Meet Partners in Policymaking Class 33 Graduates
Catherine Hunter from Burnsville is a recent graduate of the Partners in Policymaking program. She and her husband have ten children, four birth children and six adopted children. They have made a commitment to being foster parents to children with disabilities as a result caring for their son Drew who spent one year in the hospital due to a birth defect. Hunter valued the class resources and learning how to have "access to the right people, make meaningful connections and get other's point of view." She valued networking with other families in the class and the people who affect change for the families raising children with disabilities.
Margaret Weiss, a Hasting resident with Autism Spectrum Disorder, recently completed the Partners in Policymaking program. The Partners program is an eight-month leadership training program for parents of young children with developmental disabilities and for adults with disabilities. Along with teaching leadership skills, the program teaches its students how to develop partnerships with elected officials and others who make policy decisions about services for people with disabilities.
"Before Partners in Policymaking, I never considered myself much of an advocate," Weiss wrote in an email. "I had done some advocacy work for Special Olympics Minnesota as a Global Messenger, part of their Athlete Leadership Program, but I had no experience talking about myself. And that was something I wanted to change when I first started Partners in Policymaking."
Weiss said she recommends the program to others in the community. She said she felt that the program encouraged her to tell her story and to be a stronger self-advocate.
"It's important to be your own advocate because you never know when you're going to need to use your own voice," she wrote. "It's your voice that is telling your story, and you are the best narrator for that particular story."
The Partners program gave her a chance to develop her advocacy skills. She said she had seen representatives promoting the program at a local autism conference and was always interested but didn't get a chance to apply until last summer."
"I wanted to change my circumstances and become a better self-advocate within the Hastings community, as well as explore the opportunities I may have to help others become advocates, not only for themselves, but for their families," she wrote.
During the program, Weiss said there was an emphasis on telling one's own story and how to bring it to the attention of governing bodies. She learned about the process of speaking with local, state and federal government and lawmakers, using both scripted and personal narrative. Personal stories, she said, sometimes created some emotional situations.
"But it is that emotional aspect that can help your local lawmakers, state representatives and federal government want to help," she wrote.
Going forward, Weiss said she wants to use her new knowledge to raise questions about equal opportunity employment issues.
"After this year," she wrote, "I can only work with AmeriCorps and the Reading Corps program for three more years if I choose. However, I also want to explore other opportunities within the workforce, including jobs where I could write and edit. However, I never feel completely comfortable disclosing my disability with potential employers, and worry that they will judge me based on that instead of my qualifications and talents."
Although transportation issues for people with disabilities have been in the news lately, Weiss said it's not the only important issue.
"What people don't know is that there are discrepancies in many parts of society, including employment," she wrote. "Individuals with disabilities need to be able to earn a living wage, and employers need to respect that desire. With today's economy, we have to dig a little bit deeper to pay for things we need to survive, and for a lot of individuals with disabilities, having that kind of money isn't always possible."
Article by Katrina Styx, Courtesy Hastings Gazette
Renee Gast from Dilworth is a recent graduate of the Partners in Policymaking program. She considered it an "eye-opening experience and valued getting connected to others in the class." Her adopted son is non-verbal and has arthrogryposis which involves poor joints and muscles and seizures. She learned valuable information to increase her partnership with the schools through the Individual Education Program (IEP) and gathered many resources to assist with future decisions for her son. She recommends the program to other parents.
New Hope couple stays self-sufficient while living with disabilities
Throughout the last nine months, Jason Blomquist participated in the Partners in Policymaking Program, a class on advocacy and leadership training for individuals with disabilities.
Jason and Lori Blomquist were born with cerebral palsy, have been living in their own home for 14 years, and are advocates for independent living.
"I wanted to take this course to expand my knowledge," Jason Blomquist said. "I gained so much understanding that I hope to apply towards my future."
Each month of the program had a different focal topic. For example, one month was independence, and another month was education and the tools needed to help a person with a disability succeed in school. Blomquist learned tips for day-to-day living but also learned how to connect with people of power, such as a state senator.
