People & Places – November 2016

ProAct’s 2016 Employer of the Year awards honor Minnesota businesses that have helped the Eaganbased organization better the lives of […]

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ProAct’s 2016 Employer of the Year awards honor

proactMinnesota businesses that have helped the Eaganbased organization better the lives of people with disabilities. Honored at an annual recognition banquet in Oakdale were A-MAZE-N Products of Eagan, Popco of Minnetonka, Lofton Label of Inver Grove Heights and the YMCA Kids Stuff program in Hastings. Those companies work with ProAct’s main operation in Eagan.

Also honored this fall for working with ProAct’s Red Wing facility is Commercial Water Distributing of Zumbrota. All of the honorees work with ProAct to provide meaningful work experiences for people with disabilities.

“The value of what these companies do in bringing jobs and job experiences to the individuals with disabilities we serve cannot be overstated,” said ProAct President and CEO Steven Ditschler. “These partnerships are of mutual benefit and we are so pleased to recognize the 2016 award winners.”

Winners honored in Oakdale were chosen for four categories: Community Employer of the Year, Business Partner, Supported Employer of the Year and Vocational Partner. The designations align with several of ProAct’s services for clients.

The Community Employer honoree, A-MAZE-N Products, is a small business in Eagan led by owners Todd and Rhonda Johnson. Two individuals and a supervisor are there each day to package products for shipping. “Todd has set a standard at his business that everyone is treated like family,” said ProAct Employment Manager Heather Deutschlaender. Most of the products are used to add smoked flavor to grilled meats and the business holds weekly employee barbecue lunches to share food and flavors.

Receiving Business Partner recognition is Popco, a Minnetonka company that makes and distributes retail display components. Individuals work at ProAct in Eagan, attaching wire hooks or plastic clips to suction cups. They work with adhesives and plastic buttons, said ProAct Sales Manager Greg Pechman. “Popco is great to work with because of the type of work provided,” he said, noting that it can be performed by many individuals.

The Supported Employer of the Year winner is Lofton Label, an Inver Grove Heights company offering printed labels, flexible film, packaging and equipment. ProAct has enjoyed a 10-year relationship with the company. One individual from ProAct has been with the company for two years. He has been welcomed to the team, and had celebrations for major life events, said Deutschlaender. “Lofton Label truly creates an environment that is naturally supportive.”

Vocational Partner winner is the Hastings YMCA and its “Kids Stuff” program. The Y hosted work assessments or tryouts for ProAct individuals, embracing ProAct’s “person-centered” approach that focuses on quality of life, Deutschlaender said. “They are directly involved in each individual’s assessment process and treat everyone as if they are an employee of their organization.” Work experiences prepare people for future jobs. “The level of care and support from the YMCA has been outstanding.”

Commercial Water Distributing was named ProAct Employer of the Year by the nonprofit’s Red Wing facility, which supports a group of individuals with disabilities who work on weekdays at the filter distribution company.

The firm specializes in drinking water filters and products that use reverse osmosis. Refrigerator filters and chemical water purification are additional specialties, as are water filters for refrigerators and coffee makers.

Workers from ProAct sort and repackage the products, apply bar code labels and ready them for shipment. Maintaining quality is the primary concern, crewmembers explained. Most of the crewmembers had worked previously at ProAct’s facility in Red Wing, but these job opportunities have allowed them to work more hours and more days per week because the trip to Red Wing and back is no longer necessary. Crews are working full days, four to five days a week.

“ProAct has been an integral partner as we continue to build our business,” said Commercial Water Distributing CEO Javin Arvig. “They connect us with amazing people who help us accomplish our goals so we can provide value to our customers and the world.”

ProAct Vocational Services Specialist Sam Kapala said staff members at ProAct have been impressed with how the company includes the ProAct crew in recognition events and company meals. It does a good job of making sure the people have sufficient training and adequate work space. The jobs there have also been a great opportunity for people with disabilities who live in Zumbrota and nearby communities to work each day with a minimal commute.

The two organizations are also exploring options to bring overflow work to ProAct’s substantial packaging and assembly operation in Red Wing. Commercial Water Distributing was recently recognized for its rapid growth. It has received awards from the Better Business Bureau and Bizrate.

“However, the awards that mean the most to us are the ones that say we are a ‘Best Place to Work.’ We spend a lot of time and energy trying to make sure we have a strong culture and a great place for people to build their careers,” said Arvig.

ProAct has headquarters in Eagan, and a major operation in Red Wing. Additional locations are in Zumbrota and in Hudson, Wis. Its mission is to serve individuals experiencing barriers to employment and self-sufficiency due to intellectual disabilities.


State council gets Emmy nominations

The Minnesota State Council on Disability (MSCOD) was nominated for two Upper Midwest Emmy Awards for the council’s partnership with Twin Cities Public Television to produce The ADA at 25: Disability Rights in Minnesota. The documentary detailed the history of the landmark civil rights legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Act.

To even be nominated was an honor, as more than 1,100 entries were received. The documentary was nominated in the categories of interviews/discussion and historical.

The awards banquet was held October 29 at the Radisson Blu Hotel at the Mall of America in Bloomington.

