Accessible playgrounds are open
Three Twin Cities are communities have opened playgrounds that children with disabilities can enjoy. Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District 191 opened its first accessible playground this fall. The new playground at the Gideon Pond Elementary in Burnsville features a rubber floor, which unlike wood chips, works well with walkers and wheelchairs.
A mother whose daughter uses a walker and wheelchair was inspired to raise money for the inclusive and barrier-free playground. Fundraising efforts took several years, but received a boost from a $50,000 grant from U.S. Bank and the Minnesota Vikings. Some district funds were also used.
What is called the state’s largest playground for children with disabilities has officially opened in Cottage Grove. The new Woodridge Park Inclusive Playground, is a 21,000-square-foot facility —about half an acre — with a padded surface to minimize injuries from falls. It includes equipment to stimulate physical and mental development, including swings, slides, bridges, ramps and music-making stations. The playground cost about $850,000, including about $350,000 from the city.
Volunteers and city officials worked together to raise money and build the playground. “The playground started out as a dream nearly five years ago,” said Mayor Myron Bailey.
The City of Golden Valley has revamped part of the playground at Schaeper Park to be inclusive adding the community’s first “all-inclusive” play structure, built with sloping ramps wide enough for a wheelchair to maneuver. Golden Valley Parks and Recreation Director Rick Birno said that was born out of some conversations with Paul’s Pals, a nonprofit organization devoted to children with disabilities. Paul’s Pals donated $35,000 to the project. (Sources: KMSP-TV, Pioneer Press and Star Tribune)
Veterans Campground gets a makeover
A $1 million makeover has been completed for a Twin Cities area campground that is extensively used by veterans. The Veterans Campground on Big Marine Lake in northern Washington County had a ribbon-cutting and event in September to mark the latest improvements: two bridges built by Ironworkers Local 512.
Union members and more than a dozen construction companies donated labor and material to build the bridges, which are worth more than $250,000, said Lori Ahlness, a member of the camp’s board of directors and the American Legion’s representative to the camp. The campground also received a $56,000 grant to pay for some of the materials, she said. “These bridges will provide full access throughout the campground for all veterans, regardless of disability,” she said.
The camp is open to all veterans. Current proof of veteran or active-duty military status is required, such as discharge papers or military identification. Cabins rent for $275 to $425 a week; RV sites are $340 a month. Veterans who have come back from a deployment within the past year get discounted rates, and disabled veterans have preference.
For more information, call 651-433-2699 or go to vetscampmn.org. (Source: Pioneer Press)
State tours services’ transformation
Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) Commissioner Emily Piper visited Brainerd in September to see firsthand how the department has begun transforming the vocational services it offers to more than 600 clients with disabilities statewide.
In the past, vocational programs favored providing work at day treatment and habilitation facilities, where clients did jobs like sorting or light assembly. Typically, workers were paid less than minimum wage. Clients with disabilities worked together in crews or alone. They had little opportunity to interact non-disabled colleagues.
While those facilities are still appropriate for clients who prefer them, DHS and many other vocational programs across the state also recognize the need to provide better vocational options for clients who want to work in the community. The new approach places strong emphasis on direct employment at businesses in the community at competitive wages and in integrated settings.
“Our programs are placing a greater premium on employment in the community at minimum wage or better,” said Piper. “And we’re focusing on the individual interests, talents and personal employment goals of clients as we help them find and keep jobs.”
DHS launched the Vocational Opportunities and Individualized Community Employment (VOICE) program in the Brainerd area in 2016. VOICE was specially designed to help clients explore job opportunities with local employers, build their base of skills and implement a customized employment plan to help them reach employment goals.
During a tour of GreenForest Recycling Resources in Brainerd, Piper saw how the program is benefitting vocational clients and employers alike.
“I felt like I could fit in there,” said Donny O’Brien, who works four days a week at GreenForest, where he operates a baler and does other jobs. “I like it very much … I get along with people.”
DHS clients who are interested in working at GreenForest are invited to an informational interview at the facility, where they learn about the job – and can even try it out for a while. It didn’t take company owner Jeff Grunenwald long to realize that he wanted O’Brien on the team.
“He’s happy, enthusiastic and he really wanted to learn more things,” said Grunenwald. “That’s what made me want to hire him. It’s so refreshing to have someone who actually wants to come to work.”
Grunenwald, who is in the process of hiring more DHS vocational clients at facilities he operates in the communities of Hutchinson and Virginia, says programs like VOICE are especially important in a tight labor market.
“These employees do a great job. They take a lot of pride in what they do. And they take their jobs seriously,” said Grunenwald. “They’re an untapped source of great workers. (As an employer), you’re crazy not to look at that.”
Similar DHS programs are showing significant progress helping clients find work in other communities. In Willmar, 100 percent of participants in the DHS Willmar Area Vocational and Employment Services program who want a job are employed in the community, compared with 68 percent in 2015. Of those, 36 percent have been hired directly by the business where they work, compared to 9 percent in November 2015. In Austin, 60 percent of DHS program participants who want a job are employed in the community, compared to 52 percent in 2016. Of those, 35 percent have been hired directly by the business where they work, compared to 4 percent last year.
A key change is about to be implemented throughout all of DHS’s vocational programs. “Any work, no matter where it takes place, will come with competitive wages,” said Piper. “Special minimum wages for our programs are going away at the end of this month. Starting Oct. 1, all participants will be paid minimum wage or better.” (Source: Minnesota DHS)
App eyed for persons with memory loss
With a $205,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) will begin work on a new mobile app to spark conversations between people with memory loss and their caretakers and loved ones. Developers expect the app to be ready in fall 2018.
The app will display pictures of objects from the historical society’s own collection along with open ended questions to get users to talk about what they see and feel and remember. It will also be paired with free training for caregivers and museum activities that are aimed at promoting engagement, rather than conveying information.
One of the difficulty persons with memory loss and their caregivers face is sometimes how to have a conversation. Developing the app is new and exciting territory for MHS.
“It’s a real change for museums that are used to… teaching content,” said Maren Levad, who’s leading the initiative at the historical society. She said it helps people with dementia and Alzheimer’s connect with their loved ones and caregivers even after their grasp of language and memory deteriorate.
The project is based on a program called “House of Memories,” which started at the National Museums Liverpool. The historical society is the first museum outside the UK to adapt the program. The Minnesota Historical Society will act as the headquarters for the program in the United States and hopes to bring it to other regions in the future.
Levad can speak from experience. “My grandparents talked to me only about me … I was pretty egocentric in the relationship. And then when they lost the ability to understand or care about how I was doing in soccer or how my schoolwork was going, I really lost the ability to connect with them,” Levad said. (Source: Minnesota Public Radio)