"The biggest part of the sessions was hearing from other people in the class that are either disabled or have a family member that's disabled," Jason Blomquist said. "I was able to hear their story and learn from them, so I can try to create more solutions in the future."
The course allowed Blomquist to explore new opportunities to give back to his community. Examples include being a part of focus groups and applying for council positions.
Blomquist participated in a focus group aimed at creating a database listing qualified caregivers. The Blomquists have a total of six caregivers throughout the day who help them get ready in the morning and into bed at night.
"Both my wife and I appreciate all the work our caregivers do on a daily basis," Jason Blomquist said. "We couldn't be as independent as we wanted without the help of our caregivers."
Jason works at Home Depot and will be working as an usher at the Minnesota Viking's new U.S. Bank Stadium. Along with two jobs, he will be applying for the Governor's Council of Developmental Disabilities. His wife, Lori, works for a corporation in New Hope and helps with data entry and scheduling.
Lori is nonverbal due to her disability, so she uses a computer to communicate. This is a set back for the Blomquists, but they still continue to stay as independent as possible.
"e;I encourage any person with a disability to get out there and tell your story and share it with others," Jason Blomquist said. "You could help someone else and not even know it."
After four years of deployment in the Army and completing several education programs, Randy Kastberg felt he needed to gain a better understanding of how to be a good parent and advocate for his son who has disabilities. While away, his wife was the full time caretaker and he now wants to share in those responsibilities. "The best part of the class is learning from the classmates and the stories they tell about their challenges," said Kastberg. "You don't know what you don't know." He feels that anyone wanting to advocate for their son or daughter should take the class.
One Savage resident, Marian Ahmed, graduated from the Partners in Policymaking advocacy training program. Ahmed, who has two children with autism, is a leader in a Somali Parents Autism Network and applied for the program to "increase my knowledge and skills to share with the Somali Community to increase the understanding of autism." The Somali language has no word for autism and labels those with intellectual disabilities as "crazy or not crazy."
Learning alongside other parents and individuals with disabilities, Ahmed was moved to learn of the treatment of those with disabilities throughout history. The tight bonds of the class are reflected when parents come to class even, when they had been up all night caring with a sick child. She recommends the program for self-advocates and parents "to meet a lot of great people and get more involved."
Melissa Davis has one daughter with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Soon after joining the class, she attended a disability rally and then testified at a Senate committee hearing regarding school expulsions that would have had an impact on her daughter. " I gained the confidence to let my voice be heard," said Davis. " Each person in the class has touched my heart in a different way. They are strong, amazing people." Monthly sessions allowed Davis to discuss issues with congressional office staff, learn procedures to testify in a committee hearing and interact with state representative regarding her legislative concerns. " I feel like we earned a Master's Degree in Advocacy," said Davis.
When Treynor Smith was just three days old, he and his parents were flown from Brookings, S.D. to the University of Minnesota Hospital. Treynor underwent his first of many surgical procedures seven days after his birth. Today, now, as a five year old, he loves T-ball, and after getting home from preschool, he likes being outside with the family's faithful dog, Zoey, as well as several pet cats. But he is still recovering from his very serious heart condition,
Through Partners in Policymaking, Treynor's parents learned about programs that have helped get Treynor ready to start school. "People with less access and knowledge about programs and agencies struggle with finding help. Some never get the help they need. They give up out of frustration," said Hanover resident and recent graduate of Partners in Policymaking, Amy Smith.
Amy feels strongly about helping provide access to and knowledge about available services. "Streamlining access to services is important to me," she said.
The systems in place for gaining access to services can be different from county to county and from state to state. Partners helps you find your way. You can learn the meaning of the terminology used by the service providers, and you can learn who to see and the best questions to ask. Partners helps understand how it all works, Amy said.
Graciela Ibarra, who has Spina Bifida, feels that as a result of the class she has more hope for the future, that "I can do anything, even with a disability." The class has provided her the opportunity to develop a community, to connect with people with disabilities and parents who have children with disabilities. She wants to increase transportation for those with disabilities to help them get into the community, and to have jobs and be reliable employees.
