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Willow River cafe wins award for hiring disabled teens

Peggy Sue’s Cafe in Willow River received the Small Employer of the Year Award at the annual Minnesota State Council on Disability annual awards luncheon Monday in Duluth.

Cafe owners Peggy and Al Villa had been taking turns washing dishes last winter in the family-run cafe in a 112-year-old building on Hwy. 61 — just south of Moose Lake — so they were happy to hire two disabled high school students looking for starter jobs as part of a work program coordinated by the Northern Lights Special Education Cooperative.

Peggy Villa said it was good for everyone: The cafe got dependable dishwashers at lunch each day, with the salaries paid through Northern Lights. The students got work experience and earned some money.

I was at the awards luncheon doing some communications work for the Disability Council.

Including disability in the diversity spectrum
The luncheon also featured keynote speaker Kathy Martinez, an assistant secretary in the U.S. Labor Department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy.

Before being nominated for the federal position by President Obama, Martinez, who is blind, had been executive director of the World Institute on Disability and specialized in employment, asset building, independent living, international development, and diversity and gender issues.

Using braille notes at the podium, she told the council members, award winners and guests that the president — who is receiving much credit for focusing much more attention on disability issues than previous administrations — is serious about improving job opportunities for people with disabilities, particularly in this tough economic environment.

The White House has issued this guiding principle:

“The President will work to nurture a society that values the contributions of all of our citizens and residents, including the 54 million people in this country living with disabilities. While people with disabilities are integrated into society as never before, we must do more.”

And Martinez said her boss, Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis, has made it clear that the goal is “good jobs for all,” and that includes women, minorities, veterans and all people with disabilities.

Martinez said she’s impressed with work in Minnesota that helps people with disabilities find work. The Pathways to Employment — run by the Minnesota Department of Human Services, the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development and the Minnesota State Council on Disability — is a great example of people working together.

The Pathways mission: to increase competitive employment of people with disabilities and meet Minnesota’s workforce needs by bringing together people with disabilities, employers, businesses, government and providers.

“Collaboration is the only way to make progress,” Martinez said.

She said the nation’s aging population means we will see more people with disabilities, and they will continue to work and demand improvements in accessibility and accommodations. “The Baby Boomer Generation does not take no for an answer,” she noted.

Ultimately, as people live longer and more live with disabilities, the country will “make disability a part of the entire diversity agenda,” she said.

Other award winners
Other honors given at the Awards Luncheon were:

  • Mentorship Award to Wally Waranka, employment specialist at Lifetrack Resources.
  • Legislative Advocacy Award to Minnesota APSE, The Network on Employment.
  • Access Award (Organization or Business) to Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, Pine City, for incorporating excellent accessibility into a $1.75 million church addition.
  • Access Award (Individual) to Rich Diedrichsen, a state employee who’s an expert at setting up computers technology for those with hearing loss.
  • Above & Beyond Veterans Employment Award to the Disabled American Veterans for helping disabled veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan find new jobs or adjust to their old jobs.
  • Large Employer of the Year to Minnesota Department of Transportation’s Seeds program, which provides jobs for high school and college students.
  • Minnesota Award to Chuck Hamilton, recently retired director of the State Services for the Blind.

In a morning session before the awards luncheon, the council sponsored a “Green Jobs Town Hall Forum,” focusing on job opportunities for those with disabilities.

About 100 people heard about the increasing opportunities for employment as builders turn to green building techniques.

Panelists were: Bonnie Elsey, director of the Workforce Development Division in the state Department of Employment and Economic Development; Bill Owens, construction company president; Patrick Cokley, a policy adviser in the U.S. Labor Department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy; and Ester Ames, a vocational rehabilitation technician for White Earth Vocational Rehabilitation.

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