Prior to COVID, longtime friends and Mankato residents Rose Jensen and Breanna Gehring would spend their weekdays doing light assembly work at Mankato Rehabilitation Center Incorporated, or MRCI — packaging and sealing panel-edge clips for Menards and Home Depot.

Now they spend their days out in the community meeting people, going out for coffee, volunteering at the Blue Earth Nicollet County Humane Society and taking trips up to the Twin Cities to visit the Mall of America or the Minnesota Zoo.

“We volunteered at BENCHS today and met a cat named Ginger,” Jensen said. “She looks like she needs adopting. She just moved in yesterday.”

It’s a favorite spot for the two, who happen to be big animal lovers. Jensen describes visiting BENCHS as therapeutic.

“It’s just nice to be able to pet some cats that are safe to pet,” she said. “You also have to be careful because some cats do have disabilities like people. So, you’ve got to pay attention to which cats you pet at the shelter.”

Melissa Cardona, a day service specialist for MRCI — which provides employment, volunteering and social activities for adults with disabilities — works with Jensen, Gehring and two other clients. She said MRCI’s new community-based day service program provides everything from a learning opportunity to developing life skills and gaining confidence.

During a lunch break, Cardona will ask them what they would like to do for the week. Recently, one of them talked about her mother’s new pet snake on a visit. So, the group decided to spend the day learning about reptiles by visiting a reptile zoo.

“The girls absolutely love seeing animals and they get to have the opportunity to see things from a different view,” Cardona said. “After COVID hit they were kind of stuck at home so now it’s fun for them to be able to go out and know the barista from the coffee shop. They build relationships but also have the opportunity to see what they might want to do for employment down the road.”

Sarah Nagele, a Fairmont-based day service coordinator for MRCI, just arranged a couple volunteer opportunities for clients there for the new program, officially launched at MRCI’s Mankato location Thursday.

“They are helping out the community education department at the school, and they’re also helping out at a nursing home doing activities with the individuals that live there,” Nagele said. “They got memberships at a gym recently, and they’re super excited to be accessing that every day and being able to stay healthy and fit.”

Jensen said the group has learned about managing money and finances by visiting stores or going out to local restaurants.

“We go out to eat and learn how to budget,” she said.

A popular place among the group is to go to Minnesota State University to go bowling or grab a meal from the food court, where they hang out and play board games and card games. Gehring said they’ve also gone out to eat at A&W and Taco Bell, and she has a few ideas of where she would like to go next.

“The Big Yellow Barn or Mom and Pop’s ice cream would be good — or Dairy Queen,” she said.

MRCI Community Relations Manager Lisa Cownie said their goal is to eventually get all of their clients working out in the community with competitive wages, based on their own goals and interests.

“Until they’re ready to do that, they do this community-based program where you’re still learning skills until you get ready to work or launch a business,” Cownie said.

Jensen hopes to do just that, and she already has a plan for starting her own business by making decorative jackets for pens and pencils.

“I’d like to earn money,” Jensen said. “I’ve actually been working on a little project that I’m trying to find a place for selling. I call them curly chains and use yarn to make them. It’s a traditional friendship bracelet technique and is very therapeutical for me.”

The plan to focus on community-based socializing, volunteering, educational opportunities and eventually establishing jobs out in the community as opposed to at one of MRCI’s buildings has been in the works for a few years, but MRCI CEO Brian Benshoof said the pandemic expedited the process.

“Once we got through the initial crisis of getting our feet on the ground, COVID gave us the opportunity to do this pivot to the community,” Benshoof said. “But being shut down we were able to rebuild and get this whole thing open.”

That means the non-profit organization will need much less space and instead focus on buying 200 white vans for the new program.

So far, they have about 50, and clients have already been doing community activities since the beginning of the year.

“Each van has four clients and a staff (person),” Benshoof said. “It’s unique and we’re probably the only agency in the state that’s doing it.”

While the community employment program has been operating for a long time, Benshoof said what’s different is they’re working with employers to hire all of their clients, who can do one or the other, or a combination of the day service program and the innovative employment exploration program, which gives clients a chance to learn about different jobs or careers they may be interested in.

“We’re hiring staff to fill those vans and we’re bringing clients back as we get each new vehicle ready to go,” he said. “It’s still a challenge to hire people, but even that’s starting to pick up.”

He said that in addition to connecting with volunteer opportunities and prospective employers, MRCI is hoping to recruit people from the community who may have a unique skill or hobby they can teach to clients.

Jensen, who has been involved with MRCI for the past decade, welcomes the changes and said she prefers being able to go out into the community on outings to learn, meet new people and volunteer as she looks to start her own business.

“I’m just hoping I can be a good example for future people who come to this program,” she said.

Dan Greenwood is a Free Press staff writer. Contact him at dgreenwood@mankatofreepress.com

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