MRCI WorkSource Executive Director Pam Year runs Minnesota’s largest provider of community-based and supported employment for people with disabilities.
Photo by Kris Kathmann
First, meet Kevin Santos.
Over the years some of his favorite wrestlers have been The Undertaker, Sergeant Slaughter and Rowdy Roddy Piper. And he likes watching the Minnesota Twins hammer away at the Metrodome.
His employer, MRCI WorkSource (also known as MRCI or Mankato Rehabilitation Center Inc.), won’t let him eat any of the thousands of gummy worms he weighs and packages for customers on workdays on Stadium Road in Mankato. However, after work, he easily in one sitting can eat dozens of the slippery, sugary invertebrates—ones he has purchased with his own earned money, of course. He also enjoys eating pizza topped with pepperoni and pineapple.
In 1990, Kevin and his late mother relocated to Minnesota to be near relatives in Mapleton after the State of New York refused to pay for leg surgery that would have enabled him to walk. Thanks to a Minnesota surgeon, he now walks with a walker into church at Hope Baptist and on workdays into MRCI. Kevin was born with cerebral palsy, which affects his muscle coordination, yet hasn’t his infectious smile. He smiles because his job means the world.
Founded in 1953, Mankato-based MRCI WorkSource is Minnesota’s largest provider of community-based and supported employment for people with disabilities, involving more than 2,500 people on any given day. It also employs 320 staff. MRCI has people working on projects for 3M, Kraft, Taylor Corporation subsidiaries and Tony Downs Foods, to name a few. And it has facilities, offices or thrift stores in Blue Earth, Fairmont, New Ulm, and Mankato—and Worthington, Chaska, Burnsville, Shakopee and Lakeville.
Lastly, meet Pam Year. The $33 million organization’s 61-year-old executive director (shown here with Kevin) started out at MRCI WorkSource in 1971 as a non-paid intern while attending MSU. For this photo and introduction, Year doesn’t mind at all playing second fiddle to her friend, 26-year-old Kevin Santos—or to any of their work buddies.
CONNECT: Did anything in particular steer you toward this career path of working alongside people with disabilities?
PAM YEAR: When I was a kid, my father was a larger-than-life figure in our town of Melvin, Iowa, population of about 300, 20 miles south of Worthington, Minn. My father was gregarious, generous, and a long-time county commissioner. One of his volunteer jobs as commissioner—at the time counties didn’t have human services staff—was to look after disadvantaged people’s needs. I remember lots of people coming to our door to ask my father to help them fill out VA forms, take them to the doctor, or to help them get food.
On Saturday mornings, he often drove south 30 miles to the O’Brien County Poor Farm. At that time, places like MRCI didn’t exist. People with disabilities weren’t integrated into the community, and if living in towns often they just wandered about with little to do. My father had three friends at the Poor Farm—and they really were his friends. It wasn’t so much that he was there helping them out, but that he was enjoying them as friends. Their names were Buddy, Clarence, and Tubby.
Buddy had severe cerebral palsy. He was hard for me to understand, used a wheelchair, and the cerebral palsy made his body rigid. The way he looked was scary to a sheltered kid like me. But my dad instinctively understood that Buddy was smart.
My dad also was a newspaper columnist running in several papers in northwest Iowa. He wrote these sentimental columns about the past and ones about us kids. Before my first prom for the whole world to read he wrote about my strapless dress. Buddy loved the idea of writing and my dad talked to him about it. After my dad died, Buddy eventually moved into a residential program and became a newspaper columnist. I’ve always thought he’d become a newspaper columnist in part because of my dad’s influence.
On the other hand, Clarence was a great big guy. He had been teased in school and had mild developmental disabilities. Overall, he was frustrated and angry at life. He somehow related well to my father, but not much to others. Clarence often spelled words to impress my dad. One night he proudly spelled “r-o-o-s-t-e-r.” I remember someone saying out loud that “rooster” wasn’t that big of a word and my dad disapproved of the comment. It had been a huge accomplishment for Clarence to spell it and my dad was proud of him.
As for Tubby, my dad loved being with him. Tubby loved cheese, so one time my dad brought him a ten-pound brick of it. He ended up eating it in one sitting and nearly died. He was a wonderfully interesting character. It was marvelous watching my dad interact with these three. I learned from him that anyone could be a friend, have value and enrich your life. That may sound sappy, but my dad wasn’t just being nice. He really liked them. They were part of his life. A long time later I drew the connection: these guys are the ancestors of my life’s work.
You were 18 in 1963, yet you didn’t finish MSU until 1973?
