Rise Inc. marks 40 years of helping people find success

  Forty years ago, Minnesotans with significant disabilities still lived in state hospitals. Special education wasn’t very special. Most people […]

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Forty years ago, Minnesotans with significant disabilities still lived in state hospitals. Special education wasn’t very special. Most people with disabilities didn’t plan to have careers or live on their own in the community. It was a different world then. Clients, employees, friends and supporters of Rise Inc. are looking back on those days at the agency celebrated its 40th anniversary last month.

Through the collaborative efforts among business leaders, policymakers, social service/human service professionals, educators, employers, landlords, family members, and people with disabilities, agencies across Minnesota have made great strides to address the employment, housing, and community integration needs of its citizens. Rise, Inc. is proud to be a part of those developments.


Early visionaries on a mission

The seeds for Rise were sown by Chester Tollefson of Anoka, whose son Loring was born in 1955 with intellectual disabilities. Chet wondered,“Wouldn’t it be great if…?!”

Wouldn’t it be great if Loring could go to work when he was finished with public schooling? Wouldn’t it be great if others like him in this area could experience how good it feels to put in an honest day’s labor and earn an honest day’s pay? Wouldn’t it be great if the services and programs were in place to help Rise Inc. marks 40 years of helping people find success people like Loring reach their own personal potential and really become active, contributing members of this community? Wouldn’t it be great… 

In the late 1960s, Minnesota law provided special education until the age of 18 for students who had disabilities. Tollefson knew that when his son finished school, his choices would be limited: Loring could stay home all day. He could be institutionalized or he could be involved in a “sheltered workshop” where men and women with disabilities worked primarily on production-type jobs.

Tollefson was determined to make a better future for his son and others.

“Loring was mentally slow, but very cheerful, very happy, friendly, an easygoing child who was a joy to be around, just a blessing,” his mother, Gladys Tollefson, 92, told the Star Tribune.

“But the world was different then,” Gladys said. “Loring wanted to be productive, feel good about himself, like anybody else. But others either didn’t understand or know what to do with people like Loring.”

Chester Tollefson credits former Anoka County Attorney Robert W. Johnson with helping him form a steering committee. Through dozens of calls to Anoka’s government officials and education and business leaders, Rise Inc. began. 

Chester Tollefson also called other parents as well as Anoka County community leaders in education, finance, social services, the law, and business, hoping to get them fired up about what he referred to as a “little project.” Many people were willing to help, and with $87,000 in loans, Rise opened its doors for business Aug. 2, 1971, with two trainers and four young adults who had intellectual disabilities. The program was housed in a small space at the Anoka County Fairgrounds.

“We didn’t grow up with people with disabilities,” said Lynn Noren, who came to Rise later, as a 19-year-old college intern, and is now a Rise vice president. “They were in special schools, or sent away.”

“Yeah, time went by in a hurry and I never figured it would expand to this capacity that it has,” said Chester Tollefson. Loring passed away in 2002 but not before he was able to benefit from his family’s work.

Since 1971 Rise has continued to expand, both programmatically and geographically.

Today the agency offers more than 40 housing and employment programs in 20 office facilities throughout the Twin Cities metropolitan area as well as central and east central Minnesota areas. Staff size has grown from two to more than 360 employees, with an operating budget in 2011 of $28 million.

The agency has served at least 20,000 people in its 40 years and has worked with hundreds of landlords, employers, and business partners throughout the state.


The 1970s were challenging, difficult

The men and women who incorporated Rise in 1971 were dedicated and hard-working, smart and motivated. But they soon realized it was going to be tremendously challenging to build a nonprofit human service agency from the ground up and keep it moving forward successfully. Within five years, Rise was in danger of closing its doors for good. The board of directors hired John Barrett as executive director in 1976 to help turn the struggling agency around.

Barrett hired Don Lavin, now one of Rise’s two vice presidents, to serve as program director. The two made major advancements in the agency’s business systems and its program services, designing customized vocational evaluation, vocational skill training programs, and job placement services.


Expanding program services in the 1980s

Realizing that the same services would not be effective to address a full range of disabilities, Rise designed customized programs to meet the specific needs of different disability groups, including people with mental health issues and students completing special education and entering the work world.

