Three men working in a warehouse.

When the pandemic forced day-service and employment providers to close abruptly in March, it decimated budgets and ripped away vital services for people with disabilities.

As restrictions on public life loosen a bit this month, however, some of those providers are staking their futures on reopening under a dramatically different service model—one that will take a village to succeed. 

Mankato-based MRCI, one of Minnesota’s largest providers, shuttered most of its seven facilities and cut its workforce from 450 employees to about 100, said Brian Benshoof, chief executive officer.

From those ashes, however, the organization is hatching a plan to provide nearly all of its services in the community, with the aim of more fully integrating people with disabilities into jobs and social situations. 

“After everything closed, we got the organization stabilized financially and it became clear that we had a golden opportunity to rebuild the whole organization,” said Benshoof, who said the organization is now back up to about 150 employees. “We already had a five-year transition plan to move to community-based services, so the philosophy became, ‘Let’s just do it now.’”

It was an exciting idea, but not without several challenges. Among them: convincing some families of people with disabilities that the move would ultimately enhance their loved ones’ lives, and convincing community businesses and public spaces to embrace the idea.

“We’ve done a lot of communicating with the Department of Human Services, agencies, and families to share this new direction,” said Tina Stofferahn, MRCI’s director of day services. “Some families are very concerned about this because their loved ones have been protected and safe in facility-based programs. We’re explaining there is dignity in taking risks, and great personal value and confidence building when you become an active member of a community.”

Those risks presented another challenge, Stofferahn said. Existing staff would have to be retrained in new job duties that focus on teaching new social, life, and employment skills, and community businesses and other organizations would have to open their doors to the idea.

Partnering with the Institute on Community Integration, MRCI has taken that first step. ICI provided training, videos, and other materials for MRCI workers in how to find and structure activities that match participants’ interests, and in helping participants build relationships in their communities. 

“We’ve helped create the training MRCI envisioned to assist them in this significant transformation,” said Danielle Mahoehney, an education programs specialist at ICI. “It’s exciting to think about how this shift will expand what’s possible in the lives of people with disabilities.”

Now, MRCI is reaching out to businesses, libraries, community groups, and personal networks to develop meaningful experiences. Its staff will plan daily activities for groups of four people with disabilities and an employee, and each group will travel in small minivans rather than large buses. Anyone interested in welcoming groups into their offices or events can get in touch with Stofferahn at kstofferahn@mymrci.org

“It will be a completely person-centered service,” Stofferahn said. “A specialist will pick up four people each morning and the groups will make their own plans based on their interests. It might be learning some skills in an employment setting, or learning how to camp, or just basic relationship-building experiences and safety issues. In a facility, you don’t have that ability to learn skills in a natural environment. We now have the staff trained and the vehicles ready to go; we just need the community to open.”