, and offers an entertaining look at news, sports and weather.

The show serves as a daily check-in and day starter for people with disabilities. It’s designed to be interactive, engaging with participants who discuss their activities and interests. It includes a changing slide show, a music video and pet cams.

“We also hope their interests are expanded,” said Achieve Services Development Director Jennifer Dieter. “They are developing or enhancing social skills around waiting to talk, listening to others and accepting different opinions.”

Achieve Services
Achieve Services

Regional nonprofit MRCI is honored for the New MRCI: Community-Based Day Service, which aims for true inclusion. MRCI places individuals with disabilities into groups of four. Groups spend each day in the community.

The concept moves beyond the idea of “outings,” with the community as a place to explore, learn and connect with others. Inclusion involves fellowship, while learning skills needed to be more independent.

Participants work toward personal goals, meet new people, and develop new supports and friendships. MRCI closed facilities in Chaska, Shakopee, Rosemount and Fairmont, and consolidated facilities in New Ulm and Mankato. What was a five-year plan for change was accelerated by the pandemic. Eventually MRCI hopes to have 150 to 200 minivans on the road each day to provide the service.

MSS, St. Paul, was honored for its virtual classes and engagement to build relationships. Isolated at home due to COVID fears and rules, MSS clients and staff assembled for Zoom classes to meet individual needs. It was a quick learning curve.

Offerings grew to more than 50 different class choices for participants each week. Users help drive content. New friendships have sprouted and grown, as people learn about musical interests of others, pets’ names, favorite foods, sports, artists and more. People who are nonverbal get assistance from staff to engage, and use the “chat” function.

The program includes outside partners. Upstream Arts, Kairos Alive, MacPhail Center for Music and Roots Music assist with classes.

Opportunity Partners, Minnetonka, is honored for virtual services that provide mental and social stimulation for growth and independence. The pandemic opened a new door to provide services to people with disabilities where they live. Virtual services bypassed the need to navigate many sensory experiences clients faced.

There was no playbook for the new service starting in summer 2020. It began with group sessions and one on one classes. Because individuals missed their friends, social hours were scheduled.

Engagement was enhanced, new interests explored and new friendships made. They shared about hobbies, pets and other facets of their lives. The use of technology has brought added growth and independence for many. Virtual services offer another avenue to reach others, even after the pandemic.

Pinewood Cloquet, Inc. of Cloquet was honored for the library reading program, which is done with the Dollar Parton Imagination Library and United Way Carleton County.

The library program was intriguing, as it incorporated story time for children from infancy to five years old. Individuals read to children remotely, on camera. But what if the people with disabilities served could not read, or became camera shy? How would they be chosen to take part? It was a giant leap of faith.

Curiosities grew, and more people took interest. People went from being nervous to excited as they showed their skills and reached young people with enjoyable content. All the while, they built their confidence.

WACOSA of Waite Park is honored for its Connect Academy, which provides emote engagement and learning through creative expression and technology.

Advanced video and studio equipment enhances WACOSA’s effort at virtual services with help from 12-year veteran direct support provider Mike Nichols.

Connect Academy began before the pandemic began. Technology was adapted for safe virtual alternative services.

Content for Connect Academy classes are adapted and tailored to individual choices. WACOSA has engaged a weather reporter from a Duluth television station, experts in the disability field and others to provide engaging material. The group is confident that the classes will benefit people in ways that will continue well into their future lives.

One-year anniversary celebrated

A change in Twin Cities accessibility solutions is marking a one-year anniversary. Lifeway Mobility has invested in Disabilities, Inc., which has done business as Twin City Stairlifts/Ability Solutions for almost 20 years.

Twin City Stairlifts/Ability Solutions is a licensed dealer of stairlifts, wheelchair lifts, residential elevators, ramps, step-in tubs and overhead lifts. It also offers bath safety and other home modifications that improve their clients’ well-being and independence. Bruce Stevenson, the company founder, remains a shareholder. He and his experienced local team have joined the Lifeway Minneapolis team to continue to serve those with limited mobility and provide excellent customer service.

Lifeway Mobility Minneapolis now serves Minnesota and western Wisconsin through from Twin City Stairlifts/Ability Solutions’ office and showroom at 1528 Cliff Road E. in Burnsville

 “It was very exciting to have the opportunity to join Lifeway’s team,” said Stevenson. “Their robust marketing programs, integrated operating system and capital resources have enabled us to enhance our customer experience as we accelerate our growth. Above all, their values and commitment to excellence align perfectly with those that have made Twin City Stairlifts/Ability Solutions a leading access provider.”

Lifeway Mobility President Paul Bergantino was excited to welcome Twin City Stairlifts/Ability Solutions to the Lifeway family, “Bruce and his team are impressive,” he said. “They bring a level of customer care and expertise that complements Lifeway Mobility’s presence in the region by expanding our product offering, service capacity and coverage area.”