In response to a community need, Rise began offering housing support services and independent living skills training for people with mental illness who were homeless or at risk of being homeless in Anoka County. Together with the Anoka County Community Action Program (ACCAP), Rise opened transitional housing.

To help transport people to and from work, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) awarded Rise a $25,000 grant to purchase a mini-bus with wheelchair lift in 1985. Today, Rise has a fleet of 80-plus vehicles which drive more than 2.5 million miles a year taking 650 people to work each day.

At Rise’s production facility in Spring Lake Park, people worked on a wide range of subcontracts for area businesses. But some customers preferred to have workers come to their companies, so Rise began offering “supported employment” with a trained and supervised work crew integrated into the customer’s workforce.


Addressing needs of new disability groups in the 1990s

Rise continued to develop specialized programs to meet the needs of specific disability groups, including people with acquired and traumatic brain injuries, those who were deaf and hard of hearing, and people who had both an intellectual and a mental health disability.

When Minnesota closed its state institutions, Rise designed vocational programs to meet the service needs of people with significant intellectual and related disability conditions who were moving back into local communities.

Rise also expanded its career planning and job placement services for refugees and immigrants who had disabilities and were receiving MFIP (Minnesota Family Income Program or “welfare’). These people also faced additional barriers to employment such as cultural differences, language, lack of transferable work skills and employment experience, plus transportation and day care issues. Rise hired multicultural staff, many of whom had been refugees themselves and better understood the issues, and thus, could more effectively address the issues confronting these job-seekers.


Development in the Millenium, the 2000s

Continually challenged by limited resources, but encouraged by community interest and support, Rise helped develop several collaborative initiatives with other local nonprofit human service agencies. By combining professional expertise and resources, as well as streamlining administrative costs and duplicity in services, Rise and its partners were able to expand programs in several areas.

Among the most notable was the development of a multi-agency, collaborative project with Serve Minnesota in 2003. AmeriCorps members assisted staff with career planning and job placement support services for refugees, immigrants, and others receiving welfare. (Serve Minnesota was restructured in 2011 and is now called the Minnesota Economic Opportunity Corps.)

The Family Life Mental Health Center in Coon Rapids, with whom Rise had worked together on mental health services, became a subsidiary of Rise’s in 2009. The day-to-day operations of both organizations remain the same, but the collaboration between staff and the integration of services enhance participants’ opportunities.

In today’s difficult economy, Rise Inc’s services are more important than ever. WCCO-TV recently featured Rise Inc. and client Mary Kester, who is among about 20 adulkts with disabilities who works for Cummins Power Generation in Fridley. The company is one of many in the Twin Cities partnering with Rise, Inc., to supplement their workforces with Rise clients.

“I’m glad there’s Rise, because they’re supportive for people like me. I can’t get a job, disability you know,” she said.

Barrett said while the number of clients has grown, the core mission hasn’t changed. “Most people, whether disability or not, want a good job. They want to be able to get out and work and be as self-sufficient as possible. And folks with disabilities are exactly like that.”

Through the years, Rise staff have also lent their experience and expertise to several important national research studies in the disability / employment area as well as helped field-test some state training programs which led to improved services for thousands of people.

In addition, Rise officially “mentored” two vocational rehabilitation agencies, one in South Carolina and another in Georgia. Rise program and management staff assisted their staffs and boards of directors in refining their programs and systems.


Carrying out Rise’s original mission

Throughout the past 40 years, hundreds of professional staff and community supporters have worked hard to ensure that the efforts put forth by Rise’s original incorporators continue to flourish. On local, state, and national levels, many of Rise’s programs have been awarded for their service excellence; staff has been honored for their commitment and professionalism, and program participants have been recognized for their perseverance and accomplishments.

Rise staff and board of directors are dedicated to ensuring that just as Chester Tollefson and others envisioned it more than four decades ago, people with disabilities and other challenges have the opportunities to become active, contributing members of this community.

They are committed to providing innovative, cost-effective, and results-producing programs to assist people realize their own personal measure of vocational achievement, safe and affordable housing, self-sufficiency, and belonging in their communities, and making Minnesota a better place to live for all its citizens.

Information from WCCO-TV and the Star Tribune was used in this article.

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