His family knew that Loring Tollefson was special. But how would the rest of the world react to a child born in 1955 with intellectual disabilities who was about to finish school?

Would Loring be institutionalized, stay at home, or be placed with other men and women with disabilities in a "sheltered workshop?" His father was certain he'd wind up institutionalized, in the state hospital in Cambridge.

"Loring was mentally slow, but very cheerful, very happy, friendly, an easygoing child who was a joy to be around, just a blessing," his mother, Gladys Tollefson, 92, said from her home in Anoka.

"But the world was different then," Gladys said. "Loring wanted to be productive, feel good about himself, like anybody else. But others either didn't understand or know what to do with people like Loring."

Loring's father, Chester Tollefson, 88, would make them understand. Chester credits Robert W. Johnson, then the Anoka County attorney, with helping him form a steering committee. Through dozens of calls to Anoka's government officials and education and business leaders, Chester planted the seeds for Rise Inc., now a nationally acclaimed barrier buster that has assisted more than 15,000 Minnesotans over the past four decades.

By encouraging, training and transporting people with a wide range of disabilities, Rise offers 44 programs to people in at least 20 different Minnesota counties, helping them find jobs, housing and reasons to feel they can be contributing members of their communities.

Respected nationally

Today, Rise, with a central office in Spring Lake Park, has a staff of 360 with offices or production facilities in 18 Minnesota locations. Nationally, Rise is considered a pioneer.

After finding jobs for 511 welfare recipients over a 45-month span, Rise's Work in Progress welfare-to-work program was named by the U.S. Department of Labor in 2002 as one of the top 18 programs of its kind. Two years later, the National Association of Counties lauded Rise's Somali Employment Solutions program with an achievement award.

But when it opened on Aug. 3, 1971, in a little room on the Anoka County fairgrounds, Rise had four trainees with intellectual disabilities and two trainers.

"We didn't grow up with people with disabilities," said Lynn Noren, who came to Rise later, as a 19-year-old college intern, and is now a Rise vice president. "They were in special schools, or sent away."

John Barrett, Rise's president, arrived in 1976, and almost immediately emphasized that people with disabilities have a variety of skills and shouldn't be stereotyped. In the 1980s, as economic limitations closed institutions, Rise officials emphasized that a disabled person who worked in a community instead of being institutionalized could save a city $100 a day.

A first chance at a job

Last year, Rise helped 1,843 people get employment. Some were students with disabilities who were guided to ease their journey from school to the workforce. Some were homeless. Others were refugees and immigrants who worked with culturally sensitive staff, many of whom are bilingual.

"For a lot of people, it's about getting that first job as a stepping stone," Barrett said.

For Rise's executive staff, there is the added challenge of funding. The best way to support the organization is by hiring people, said Rise publicist Beth DePoint. But with an operating budget well beyond $20 million, Rise is glad to take donations. Last year, just the increased cost of Rise's fuel bill was $200,000.

Chester and Gladys Tollefson were recently honored for their "little good idea" of 40 years ago. Their son, Loring, died of a heart attack in 2002, and the Tollefsons are grateful for the opportunity he and others gained through Rise.

"Just magnificent," said Chester, a retired state-highway surveyor.

"Forty years ago, I was familiar with a workshop that was being done in Bloomington and I wondered why we couldn't do the same thing on the north side [of the metro area]," he said. "But I never expected to see it develop this way.

"I thought Loring deserved something better than an institution. But what Rise is doing is unbelievable."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419