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Pinewood offers sense of purpose, friendships, fulfilling work

Nonprofit helps connect employers, people with disabilities

It began with a group of parents in the early 1960s looking for something - places to go, things to do - for their grown children, all of them adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities. Pinewood, Inc. grew out of that early effort at Zion Lutheran Church. Formed in 1964, the nonprofit organization offers employment and day support services to adults (over 18) with intellectual or developmental disabilities. Some may be born with the disability, others may qualify because of a traumatic brain injury, for example.

In 2024, Pinewood will celebrate 60 years in Cloquet.

Pinewood executive director Toni Rothmeier said the organization keeps evolving. In the beginning it was more about doing an activity every day, versus finding employment.

Located in its own building on 18th Street across from Cloquet High School since 1975, Pinewood currently serves 50 people, who can choose how to use their services for recreation and socialization, employment at a local business, or a combination of both.

"Everything is person-centered here, and that's huge," Rothmeier said. "That means each person can navigate their own direction. Some might work three days a week and do day services two days to get that recreation or leisure element. Others might not work at all or choose to volunteer somewhere to gain experience. It's their decision."

At the Pinewood building in Cloquet, clients can take classes in the art room or computer room, hang out in two work areas in the building, go to the new and growing library, participate in activities in the gym, or get a bus ride to go to a job. They have movement time twice a day, which could mean a walk, working out on an elliptical in the workout space, dancing, whatever gets the blood flowing. Community members come and teach classes there, ranging from line dancing to painting to making holiday decorations. Pinewood won an award for reading stories on video in partnership with the Dolly Parton library. On Monday, a group of clients were baking Christmas cookies.

"The Pinewood is good - the best thing you could have," said Vicki, a client from Duluth who travels to Cloquet for services. "Everybody here is nice."

Pinewood could serve more than 50 people, but with current staffing levels, that's impossible. The nonprofit has a waitlist of 55 folks who would like to participate in employment or daytime activities, said Pinewood program director Danae Lambert, noting that they are always looking to hire new employees who are interested, flexible, patient and have a "big heart."

Lambert came to Pinewood with experience in banking in the corporate world, and fell in love with the work. Rothmeier has worked at Pinewood for 47 years, the last 25 of those as executive director.

"I love the people here and the fact that nothing is the same day to day," Rothmeier said. "It's such a rewarding job."

Black Bear honored

This month, Pinewood celebrated one of its largest employers: Black Bear Casino Resort. For the past 24 years, a group from Pinewood has been part of the staff at Black Bear. They have learned skills and made friends and brought home a paycheck, like every other employee.

Last Thursday, Dec. 7, Black Bear Casino Resort was officially recognized as one of 11 employers throughout the state of Minnesota as an "Outstanding Disability Employer" by the Minnesota Organization for Habilitation and Rehabilitation. The MOHR award recognizes employers that go above and beyond for Minnesotans with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Pinewood nominated the local casino hotel for the award.

"Hiring and retaining employees of all abilities strengthens diversity, fosters inclusion, and adds creative energy to the state's workforce," said MOHR president Robin Harkonen in a news release. "While thousands of businesses employ individuals with disabilities, our 11 honorees really do go above and beyond to ensure their employees are included and given opportunities to grow."

Currently, seven people from Pinewood work at the Black Bear kitchen as dishwashers for the buffet and steakhouse, with three others available to substitute as needed. Their tasks include scrubbing cookware and dishes, loading and unloading the dishwasher, putting dishes away, taking out compost and cleaning the dish room.

A job coach works with the Pinewood employees, but Black Bear cooks, waitstaff and supervisory staff also work alongside the Pinewood employees.

Lambert has filled in as job coach at Black Bear, and praised the positive atmosphere there and the benefits to Pinewood clients.

"They are very proud of the work they do and the kudos they receive from Black Bear," she said. "They are very hard-workers and very dependable."

On the job

Black Bear is not the first Carlton County business to be honored as a MOHR outstanding disability employer.

Sammy's Pizza in Cloquet won the award five years ago, in 2018.

"A lot of these people wouldn't be able to work independently if they didn't have these particular people running the business," Lambert said. "They also serve as a job coach in some ways."

Lambert rattles off a list of other businesses that hire Pinewood clients - mostly for cleaning or dishwashing - including Proctor High School, Carlton schools, the St. Louis County sign shop and Brookston garage, Arrowhead Transit and Head Start, Canosia Town Hall, Mount Royal assisted living, the Northern Lights thrift store in Cloquet and even St. Paul's Lutheran Church next door.

Depending on their abilities - as determined by social workers - a Pinewood attendant might work one-on-one with a job coach, or one job coach might supervise a small group of workers.

For a long time, the nonprofit offered paper shredding services to local businesses, but Covid and changing times ended that venture. In the past, Pinewood folks performed assembly-type jobs for Diamond Brands, which closed down in 2017.

Some of those jobs were paid at a piece rate or under the terms of a special minimum wage for workers with disabilities.

"Now everyone here is paid at least the [required] minimum wage and some folks make much more than that," Rothmeier said. Some Pinewood attendants are paid by their employers, others by Pinewood, which bills the Minnesota Department of Health and Human Services for its services.

Lambert shared how one Pinewood attendee volunteers at St. Paul's Lutheran Church next door in a win-win scenario for both.

"He loves to vacuum, but it has to be a small job," she said. "He goes in and gets it done in about 15 minutes. He's satisfied, and they're happy."

It's all about matching potential or an already learned skill set with the need, be it addressing envelopes, cleaning, packaging, doing dishes or doing something else.

"We're an employment agency," she said. "If you need a job done, give us a call."

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