Most days when Andrew Archer goes to work, he heads to a bottling plant in St. Cloud where he sorts pop bottles, stacks cases of them, cleans up a bit when bottles break, and does some inventory. He wears sturdy work clothes because it can get dirty.
But on Thursdays, Archer puts on a suit and tie and gets a ride to the state Capitol in St. Paul, where’s he’s a part-time intern for state Sen. Lisa Fobbe.
Archer, 34, has moderate mental retardation and had never worked in an office until February, when he and 11 others started working in a new internship program for people with disabilities.
Archer had never used a computer before either, but he turned out to be quite adept at helping Fobbe’s staff with e-mail and other tasks, so he saved up enough money to buy his own netbook, which he now brings with him to St. Paul each week.
Archer also runs errands for the senator’s staff and accompanies her to some committee meetings. He sat behind her at a recent Agriculture Committee hearing on fertilizer regulation, ready to run back to the office for her, if needed.
From cleaning tables in the food court
Adam Menden of Mankato had never worked in an office before, either. But there he was last week, sitting in the high-backed chair at state Sen. Kathy Sheran’s desk and flipping through folders to weed out out-dated paperwork.
Menden, 27, has Down syndrome, and usually works in the food court at a Mankato mall, cleaning tables and emptying trash. But not on Thursdays. Working with his job coach, Lori Daley of Mankato, he’s hard at work in the Capitol office helping Amy Knutson, Sheran’s legislative assistant, handle some of the updating and office-cleaning tasks that pile up during a session.
How’s it doing?
“Good,” Menden said. “I love it.”
Before Menden showed up for his first day, Knutson had prepared several tasks she thought he could handle during the 12-week internships — things like labeling, sorting and filing — all things that needed to be done in the office. Menden surprised her by finishing all the planned tasks in his first four days on the job.
So now she finds other tasks for him — and sends him on errands to deliver papers to other legislators. Everything gets done well, she said. And Menden’s happy composure while he works rubs off on the whole office.
“I like Thursdays,” Knutson said.
Said Sheran: “Adam is fabulous; he loves being here and we love having him. He’s doing work that we’d have to do anyway, but rarely have time to get done during the busy session.”
It helps them, and helps us, too
Sheran, a first-term senator from Mankato, helped organize the program, working with Maureen Gustafson of MN Works, a nonprofit that finds jobs for people with disabilities.
“We were wondering: are we taking time to think how to use special-needs people in state works facilities? Are we hiring people with all levels of ability? Then we thought about an internship,” Sheran said.
“This helps break through some of the biases and perceptions about what people can and cannot do,” she said. “Our goal is integrating people into the workplace. It helps them, and it helps us, too.”
Gustafson got a grant and they put the word out to organizations around the state that work with people with disabilities. They call it the Capitol Fellowship, to bring recognition to those chosen.
The 12 interns do real work — some help with research, others work the phones in the offices or handle e-mail. They get paid $9 an hour from the grant, so the legislators get extra help at no cost to their office budget. Among the interns are people with developmental disabilities and physical disabilities.
Organizers were pleased to see many of the interns quickly figure out the lay of the land at the Capitol, as they find their way through the maze of offices while running errands. Some have attended rallies in the rotunda, as they learn more about the workings of government.
Scott Magnuson, the director of the Senate Information Office who supervises other Senate intern programs, said the program is working smoothly and getting good feedback from senators and others at the Capitol.
Money for next year
Gustafson said Menden and Archer — the two interns from Greater Minnesota — are driven to the Capitol each Thursday by job coaches from their areas. The coaches then stay and help supervise the group, which includes 10 other interns from the Twin Cities.
After working for three hours for the senators who signed up for the program, the interns meet in a conference room for a group lunch. Each week, a different senator stops in to talk with them about legislation and government. They’ve had interesting talks about health care and the state budget recently, a topic of great interest because the interns are helped by state and federal services for people with disabilities. They liked hearing Sen. John Marty tell them that no one has to qualify for police protection in our country, and therefore no one should have to qualify for health protection, either.
Sheran said that legislators and their staffs — even those not involved directly in the program — are learning something valuable from the interns as they see them in the halls and at committee hearings.
“They’re challenging our assumptions. We’re all finding that they can do more than we thought — much more,” Sheran said.
“This is more than a feel-good deal; there’s a serious objective to break down barriers about what we think people are capable of doing. And it can help us create more work opportunities throughout the state.”
Gustafson said there’s money to continue the internship program next year. A new set of fellows will be selected to participate, she said.
Joe Kimball covers St. Paul, politics and other subjects for MinnPost.