I finished my Masters at MSU in 1973. I started college at the community college in Worthington and went to the Univ. of Minnesota before finishing my Bachelors at MSU. I then married. And I began working in Mankato for the State Services for the Blind as a rehabilitation counselor, responsible for the southwestern corner of the state, working mostly with older people.
I was referring some people for work there, and saw it had a family atmosphere and quite a few younger employees. While full-time at MSU in graduate school in 1971, I was able to finagle my way into MRCI as an intern. I simply hung around until they started paying me. I took a pay cut of a couple thousand dollars to start here. I felt a sense of belonging.
What positions have you held with MRCI?
Not many. After working here a couple years, the program director resigned and Arne Berg offered me the job. Arne was a great guy who had a high level of integrity. But I had to learn how to hold my own with him. I was proud working for him and MRCI. Most importantly in that position I had the opportunity to help grow the company. When I started in 1971, MRCI had a $300,000 annual budget—and this year the budget is around $33 million. It’s just not the same place. A lot of that growth came from risks we took by starting new programs and moving into new communities. When Arne left about ten years ago I eventually was promoted to assistant director, and when the executive director left I was hired for his job.
I must say this job feels right. I am so happy, feel such a sense of rightness of where MRCI is now, of what I’m doing for it, and of the people I’m working with. I’m 61, and I don’t think I could have been any luckier getting this opportunity before retiring.
In your eyes, what characteristics define a strong leader?
One is vision. A leader has to know where to lead and know the possibilities, and lead in a way so others can trust them with where they’re going. Leaders have to be ethical—having a strong sense of what is right and appropriate. And they have to be kind. Life is a struggle for all of us. You can’t lead if you can’t sense what others need from you. Also, I believe leaders need to be articulate. They not only have to be able to see where they’re going, but be able to say it clearly to people in an engaging way. They also need to communicate their vision through actions.
How big is MRCI?
It’s huge as organizations like this go. We have a $33 million budget. We serve close to 3,500 people annually—2,500 people on any given day. We work in eleven counties and employ 320 staff members. Overall, we have locations in Worthington, Fairmont, and New Ulm, offices in Blue Earth, four locations in Mankato, and locations in Chaska, Burnsville, Shakopee, and Lakeville. We are building a new facility in Rosemount to combine Burnsville and Lakeville. We have thrift stores in New Ulm, Worthington, and Mankato, which bring in about $900,000 in annual income.
We don’t do residential programming—in the non-residential services field in Minnesota we are about as big as it gets.
Why not offer residential services?
In Minnesota you can’t do both for people with developmental disabilities. We could for people we don’t otherwise serve. Minnesota has a “24-hour” rule unique to our state. When de-institutionalizing people with disabilities years ago, the State of Minnesota decided it didn’t want companies like ours controlling someone’s life 24 hours a day—combining work and residential services. There has to be checks and balances. I buy that.
Name companies you do business with?
Well over half our consumers are employed out in the community; the rest work at one of our own facilities.
We do work for Tony Downs Foods in-house, packaging cans of chicken, for instance, in the old Shari’s Candies building on Riverfront Drive. In New Ulm, we do work for 3M and Kraft. And in Fairmont, we’ve done work for 3M. Certainly, in the Mankato area we do a lot of work for Taylor Corporation, which has been very generous with us the last couple years. Overall, we work with hundreds of businesses, such as AMPI, Schell Brewing Company, Dittrich’s and Anderson Processing in New Ulm; Weigh-Tronix, Dave’s Home Plate, the Fairmont Opera House and Nasby Ag Systems in Fairmont; and Bethany Lutheran College and Carlson Craft in Mankato. Our annual report lists them all. It’s very impressive. Businesses are very open to and supportive of us.
You claim on your website that every year you lose about 100 of your best workers to employers in the region. Do you have mixed emotions about that?
Ours is the only business I’ve ever heard of that exports its best employees. It’s a challenge maintaining work programs when we are also doing everything we can to get our consumers good jobs in the community. Imagine that—trying to run a packaging or assembly business and constantly losing your best employees.
Obviously, losing them causes continual stress on our in-house work programs. But getting those workers community work is our real job and primary goal. We always feel a strong tension between serving our consumers on one hand, and the customers we’re working for on the other. That tension we experience is constant and is the nature of our business.
Have you personally known some of these people leaving you for other employers?
Many. This is a very personal business and you come to know many fellow travelers here. For instance, I see “Henry” every now and then. He is a sweet, shy man with developmental disabilities now working in an industrial setting in Mankato, who hasn’t been here for 20 years. He came to us from the state hospital in Faribault after it closed down. I get a shy smile from him. He is very independent; a real success story.