The documentary outlined the powerful and complex history of the ADA. From its earliest flicker shortly after the passage of the Civil Rights Act to the point where it finally ignited almost thirty years later, the story of the ADA is amply documented. Through the alliances and dedicated engagement of the disability community and its advocates, policies and laws continue to be introduced (and passed) that make life in the United States more equitable for all Americans.

The documentary was released last year as part of a 25th anniversary celebration. Learn more here.


Dog treat bakery fetches jobs in Chaska

finley'sA new business in Chaska could send the unemployment rate for people with disabilities straight to the dogs. The baking, bagging and distributing all natural dog treats online and at events by Finley’s Barkery helps young adults with autism and other disabilities find employment, the use their talents and, often needed growth of socially skills.

Finley’s Barkery co-founders Angie Gamades and Kyle Gallus created their business model because they believe in investing in human potential. “We want to make the community aware of the incredible capabilities of our employees,” Gamades said.

Since launching in March 2016, Finley’s Barkery has grown from two to seven employees, moved into a larger commercial kitchen, and has had a presence at events including the Animal Humane Society’s Walk for Animals 2016, The Minnesota Pet Expo, Fast and the Furry 5k and All About Dogs Day.

Finley’s Barkery employees roll, cut, and place biscuits onto the baking sheets, bag biscuits, package, staff trade events, and distribute samples to prospective clients.

It began as a functional job skills class at Chaska High School in 2010. In a class called “Pride Biscuits,” Gamades taught special education students business basics while they baked and delivered biscuits to staff at the school.

“I witnessed firsthand the growth my students made in learning practical skills for work and life,” Gamades said. “When a student asked after graduation if he could bake dog biscuits again, we jumped at the chance.”

Finley’s Barkery, named after Gamades’ 30-pound mini-German Shepard, was started. The business, in a rented commercial kitchen, encourages adults with autism and other disabilities to use their talents to grow both professionally and personally.

According to the Autism Society of America, only 16.8 percent of people with disabilities are employed. That statistic that highlights the difficulties those with autism and other disabilities face as they move through transition and into adulthood.

Jonah Weinberg, executive director of the Autism Society of Minnesota, said that despite the overall decrease in unemployment rates, nearly 80 percent of people with autism and similar disabilities remain unemployed. “This is not because most people with disabilities cannot work,” he said. “This is because people with disabilities often struggle to get through the interview process or are placed in jobs for which they are not the right fit.”

Gamades and Gallus want to change that. “So often, we see these amazing individuals working janitorial or warehouse jobs where they are not engaging with others or learning the social skills needed for life long independence,” said Gamades. “We want to provide a work experience where our employees are working on life skills, communication, and social skills, all in a fun and exciting environment. We want them to be visible in the community so that people can see the amazing things they are capabilities.”

Gamades and Gallus work with each employee to find the best positions to fit personality and interests. That could mean allowing someone to sticker biscuit bags in a sensory-controlled environment at home, or unlocking the inner salesperson of someone who struggles with socialization. The personalized touch has created amazing results.

Kim Weispfenning said that her daughter Kirsten is happy and excited when she goes to work at Finley’s Barkery. “It means a lot to our family to have Kirsten working with Angie and Kyle and the rest of the team,” Weispfenning said. “Kirsten is a hard worker and is able to keep on task with what’s required of her. She thrives in an environment with repetition and routine, and Kyle and Angie guide and instruct her every step of the way.”

Finley’s Barkery employee Jake Brasch likes being with his co-workers. “My favorite part of work is having a good time together, joking around, and just getting along,” Jake said.

Jake’s mother, Dawn Brasch, said the sense of responsibility and pride Jake takes away from his work is invaluable. “There is pride there that I have not seen before,” she said. “Angie and Kyle are accepting of Jake’s strengths and challenges. He feels welcome, included, and accepted, but most of all he has fun doing something that he truly enjoys.”

“Our team amazes us every time we enter the kitchen or work an event,” Gallus said. “They have overcome fears, improved communication skills, increased their independence, and work so hard every time they come to work. Their work ethic is amazing, and they deserve so much credit for what they accomplish.”

Gamades and Gallus are hoping that larger corporations will take note, and bring the same optimistic attitude into programs that hire and train individuals with disabilities.

Weispfenning hopes that Finley’s Barkery will continue to grow. “Angie and Kyle believe in the abilities of all of their employees and have a fantastic product, too,” she said. “My hope is that they can continue to develop their business and employ other young adults who will benefit from the experience like Kirsten has.”

For more information about Finley’s Barkery or to order their dog treats, visit 


Inspector General Jerry Kerber retires

jerry-kerberAfter more than 38 years of state service, Inspector General Jerry Kerber, the first to fill that role for the Department of Human Services, retired October 18.

“I am proud to have been part of so many efforts over the years to help people get the services they need,” said Kerber. “I am so fortunate to have worked closely with so many people who, day in and day out, put the needs of others ahead of their own because it’s the right thing to do.”

