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Innovation Grant Will Support Employment for People with Disabilities

Jun 08, 2018 12:33PM ● By Editor
June 8, 2018

Cook County’s Public Health & Human Services Department is one of a few public organizations to receive a new Small Innovation Grant from the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) as part of a new program to support people with disabilities in the community.

The small innovations grants program awards between $1,500 and $100,000 to individuals and organizations to work with Minnesotans with disabilities. For example:

  • Cook County Public Health and Human Services in northeastern Minnesota is receiving $75,303 to support community employment of people with developmental disabilities.
  • Mental Health Minnesota is receiving $80,000 to support peer-to-peer employment groups for people with mental illness statewide.
  • Dakota County has been awarded $100,000 to partner with Lyft on a transportation model for people with disabilities that can be replicated throughout Minnesota.

“As a result of Cook County PHHS’s ongoing work with persons with disabilities, their families, friends, and other systems of support, we have a firm grasp on what is working well in our community, but are also keenly aware of the service gaps in Cook County,” said Martina Williams, Adult and Home & Community-Based Services Supervisor – Public Health & Human Services. “Given our remote area, small population and limited resources, we often have to wear multiple hats and think outside of the box in order to help the individuals with whom we work to meet their goals, while also ensuring that we are meeting the guidelines set forth by DHS.”

With the help of Cook County PHHS Waiver Case Manager Julie Kinney, ISD 166 Special Education Teacher Melissa Oberg, and the Human Development Center’s Employment Connection Program Supervisor Sam Gangi, Williams was able to complete a grant application with a goal of funding a part-time Employment Specialist to be hired and employed by the Human Development Center. The Employment Specialist’s primary focus will be to help persons with disabilities achieve integrated, competitive employment in Cook County.

“The integration of persons with developmental disabilities into the communities in which they were born and raised or choose to live, is an initiative close to our hearts and mission as an agency,” said Williams. “A way in which many of us integrate into the community is through work; it can give us a sense of purpose, can allow us to meet our financial needs, and can open opportunities to socialize with others. After months of planning and eager anticipation, we have received our fully-executed grant contract and are excited to bring this unique opportunity to persons with developmental disabilities in our community!”    

Previously, the responsibility of job carving, job coaching, and ongoing job support for persons with disabilities has fallen on caregivers, school personnel and Cook County PHHS Waiver Case Managers. The nearest Workforce Center is located in Duluth, with only one Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor who services Cook County with office hours just once every six weeks. Prior to this grant project, there was not an easily accessible, readily available employment service provider for persons with disabilities in Cook County. With this grant opportunity, Cook County will be able to offer community members access to a part-time Employment Specialist who will work out of the local Human Development Center office. The Human Development Center has hired Tom Sullivan to take on this role. 

Initially, the Employment Specialist will be reaching out to prospective employers to identify job duties that program participants will succeed at. Program participants will be paid at regular minimum wage; however, will likely work part-time hours with the support of the Employment Specialist. The Employment Specialist will be responsible for completing individualized work-related assessments, matching participants with jobs that will bring satisfaction and showcase each participant’s skill set, providing initial and ongoing training and support to assist each participant with maintaining his or her job, and supervising and monitoring job performance. If a participant is utilizing an application on his or her iPad or tablet to learn a new job-related skill, the Specialist will also be responsible for reinforcing the skill during monthly meetings and assisting the participant to regularly update the tablet as updates become available. The Specialist will also co-facilitate a monthly support group for program participants and their caregivers. The Employment Specialist will directly impact and serve residents of Cook County by having an office space located in Cook County and dedicating all his time to Cook County residents. The grant team believes that community inclusion will be fostered by having a staff person who lives, works, and has a vested interest in the community they serve. 

Currently, eight individuals locally have been identified to take part in the program. The program will not only benefit program participants, but will benefit their caregivers and businesses who choose to hire program participants, as well as their staff, and the public who may have the opportunity to interact directly with a program participant through his or her work.

“Many Minnesotans know of Cook County as a travel destination with its fair share of beautiful sites, restaurants, shops, lodges and attractions. Oftentimes, the staff in these locations does not represent local folks, as employers often need to hire workers from other countries to fill the multiple positions necessary to help their businesses run,” said Williams. “Supporting persons with disabilities to take on some of this work would not only help local employers meet their needs, but would also put a new face on the workforce in Cook County. Locals and visitors alike will be able to see that area businesses are hiring individuals who live year-round in our community, and this in turn creates a greater sense of inclusion.

“We, along with our partners, recognize that there is a tremendous need for our county to enhance services for persons with disabilities and we want to make a change. We do not want persons with disabilities in Cook County to have to continue to move away to access services that are not available here, to remain unseen because there is not an avenue or support for them to work in our community, or for persons with disabilities or their caregivers to feel ostracized, isolated, frustrated or fearful. We want all individuals in our community to feel welcome, be visible, and included. This is our first step towards reaching that goal.”

More information on the Department of Human Services’ new disability services innovations grants program, is available at:



Contact: Martina Williams, Supervisor - Martina Williams, Adult and Home & Community-Based Services Supervisor – Public Health & Human Services, 218-387-3617 or [email protected]


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