You offer organization-based employment, for one. Could you describe that?
People working within our organization work in what is known as organization-based employment. They work for us on our own sites. Most of them work in a factory, clerical, janitorial or store setting, or in the cafeteria, wood shop or laundry.
Do they get paid per piece or per hour?
Depends on the job. If the job can be piece rated, we piece rate it to insure fairness. Determining a piece rate is a complicated process. Here’s how it works: We first must bid the work we do for companies using the prevailing wage for the industry. Every year we survey to find the prevailing wages for the work we do. Then we “time study” the work using an elaborate process to determine the number of pieces a “regular” trained worker working at the prevailing wage in that industry would finish in an hour. We then divide the piece rate by the prevailing wage to determine what each piece is worth.
We have some people working at a slower rate because of a more severe disability—and at their own pace are still able to earn a wage. If it’s an hourly job, like a janitorial or warehouse job, we do a time study every six months with them. One example of hourly work involves our employees busing dishes at River Hills Mall. We pay those individuals, and they remain our employees, and we have staff there working with them. That’s what we call community employment. We have in our entire employment services system only about 150 people working only in-house. All the others work entirely in the community or work some in each. Most of our consumers work in combination. Full-time community jobs are hard to find in southern Minnesota, so workers sometimes have a part-time job here, and another there.
Can you give an example?
We have a work group rolling silverware at Mexican Village every morning until noon. This is just a morning job, done on a piece basis, and after finishing the workers return to our Stadium Road building to finish the day. We have another work group at the Blue Earth County government center. The County bought equipment and asked us to do document imaging and destruction. One of our staff members supervises together with one of theirs. This job is such a nice fit for the people working there and is a beautiful example of a productive partnership.
Where does MRCI’s income come from?
A hundred different places. (Laughter.) It’s complicated. Although a private, not-for-profit organization, we work a lot for various levels of government. Most services we provide consumers are done for a fee. A portion of the money is federal Medicaid money matched by Minnesota and then spent by counties. Counties tend to make the individual program decisions about many of the consumers we serve. Most of our vocational rehabilitation work is funded by money coming from the State and counties. We work for over 50 counties, which makes it all very complicated.
What about income from private business?
Of course, we earn money from the companies we do work for. They pay us for packaging their products, etc. Our income from sales on work performed amounts to almost $6 million annually, about 14 percent of our total budget. We don’t record sales from our supported-employment people because the employer pays them directly. Our three retail stores (and adding in all other donations including several United Ways) account for almost $1 million annually.
Given a portion of your income comes from donations, do you fear that if you feature your consumers in media ads to raise money that people in the community will accuse you of playing on their sympathies?
Yes. And over the years we haven’t been good at raising money (because of that fear). Earning money in our retail stores is different from asking people for donations. We started a Foundation six years ago because we could see that some government programs weren’t going to give the support needed long-term—and that we would need to underwrite them at some level. Our retail stores are already doing that for some programs. Having a Foundation was a huge shift for us.
Our philosophy has always been that the people we serve are community assets, not liabilities. They earn wages and spend that money locally. They work. They go to church. They support their communities. They don’t need the community’s sympathy. Asking for money is sort of a tightrope walk—I think we are doing better at it. Our Foundation board is sensitive to it. I think we can say to the community that there are people we serve who because of their situation need some assistance. They are worth your investment and are giving back to the community best they can. They are not asking for handouts. They are productive. We are pleased with the Foundation’s progress.
We are sensitive to the fact we could be “using” people. As for Kevin being in the photo with me in this magazine—he is a cool guy, wants his picture taken, and wants to be part of work here. He has good things going on in his life. It isn’t as if we’re appealing for people to help poor Kevin. He doesn’t want or need that. He is a member of the community. He deserves recognition and he’s worth knowing.
You saw what happened at the Summit Center in Mankato. People running nonprofits can lose their jobs. What do you worry most about at night?
I worry about money. (Laughter.) I worry about making ends meet. Like most nonprofits, we operate pretty lean. I serve at the pleasure of our board of directors. All that said there is a certain amount of freedom being 61 years old. But what I don’t want to do is fail and let people down. I try staying tuned in to the board’s wishes. They are an active board, concerned about our well-being. Ignoring them would be foolhardy. I feel the same way about staff. I can’t succeed without them.