Kerber began his state career in 1978 working with children experiencing emotional disturbance in what was then the Brainerd State Hospital. He later worked in mental health treatment programs in the Stillwater Prison, the Anoka-Metro Regional Treatment Center and the former Oak Terrace Nursing Home in Minnetonka. In 1988 he moved to the DHS Licensing Division where he held a variety of regulatory positions including director for 16 years.

Five years ago, Kerber was appointed as the first inspector general for DHS when the Office of Inspector General (OIG) was created, combining several regulatory functions and putting greater emphasis on this work. With an annual budget of $18 billion and serving more than one million Minnesotans – many of them vulnerable – it is critical for the agency to have a strong oversight arm, said Human Services Commissioner Emily Piper.

“Minnesotans rely on us to make sure the services they receive are safe and that the considerable investment of taxpayer dollars we make is well spent,” Piper said. “Over the years, Jerry was a respected and knowledgeable advisor to legislators and commissioners as we shaped public policy. Key to Jerry’s success is that he never lost sight of the client – something we can all learn from and apply to our work. He’s also been a wonderful colleague who we are all going to miss.”

Since its creation in August 2011, the OIG has established collaborative working relationships with multiple local, state and federal law enforcement agencies and prosecutors, as well as with counties and other state and federal administrative agencies. Major accomplishments during the OIG’s first five years under Kerber’s leadership include reducing infant deaths in family child care through licensing oversight and training for providers, including a safe sleep initiative, and reforming licensing for home and community-based services, which expanded regulation over services delivered by more than 1,600 providers in residential settings

Kerber also provided leadership in enhancing the criminal background studies process for employees, employers and the people they care for in health and human services using fingerprint and photos, and automatically receiving updates of criminal information from the courts. He is also credited with expanding program integrity efforts, including recovering a total of $69 million in improper Medicaid payments and establishing a child care fraud investigation unit, which has already resulted in a number of criminal prosecutions.


Assistive technology group forms

PACER Center and its technology staff have launched a new Facebook group to help people buy, sell and give away assistive technology items.

Bridget Gilormini, director of PACER’s Simon Technology Center, said the center is hoping to leverage the power of social media and connect folks who need with folks who have what they are looking for.

Gilormini is encouraging others to like and share the group on social media, to expand its outreach.

The group is called MN Special Needs Equipment for Sale and can be found here.


Challenge Course is open for fun

The Challenge Course at Camp Courage allows all True Friends campers to partake in activities and experiences including a giant swing, zip line and ropes circuit. A ribbon-cutting was held October 16 at the camp in Maple Lake. The traversing course includes harnesses for campers with full body motion and for campers who use wheelchairs. A continuous belay system connects the camper to an anchor point at all times. Once campers complete the circuit, they have the option to zip line down a 600-foot drop to the bottom. The course was custom-designed and built by Universal Ropes Course Builders, Inc. and Director of Team Quest Jason Colvin. Construction of the course began in March and was completed in July.



Seventeen teams graduate from Can Do Canines

can-do-caninesSeventeen teams from Minnesota graduated from the Can Do Canines assistance dog program October 22 at the program’s facility in New Hope. Various breeds of assistance dogs helping people with a variety of disabilities such as diabetes, seizure response, hearing loss, mobility and autism.

Part of one team earning its diploma is 11-year-old Sophia of Blaine, who lives with Fragile X syndrome and autism. She is a selective mute, meaning that frustration can lead to name-calling, hiding, and other behaviors. Her aggression and inability to calm herself down can require family intervention.

Can Do Canines partnered Sophia with a black Labrador retriever named Rylee. Rylee acts as a calming influence and helps Sophia have more confidence in school and in her relationships with others. Sophie’s mother Michelle said, “We did not know what Sophia’s future was going to be. The doctors didn’t necessarily see that there was going to be a future. I can now say that Sophia will have an opportunity to be productive and to work. I’m seeing a completely different child who has the ability to learn new skills and be a productive member of society and help others, too.”

Graduation marks the culmination of a long journey for the assistance dogs and their partners. Puppy raisers, either in volunteers’ homes or at one of four Minnesota prisons, raise the dogs or teach them basic obedience and first assistance dog skills. After 18 months, the young dogs return to Can Do Canines for final training and to begin their new life with a person in need. Dogs are provided free of charge.


McCain joins staff of Fraser

mccainElif McCain recently joined Fraser, Minnesota’s largest and most experienced provider of autism services, as clinical operations director. McCain’s responsibilities include being a partner to clinical leaders and leading improvements and changes in Fraser clinics to better serve clients and families.

McCain brings a vast amount of experience to the position. She started her healthcare career at Mayo Clinic where she trained in Lean and Six Sigma. Before joining Fraser, McCain was with HealthEast where she held a variety of leadership roles overseeing ACO programs and shared services such as RN triage, clinical messaging and scheduling. She also served as an internal consultant to executive leadership and project manager for strategic initiatives.

“We are thrilled with the clinical operations expertise that Elif brings, partnering with our clinical leaders to address system improvements to keep the children, adults and families we serve at the center of our work,” said Jan Luker, Fraser executive vice president, chief operating officer.

Fraser also provides services for mental health and other developmental disabilities for children and adults through healthcare, education and housing.




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