As a social work intern in 1991, Cass Robinson helped establish the Arc chapter in Bemidji. Since then the chapter has developed into a beacon of hope for self-advocates and their families in Northern Minnesota. Robinson’s commitment, hard work, and passion for the disability community culminated in July with her retirement from the position of co-executive director of what is now Arc United. Her warm presence will be missed by co-workers and self-advocates alike, who thank her for 28 years’ service.
Robinson’s work began in 1986 as a regional representative on the Arc Minnesota Board. She was hired in 1993 as a field representative covering all of northern Minnesota. She later advanced to the position of executive director of Arc Headwaters and then became co-executive director of Arc United when Arc Headwaters and Arc Central Minnesota merged.
Throughout her many years of service Robinson selflessly dedicated herself to organizing parents, giving voice to self-advocates, and providing resources and trainings. From the beginning she’s has been known for her determination and creativity. Bev Kaler, her co-executive director said, “Cass saw a need and did something about it.”
Don Larsen, a self-advocate and member of Arc, remembers working with Robinson to start People First, a program to empower people with disabilities to take more control of their lives. He praises her willingness to try new things and work as a problem-solver.
Self-advocate Gail Larsen said Robinson is a strong advocate and teacher of self-advocates. Larsen attributes the advancement of the self-advocacy movement in Northern Minnesota to her, saying, “Cass got 17 counties in Northern Minnesota involved with the movement!”
“The Arc has been blessed to have Cass as part of this movement, it is far richer because of her presence and contributions, and there will be a huge gap to fill now that she is no longer a staff leader in The Arc United’s Bemidji office,” said Mike Gude of The Arc Minnesota.
Robinson is also an extraordinary parent. Six of her eight children have disabilities. Sharing her own experiences with other parents has helped many families. Robinson also relied on her sense of humor to handle what can be a demanding job. She and Kaler used humor to get through difficult days.
Each year, Goodwill-Easter Seals Minnesota, a leader in workforce development, presents its Participant of the Year award to individuals who display tremendous effort and determination while accomplishing their employment goals. Helen Edwards, this year’s winner, lives by the motto, “Never say never. Set your mind and go after what you want.”
Abandoned at three months old, shot in the head as a teen, then abused by a husband for years, Edwards has faced many challenges. Seeking a fresh start and self-sufficiency, she found her way to Goodwill-Easter Seals Minnesota. She enthusiastically and diligently worked on her communication skills and confidence, while dealing with a traumatic brain injury, aphasia and depression.
“With Goodwill-Easter Seals, I learned not to let your disability get in the way of your future, of your dreams,” she said. She was recognized last month at an awards ceremony at Goodwill-Easter Seals’ main office in St. Paul.
“Helen developed her own capacity to communicate and find her voice,” said Goodwill-Easter Seals President and CEO Michael Wirth-Davis. “Her continuous improvement and development of her job skills enabled her to find a job path that is successful for her. It’s our mission to eliminate barriers to work and independence. It’s a privilege for us each to be able to be part of Helen’s success.”
She works as a housekeeper at a nursing home, where she loves her job and the residents.
“I feel like they need me and I need them,” she said. “Goodwill-Easter Seals helped me find my place. And helped me with things that make my life better to live, and be happy and successful in. They helped me, my whole world. It just gave me a whole different look out on life. Now I know what I can do. I had a chance to try and they were there to back me.”