Minnetonka's Opportunity Partners celebrates 60 years of helping the developmentally disabled

  • Article by: BEN JOHNSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 23, 2013 - 12:53 PM

The trailblazing nonprofit Opportunity Partners began in 1953 with one paid employee and 15 clients. Now it serves more than 1,700 developmentally disabled adults.

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In 2013, Opportunity Partners clients worked on Super Bowl cake decorations for DecoPac, Inc., a cake decoration company based in Minneapolis.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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The production floor is buzzing late on a Friday morning at Opportunity ­Partners’ 110,000-square-foot headquarters in Minnetonka. Teams of six to 10 employees work at more than 20 L-shaped tables, called pods, assembling and packaging everything from granola bars to camping gear.

A forklift beeps, announcing its arrival, grabs a pallet and disappears down a cavernous aisle filled with a small fraction of the 11 million parts the workshop will ship this year.

The bustling scene is a far cry from its original headquarters. Opportunity Workshop, as it was called until 1996, was founded in 1953 in a small house in Richfield by a group of parents who wanted a better life for their teenage children with disabilities. Originally, 15 teens were served by one staff person and eight volunteers. To this day, three of those original teens are still served by programs run by Opportunity Partners.

Now Opportunity Partners operates 11 program sites and 23 ­residential sites, serving more than 1,700 people with disabilities and mobilizing a vast network of volunteers. Its programs have evolved over the last 60 years into a three-pronged strategy — live, learn and work — to help people with disabilities have productive, healthy lives.

Opportunity Partners’ production floor supplies 185 companies with assembly and packaging services. It will issue paychecks to more than 1,200 employees this year.

However, the goal is not to expand its production capacity, but to train people with disabilities to live and work independently.

“We want to make these jobs a steppingstone,” said Opportunity Partners’ Senior Vice President Gregg Murray, gesturing to the production floor. “This is a training ground. It’s all about making sure they develop the work skills, the ­training and the discipline so we can get them out into a job in the community.”

In 2008, 39.5 percent of Americans aged 18-64 with disabilities were employed, according to disabilitystatistics.org, an online resource run by Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. By 2011, the latest year for which such stats are available, that ­number had declined to 33.1 percent.

Minnesota has a disability employment rate of 47.1 percent, which is second in the nation behind North Dakota, due to the presence of organizations like Opportunity Partners.

The goal: Independence

Lisa Santa Maria has been working with Opportunity Partners since 1994, when they helped place her in a job performing administrative work for BioScrip, a pharmaceutical company with offices in Eden Prairie. For the last eight years, she has worked for the city of Edina, helping with payroll, delivering mail and filing documents, among other administrative tasks.

“She excelled immediately,” said Lynette Biunno, her supervisor at City Hall. “We show her what she needs to do and she gets it done. She’s got a great memory and attention to detail, which really, really helps us keep things organized.”

Opportunity Partners sends a job coach out to meet with Santa Maria twice a month to address any concerns and to make sure everything is going smoothly. She also attends life skills classes at an Opportunity Partners site in Plymouth once a week and receives residential in-home services to help her live semi-independently.

The Clara Doerr Residence became Opportunity Workshops’ first residential program when it opened in Minneapolis in 1972. Most of its residential programs are group homes, which require 24/7 staff support. However, recently Opportunity Partners launched the hoMEbase program, which allows residents to live in their own apartment with a staff member living down the hall to provide support as needed.

“From day one, it was all about finding people work, and that’s always going to be at the center of what we do, but we do see residential as an area of growth for us,” said Murray. “Today we own 21 group homes, and that’s an area where we hope to see a lot of growth in the future.”

‘It takes a lot of dough’

Back at the Opportunity Partners headquarters, a rich, hearty scent seeps into the hallway outside the production floor. Six students are learning how to cook white chicken chili in their weekly three-hour cooking class. They’ve already helped chop the onions, cook the chicken and add the spices — all of which a grocery shopping class purchased earlier that week — and now their instructor, Joe, is reviewing cooking strategies and safety tips as the chili simmers.

“Joe’s a good guy,” said Mike Young, one of the students. “I like Joe.”

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