Labor of love

MARSHALL – It’s more than a local nonprofit, staff members at Advance Opportunities say. It’s more than a vocational program, or an employment organization. It’s about the connections – both personal and out in the community.

“I think we see so many friendships blossom,” said Dawn Wambeke, executive director of Advance Opportunities.

“It’s a family, really,” said Lisa Sonnenburg, the organization’s program coordinator.

Advance Opportunities, known for many years as the Lyon County Developmental Achievement Center (DAC), is celebrating its 50th anniversary of helping people learn, grow and find work they love. The private, nonprofit provides vocational and employment opportunities for adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities. Advance Opportunities currently serves about 96 employees with disabilities from Lyon County and surrounding counties.

The anniversary will be officially celebrated Thursday. Wambeke said Marshall Mayor Bob Byrnes has been invited to the Advance Opportunities building on East College Drive to make a proclamation for the occasion.

There’s a lot of history to look back on, Wambeke and some long-time staff members at Advance Opportunities said this week. The organization, and the services it offers, have changed a lot over time. Lyon County DAC first opened its doors in Ghent in 1963.

“Originally, it was for education,” Wambeke said. There was classroom instruction on subjects like math and life skills, said Sonnenburg and Pat Driessen, Advance Opportunities’ employment coordinator. The DAC also served younger clients – the organization’s scrapbook from the 1970s includes newspaper clippings showing school-age kids and preschoolers taking part in activities and outings.

“Not long after that, you can see it becoming more adult-focused,” Wambeke said.

Driessen said part of the reason for the shift came from changes in the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

“They wanted people to be able to start working and earning a wage,” Driessen said.

In the 1970s, the DAC moved into Marshall and operated out of a few rooms at Holy Redeemer School.

“We had three classrooms, and downstairs there was an area we used for a furniture refinishing program,” Driessen said. The refinishing program was an early example of ways the organization offered chances for people with disabilities to learn vocational skills.

The program continued to grow, so by the 1980s the DAC was looking for another home again. After moving into a former Pamida building on East College Drive, employment opportunities really started to take off, Driessen said. Successful work programs included a can-crushing and recycling business, and folding and stuffing advertising fliers for newspapers.

In 2007, the DAC built its current facility on Peterson Street in Marshall. Wambeke said the timing of the move turned out to be excellent – it came just as the organization was getting ready to expand its number of client openings. The building includes work areas, office space and even a car wash.

“Everything has really changed with us getting larger,” Sonnenburg said.

The organization changed its name to Advance Opportunities in 2008 to better reflect the mission of enhancing the lives of employees with disabilities. Wambeke said she hopes the organization will continue to expand its partnerships with community businesses, and the opportunities available for Advance employees.

“Our ideal is to have some kind of manufacturing work that is steady,” Driessen said.

Advance Opportunities employees can do a wide variety of work for area businesses, from assembly and packaging to housekeeping services, and 21st-century tasks like making digital copies of documents. Wambeke said Advance employees have had a lot of success with a document imaging program for organizations like Southwest Health and Human Services. The employees take on the time-consuming work of scanning paper documents into electronic files for computer records systems.

Another new development will be coming through the Project SEARCH program.

“Project SEARCH is essentially a transitional high school program, for students with disabilities,” Wambeke said. Participants in the program will be able to do a series of local internships. “It’s something that will help get them prepared for gainful, community employment,” Wambeke said. “We’re very excited about it.”

Wambeke said the program will be made possible in the Marshall area through partnerships with the Southwest/West Central Service Cooperative and Avera Marshall Regional Medical Center.

Advance Opportunities employees earn wages for their work, and for some employees, it helps them have some independence, Sonnenburg said. Equally important is the chance to socialize, and be active in the community.

The chance to make those kinds of connections is a big part of what has made Advanced Opportunities special for both staff members and employees.

“To see the difference in (the employees’) lives now It’s just that they’ve grown so much,” Driessen said.