Lifeway Mobility is an accessibility solutions provider serving the Midwest, California, western Pennsylvania and southern New England. Lifeway Mobility offers a full selection of accessibility and safety equipment for people with mobility limitations, including stairlifts, wheelchair lifts, elevators, ramps, transfer lifts, and bath safety solutions. To learn more about Lifeway Mobility, visit

Grants issued for projects

Innovations that help serve people with disabilities in Minnesota have received nearly $1 million in state grant funding. The Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) recently awarded $991,171 to 10 service providers, supporting people with disabilities to live and engage with others in their communities and access improved employment opportunities.

“Providers that received innovation grants are doing critically important work every day,” said Assistant Commissioner for Community Supports Gertrude Matemba-Mutasa. “These grants empower them to go above and beyond, to find better ways to support Minnesotans with disabilities.”

Services providers had to adapt their approaches for the COVID-19 pandemic, as many in-person services couldn’t be offered or had to be modified in response to pandemic rules.

DHS distributes innovation grants in three groupings. The latest awards are for the large grant program, which awards contracts up to $500,000. A small grant program is also offered, which awards contracts between $5,000 and $50,000 per year to people and organizations working with Minnesotans with disabilities.

The third offering is a microgrant program, administered by the Arc Minnesota. It offers funding directly to people with disabilities to help them achieve their personal goals in employment, housing and community integration.

Large grant recipients are:

ACT Center for Disability Leadership, formerly Advocating Change Together, $100,000 for “Living the Way WE Want — Housing Choice.” It is a new 12-session course that uses hands-on, experiential learning in interactive workshops to build individuals’ capacity to explore, express and take action on their personal choices about where to live, with whom and in what type of housing. ACT Center is based in St. Paul.

ARRM – Advancing Statewide Technology Resources & Trainings, $100,000 to support people with disabilities through online educational resources and training, which will be available statewide. ARRM is based in South St. Paul.

Central Minnesota Jobs and Training Services (CMJTS), $100,000 to promote better health and well-being of people with disabilities in Central Minnesota, CMJTS will raise public awareness about the importance of direct care positions. The agency hopes to increase individuals entering and staying in direct care positions and career pathways. CMJTS is based in Monticello.

Inclusive Networking (IN), $100,000 to train and support Fortune 500 companies’ staff to implement a customized employment and support program, customizing jobs for people with disabilities in five departments at each company. The project partners with employment agencies that provide services to job seekers with disabilities. IN is based in Bloomington.

Minnesota Deaf Muslim Community: St. Paul, $100,000 for a partnership with Rise, Inc. The Minnesota Deaf Muslim Community will work with Black, indigenous, people of color refugees and immigrants who are deaf and hard of hearing to provide internships and apprenticeships in treatment clinics, home care agencies, assisted living centers, nursing homes and day training and habilitation centers. The Minnesota Deaf Muslim Community is based in St. Paul.

Regents of the University of Minnesota, $100,000 for a project to examine the validity of a program that supports employment for people with autism spectrum disorder and their families. It integrates existing programs into a virtual program that allows families from across the state to access personalized support that otherwise may not be available in their geographic area.

Shakir Consulting Services, $100,000 for the housing stabilization services provider. Its culturally responsive project will address racial disparities and aims to achieve racial equity for Minnesotans with disabilities in underserved and marginalized communities, particularly historically Black, Indigenous, immigrant and refugee communities. Shakir Consulting Services is based in St. Paul.

South Central College (SCC) $98,210 for the Uniquely Abled Academy (UAA). UAA is a pilot program at community colleges in California that focuses on bringing young adults with high-functioning autism into computer-controlled machining workplaces. Using a modified UAA curriculum, SCC will build a network of stakeholders to support individuals during a 13-week summer program to see them through to hiring and employment by a local manufacturer. The college is based in North Mankato.

University of Minnesota Institute on Community Integration (ICI), $100,000 to develop a replicable model to transform the state’s 4-H clubs to be inclusive of youth of color with intellectual and developmental disabilities by expanding the skills of the 4-H workforce. Clubs selected to participate are in urban and rural areas to engage youth from underserved and immigrant communities. ICI is based in Minneapolis.

Well Being Development, $92,961 to develop peer employment readiness programming for people with disabilities. Programming will take place at its Northern Lights Clubhouse, where adults with mental health and other challenges can reach personal goals through meaningful activity. The program is based in Ely.

The Arc names public policy director

New public policy director named

Julie Burkstaller
Julie Burkstaller

The Arc Minnesota has announced that Julia Burkstaller is its new public policy director. In her previous work as coordinator for This Is Medicaid and as public policy director for Girl Scouts River Valleys, Burkstaller developed expertise in legislative relations, bill tracking/analysis, and community organizing on a broad scale. She also has experience in co-creating racial equity frameworks, which has informed her understanding of the critical intersection of disability and racial justice.

Burkstaller believes that “people with lived experience are the true influencers for equitable policy change—especially Black, Indigenous, and people of color. In my advocacy work, I support all movements, I’m a resource for all people with lived experience, and work alongside them rather than lead them.”

In partnership with staff statewide, self-advocates, and strategic coalition partners, she will be responsible for achieving the organization’s state and federal public policy, legislative advocacy, systems change and voter engagement goals. Burkstaller will work directly with former public policy director, Alicia Munson, who became chief program officer in January.

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