Your mission statement reads that MRCI is dedicated to creating innovative and genuine opportunities for people with disabilities, etc. First, what do you mean by “innovative”? And what do you mean by “genuine”?
“Innovative” in part relates to carving out jobs for individual people. For instance, when going into a business, we might say to the owner or manager, “I know this job has several parts, but we have a guy that can do this one part of it. Is there a way we can match that person with some other alternative?”
We have had this huge Fiscal Support Entity service for about seven years now, which is the most innovative thing I’ve ever seen in this industry. There is a waiver in Minnesota now that allows families to control the way their federal Medicaid money can be spent. They can design their own services for a family member. Over 600 of the people we serve use this. We aren’t involved in planning their services, but we do help them execute their plan. They find the staff they want and we’re responsible legally for the hiring. We don’t supervise the hire or tell them what to do. Only the family does that. This kind of service is out on the cutting edge nationally.
Genuine to me means helping people develop the kinds of relationships that you have with Kevin. We want to help people connect in their community to real people and real jobs, not made-up jobs, not pat this poor guy on the head and allow him to sit there; but for people to really be engaged in a genuine way in their community.
The Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities (CARF) is an organization that grants accreditation to human services and medical providers. You’ve been involved with them both as a surveyor for CARF and as part of an organization being surveyed (or evaluated). What advice would you give to someone just hired as a director who is facing accreditation?
Panic. (Laughter.) I just talked with a young man in Iowa. I’m doing a CARF visit there soon as a surveyor, and it’s the first time for him to be surveyed. At MRCI, we just finished our twelfth, three-year accreditation, and I’ve been here for all of them. Getting ready for accreditation is sort of like creating a set of bones to hang an organization on. If you look at the accreditation standards, especially the business ones, and you meet them; you have a good sense that you’ve pretty much done the important things necessary to make sure your organization is stable for its consumers. I spent an hour with this young man on the telephone. It was hard for him figuring out what some of the standards meant. The standards are field-tested, rigorous, and reviewed annually. It’s a peer review process—there is nothing academic about it.
You’re married to Bill Bassett, former Mankato city manager. What advice has he given you? Or does he give any? Certainly he has experience managing budgets.
At work as a city manager he was pretty fiscally conservative. He doesn’t give much advice, but tends more to listen to me. I talk with him a lot when having conundrums, particularly ethical ones, because I trust his wisdom about those kinds of things.
Just last night we talked about my having felt unproductive for the day. I had gone to a mandatory event not directly related to work and was unable to refocus afterwards. I lost my focus, sense of drive and felt aimless. This wasn’t typical. So I called work to say I would be taking the rest of the day off and would use annual leave time. When home, I began sharing with Bill that I sometimes have emotional difficulties when I’m not productive because there is so much for me to do. We had a conversation about it. He asked what I’d been thinking about all day. Bill helped me realize the reason I’d been going through it. He helps me stay grounded—and I often help him, too.
I sometimes talk with Bill about issues and when I should involve the board with a particular issue. He has experience dealing with city councils. His answer about when to involve a board is always the same—tell them everything you know and get everything out on the table. You develop allies by being open about problems, not by withholding information.
My issue is that I’m a talker and a woman. A woman named Louise Bogan once said, “No woman should be ashamed if, [through her work], she tries to give back to the world a portion of its lost heart.” My emotions affect my work. I sometimes disagree with my husband because of this—he is more matter-of-fact. He’s a smart guy and I admire his ability to do hard things. And by that I don’t just mean complicated things, but morally hard things.
Have you heard him second-guess what is going on in Mankato? Such as whether he can’t believe what the city manager and city council are doing?
I’ve heard him say he can’t believe what the city council is doing. But that is no different than when he was on the job. (Laughter.) He doesn’t criticize the city manager; he loves and admires the profession. You know, but I don’t hear him say that much. He was much more able to let go of that job than I at first believed he could. Recently, he’s been running the city of Worthington part-time. A good friend of his, the city manager there, just died. It has been ten years since he left his Mankato job.
Your husband helped implement the goals of Mankato planning groups in the ‘60s through ‘90s. Planning groups in the 1960s wanted a new floodwall, new high school, new law enforcement center, etc. When Mankato went through the process again in the 1980s with ACT 2000, your husband was instrumental in helping bring forth the civic center, among other things. As you see it, what will it take for Greater Mankato to implement Envision 2020?
Money. All this takes money and creativity. One thing about the 1970s—federal urban renewal money was available. There was a tremendous amount of it spent in Mankato and people knew how to access it. That’s less possible today. I was involved in ACT 2000 and even then federal money was slowing. It took skill to pull off some of those projects that happened.
