My June 27, 2012, column from the Mille Lacs Messenger.
Monday through Friday, Michael rides a van from his home near Garrison to the Mille Lacs County Developmental Achievement Center in Milaca. In addition to learning life skills and community skills like shopping and banking, Michael goes to work. “I clean the bathrooms at the county courthouse, Embers and the post office,” he told me last Tuesday, when I spent an hour visiting with DAC clients and telling them about my job at the newspaper.
Back home Michael likes to ride his bike, write songs and watch TV, and he collects pop tabs for the Ronald McDonald House. “Because there are sick children out there who need the pop tabs,” he told me.
My visit to the DAC came at the invitation of Adelle Wilke and Pam Rittenour, the teachers of the class I visited. They introduced me to a fascinating and friendly group of students.
Cindy, of Milaca, has been coming to the DAC for 36 years. Before we had been properly introduced, I called Cindy by name. “How do you know my name?” she asked.
“From church,” I said, and a big smile crossed her face. She is a regular attendee at Trinity Lutheran in Milaca, where your favorite editor is a not-so-regular attendee. Staff at the DAC help Cindy work toward goals like writing letters and crocheting.
“In the work room I’m doing hearing aid kits,” Cindy said. DAC clients perform a variety of paid jobs in the work room, including assembly of Rexton hearing aid boxes.
Rachel comes all the way from Rice, Minnesota. “I like to unload the dishwasher, and I like to vacuum, and I like to make boxes,” Rachel said. She cleans the Mille Lacs County Highway Department building.
Kim lives in the high rise in Milaca. She likes a lot of things about her time at the DAC, including letter writing, learning living skills, working on goal sheets, and preparing food in the blender.
It’s not all work at the DAC. Staff plan regular parties and dances, including an annual picnic in August, complete with live music, at the Milaca bandshell. And at 2 p.m., everyone takes a snack break — even the newspaper reporter.
I’ve always been impressed with the DAC since visiting there for the first time back in the ‘90s. Former director Fred Hoffman brought his big laugh and spirit of fun to the building, and reviews of his replacement, Rod Peltoma, are equally positive — which is saying something, considering the shoes he has to fill.
The generous spirit of the students and staff balanced out the usual criticisms and stressors I encounter at work.
I don’t get a lot of hugs at the office, so John’s arm around my shoulder as we posed for a photo came as a welcome surprise.
As I was packing up my things, Cindy said, “Don’t worry if you forget something. I’ll bring it to church.” It was such a thoughtful gesture that I felt bad that I wasn’t there to greet her on Sunday.
I ended up with a net gain of positivity for the week, which is rare for me. The laughter and smiles and John’s hand on my shoulder were like a transfusion, drawing out my cynical old blood and injecting something clean and pure.
Brett Larson is the editor of the Messenger.