Willmar resident overcomes injury, wins award

 Goodwill/Easter Seals Minnesota, a leader in statewide workforce development, presented its Participant of the Year award to a longtime Willmar resident. Kevin Haakenson accepted the prestigious award at Goodwill/Easter Seals’ 2012 Power of Work event May 17 at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul. The award recognizes exceptional effort and accomplishment by a Goodwill/Easter Seals participant.

Haakenson joined two other Participants of the Year, Rafiq Muyahim and Shelly Smetana, in receiving the award.

“Kevin represents the dedication and perseverance we try to instill in each of the thousands of people we serve every year,” said Dr. Michael Wirth-Davis, D.P.A., President and CEO of Goodwill/Easter Seals. “We’re thrilled to give him this award, and we know he will inspire many others to succeed as he has.”

In the past, Haakenson struggled with maintaining steady employment because of the effects of a traumatic brain injury he suffered several years ago. He was injured in a motor vehicle accident, when a loose tool box flew and struck his head. Haakenson enrolled in Goodwill/Easter Seals’ Supported Employment Program, which assists people with barriers—such as a physical or mental disability or lack of education—in finding and obtaining good jobs. With help from Goodwill/Easter Seals, Haakenson found a job as a lot attendant at Willmar Home Depot, where he’s worked for almost two years.

In a video interview, Haakenson expressed appreciation for the training he received and for his job. He spoke of how holding a job has helped his sense of self-worth and how he takes pride in his work. And while his injury has created challenges, “I think I have really grown because of it.”

“Kevin has overcome a lot of obstacles,” said Bill Struzyk, Haakenson’s case manager at Goodwill/Easter Seals. “His determination is incredible. He puts his heart and soul into his job. Every day he does whatever it takes to be the best he can be.”

Willmar Home Depot Manager Matt Austin said Haakenson deserves the award because he’s an exemplary employee and “because as a person, he’s the epitome of doing the right thing. For Kevin, no hurdle is too high, no goal is unreachable.”

Two other award winners were honored. Smetana is a single mother who overcame homeless and chemical dependency. Muyahim left prison after more than two decades and overcame depression and other obstacles. Both are now employed, productive community members.

More than 300 people gathered to honor the award winners and celebrate a year of Goodwill/Easter Seals Minnesota changing lives and building stronger communities.

Kevin Haakenson and his wife Carol were among the guests at the banquet

Wirth-Davis said, “Our service approach has always been to recognize the dignity and build on the strengths of the people we serve. As a result, we have programs today that are considered models for the rest of the country. For example, we have a program that helps non-custodial dads become better parents; another program pairs people with criminal backgrounds with mentors; a third program helps families move out of poverty by combining employment with mental health services. As you can see, our mission programs don’t just stand the test of time, they also grow stronger.”

Goodwill/Easter Seals also recognized its four Partners of the Year, Array Services Group of St. Cloud, Chipotle at Seven Corners, Urban Homeworks and Bremer Bank, for their ongoing support. The event was underwritten by Presenting Partners Marsden Holding, L.L.C., and Oppidan Investment Company, as well as other members of the business community.

More than $150,000 was raised at the event, to help the agency’s jobs training programs.

The evening also saw the announcement of the Fendler Paterson Skills Training Scholarship, which will give people with barriers to employment the opportunity to enroll in one of Goodwill/Easter Seals’ seven skills-training programs. Fendler Patterson, a long-time supporter of Goodwill/Easter Seals, provided the lead gift and generated further support from their industry colleagues.

This article was compiled from a media release and video from Goodwill/Easter Seals.

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