Deegaifrax Hussein has seven children and advocates for her son with autism. She is a special education teacher in the public schools and is an active leader in two autism advocacy groups for parents in the Somali community. She has recently finished her Master's in Special Education with a license in Autism Spectrum Disorders.
Terri Boettcher of North Mankato is the mother of two adopted children with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder (FASD) and has recently graduated from Partners in Policymaking. Her FASD support group in the Mankato area, where several others had benefited from the program, encouraged her to apply. She credits the experience for "giving me courage and knowing where to get the answer and resources." She attended the Minnesota FASD Day at the Capitol. Her goal is for school districts to recognize the emotional stress for students with FASD and to learn new methods of teaching and guidance for the students. She wants teachers to be proactive in creating a calm environment since many distractions and chaotic situations can trigger negative, unsocial behaviors. She sees the stigma for this disability as very real, especially in the rural areas. Boettcher encourages other parents to apply for the program.
Scott Quelle from Rochester graduated from the Partners in Policymaking advocacy training program. He has one daughter with Down syndrome and follows his wife's lead in completing the eight months of training. He was most impressed by the competent national speakers and learning from parents who were past graduates of the program. He valued hearing about the history of treatment of children with special needs. Although he was very much aware of the program from his wife, but "nothing compares to going through this myself." He valued the exercises where he had to give testimony to a mock panel and also critique proposed guidelines for state law.
Learning alongside other parents and individuals with disabilities, Quelle was moved to learn of the treatment of those with disabilities throughout history. The tight bonds of the class were reflected when parents come to class, even when they had been up all night caring with a sick child. He recommends the program to other parents to increase their ability to advocate for their child.
One resident of Brooklyn Center, Karima Dixon, has completed the Partners in Policymaking advocacy training program. Dixon, who has two children with epilepsy, applied for the course to help better prepare for when she is not around to care for them. "I am the only one in my family with children with epilepsy and it gave me another outlet to talk with parents who understand."
Learning alongside other parents and individuals with disabilities, Dixon found that many in the class made lifelong connections due to their similar challenges. It was not uncommon that some attended the class even when they have been up all night with a sick child. She was impressed with meetings with county commissioners who were very approachable and the deep emotions when testifying in front of a mock legislative panel. She recommends this program to other parents to help them feel empowered and gain confidence in raising a child with disabilities.
Tera Amesbury from Two Harbors graduated from the Partners in Policymaking advocacy training program. She learned of the program through two other graduates of the program who live in the Two Harbors community. Her son Cooper has complex medical needs and requires costly drugs each month. Her primary need was to become a strong advocate for her son and to examine all avenues to give him the medical care that he needs. The class gave her a network of families who share the emotional and financial challenge of raising children with severe disabilities. She would recommend the program to any parent to gain advocacy skills when dealing with educators, social services or medical professionals and to gain a wealth of resources that can be available to navigate the maze of benefits and legal roadblocks.
Two Minneapolis mothers, Erin Clotfelter and Rebecca Dosch-Brown, have recently graduated from the Partners in Policymaking advocacy training program.
For many years Rebecca Dosch-Brown could not attend the program due to work restrictions and describes her year of training as an "eye opener." Meeting adults with disabilities in the class helped her imagine the future possibilities for her son, who has autism. From her experience, she has learned to partner with adults with disabilities as they fight for their right to live the lives they want for themselves. She valued the class lessons on how to approach elected officials to address critical issues for people with disabilities. She feels confident that class participants will collectively advocate to improve legislation and systems for people disenfranchised by lack of connections and opportunities.
Erin Clotfelter has two children with autism and, in having friends who regularly advocate with legislators, was pleased to gain those skills. As a newly appointed co-chair to her district's Special Education Advisory Council, she valued the class networking with individuals with a variety of disabilities. She found that each class gave her a new way of looking at that topics of housing, education or advocating. She encourages parents to apply to gain a good understanding of how to speak up on "legislative issues topics that can have an impact on families who have children with disabilities."