With money tighter today, there needs to be much more resolve and commitment on the part of local people. My husband credits a couple of local business people with the first process in the 1960s. I think there is some momentum with the process now. It will be interesting to see what exactly comes of it.
The 1980s planning moved the highways. The intersection of Highways 22 and 14 moved. In a way, that new intersection by River Hills Mall is the new downtown. The moving of those roads moved downtown uptown. That move created the problem that Envision 2020 is focusing on now—what to do with what was left of the old downtown.
Back to MRCI: You call the people with disabilities working for you “consumers.” Why?
Because at some point in time that seemed to be what the world wanted us to do. First of all, we try to call them by their names when that’s possible. It only becomes an issue when you are talking about groups of people. Some organizations like ours call them “persons served” or “people served.” The “people we serve” is another way to say it.
The people working here in organization-based employment, couldn’t you call them employees?
Yes. And some of the people working out in the community are our “employees” too. They could be called “workers,” and some people internally call them “participants.” In some other states, the name “consumer” has become anathema. They are back using “clients.” I just did a CARF survey in a place where people served were called “friends.”
Is it you can’t call them employees because some are working on a piece basis?
No. The contract is between the company and us. We employ people to perform the contract for us. They are direct employees of ours. There is a direct employment relationship we have with our consumers. But it isn’t a 100 percent relationship like other employer/employee relationships. They have a particular set of consumer rights and we have a helping, supportive relationship with them. We don’t fire consumers, for example.
What else is different?
In the State of Minnesota, by law these consumers are not eligible for unemployment compensation. This is one reason we don’t call them employees, because the relationship isn’t like what other full-time, private sector employees have with their employers.
I’ve talked with people running very large companies like yours, and often they say they feel a great sense of responsibility. But if something very bad happened at one of those companies, and it folded, most of the employees would go on to find re-employment. You’re in a situation where your consumers would have a much more difficult time getting re-employed.
You asked earlier about my staying awake at night. Sometimes those kinds of thoughts creep in. We just went through a situation here where a county cut one of our worker’s funding because they believed he was competitively employable. We knew all along this wasn’t true. We know him inside and out. After his funding ended, we had to stop his internal employment and help him find a job in the community. It caused him a great deal of pain, misery and failure. Finally, neither he nor his MRCI case manager could tolerate it any longer. I made a decision to give him his old job back as a free service. Bad business decision. He is now working for us even though the county isn’t compensating us. It’s not a good business decision. If we did that for everybody we’d go broke. I’m hoping we don’t have to make that kind of decision too often.
That must have been a difficult decision. Yet, it would seem the county has to draw the dividing line somewhere. And there will always be someone on that dividing line. Sometimes that person might be a little more on one side than the other.
I said one time in our newsletter that making those kinds of decisions when you know the faces and names of people that get hurt is just a nightmare. Our case managers here are so involved with the people they serve. Most of the time counties are reasonable and you can work with them. I understand it from the county perspective. It’s hard to get angry with them. They have their own set of issues. I often think of it as the difference between dating and being married. While the county sort of dates our consumers, we are married to them. They are family. It’s hard to make those difficult decisions because it’s painful to see people lose the ground they’ve gained.
The Name Game
“My mother named me after a radio soap opera character, Pamela Lacey, who was a “baby” born about the same time as me. My sister is also named after a Lacey family member, Penelope. Was it One Man’s Family? I was born the day Franklin Roosevelt was buried, April 15, 1945. My mother cried all the way to the hospital. She was a New Deal Democrat.” — Pam Year.
“My first introduction to MRCI was through the Minnesota House Jobs and Economic Development Committee, which funds MACRO, an association of 43 sheltered workshops. Pam Year was the first person to contact me about the needs of MRCI and its consumers. The main purpose of MRCI is to match consumers to job opportunities in either in-house or community settings. MRCI understands the key to these successful matches is support for both the individual and the employer. The Fiscal Support Entity, new facility in Rosemount, and growth of the MRCI Foundation are some of the services developed under Pam’s leadership.
In 2002, the Jobs Committee of the House of Representatives toured the MRCI site in my hometown of Fairmont, enabling these legislators to have a first-hand glimpse of the pride and joy evident as MRCI consumers accomplish real work in the real world. When touring the Mankato facility, a sense of accomplishment was also evident. Pam and others are working to help these workers succeed.” —State Rep. Bob Gunther (R-Fairmont), chair of the Minnesota House Jobs and Economic Opportunity Policy and Finance Committee.
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