Arc director celebrates 20 years

Published 10:07 am Tuesday, March 31, 2009

If anyone can be all things to all people, it’s Dawn Helgeson.

The Arc Mower County executive director is, of course, “the boss” at the agency serving people with disabilities.

She is also a mother-figure, a big sister-figure and figures in the exciting future of the agency.

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“I guess they see me as many different persons to them, because many of us have been together for so long,” she said. “It’s been 20 years, but it’s really been so much fun.”

Helgeson runs the day-to-day operations of the organization, taking care of clients’ needs.

She is also their advocate, pushes for legislation to protect the consumers, speaks out for them and guides them through simple tasks, such as being a “payee representative.” The latter involves managing their finances and helping them navigate bill-paying.

“I have six clients who need help with paying their bills and managing their checking accounts or doing things the rest of us just take for granted,” she said.

The People First club is one example and so is the relationship the organization has with the Austin Noon Kiwanis Club.

It’s an up-close-and-personal job Helgeson has and the responsibilities she has for consumers doesn’t allow her to be detached in any way.

Dale and Dawn Helgeson have two children: Cristy and Jamey, who also works for Arc Mower County.

Jamie Helgeson has worked for his mother at the agency for nine years and is in charge of bookkeeping and fundraising.

Dawn was honored Friday, March 20 on the occasion of her 20th anniversary of employment with Arc Mower County.

Family and friends, plus Dawn’s extended family of Arc Mower County consumers, had a party like no other collection of people can have.

Afterward, there was a belated-St. Patrick’s Day dance, also like no other collection of people can have.

The surprise anniversary party included gifts of 20 things to commemorate the occasion: 20 pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters and dollars; 20 tissues, paper clips, feathers and balloons; 20 candy bars, sticks of gum and other items.

“Being here for 20 years has allowed me to see many people grow up and mature,” Dawn said. “I know them as well as they know me. They’re like an extended family to me.”

When she returned to work Monday after the anniversary party, Dawn was busy writing “thank you” cards to the gift-givers.

“I really appreciated every one of them,” she said.

Dawn kept the tissues, paper clips, feathers and other items, but donated the money to Arc Mower County.

Helgeson has been with the organization since the dark, politically-incorrect days when the dreaded “R” word was used to describe developmentally disabled consumers and in the organization’s former “Association for Retarded Citizens.”

That was a time when, also tragically, there were institutions for the “mentally insane” or the most blunt of them all, “imbeciles,” Dawn said.

She has traveled with Arc Mower County from the former Fantle’s building (now Steve’s Pizza along North Main Street) to the former Peppermill Restaurant (now gone) near The Cedars of Austin, also along North Main Street, to the present location at the Mower County Senior Center (MCSC).

Sometime soon this spring, there will be a groundbreaking at the senior center for a new 4,600-square-foot expansion at the MCSC.

Today, the Helgesons, mother and son, share a cramped office with file cabinets, tables and shelves overflowing with books and two desks.

The MCSC is the current “Rec Center” for Arc Mower County activities.

The group activities bring out the largest number of consumers to interact and have fun.

“We have come a long way since the days when the ‘R’ word was used,” Dawn said. “They are ‘people with disabilities,’ but I don’t like to label them. They are just people to me.”

There are more than 300 Arc Mower County members, plus another 200 associate members and volunteers.

“With the expanded space, we plan to do more programming and hold more activities for the clients,” Dawn said.

In the immediate future is the exciting expansion project, also long-awaited.

“It seems we have had to move so many times,” Dawn said of the last two decades. “The organization has grown. We’re serving more clients today than every before, so to have a permanent home with all the space we need will be a real blessing.”

One measure of Dawn’s dedication to her job and her extended family of consumers was the 2004 flooding that left 18 inches of water in the former Arc location.

Dawn was there alongside consumers and volunteers sand-bagging and then bail out flood water from the old Rec Center.

There is no task too large nor too menial for Dawn when it comes to Arc Mower County.

Through the years, Dawn said there have been many invaluable community supporters.

When she talks about them, the discussion begins and ends with Bob Qual.

“Bob was there from the beginning,”

she said of the late Qual. “He was always there when we needed him. He meant a lot to the organization.”

Her son, Jamey, said there have been “no problems” working for his mother, “the boss.”

The son said he has learned from her by observing.

It’s hard to tell whom is talking about whom, when mother and son say about the same things, concerning their working relationship: “There all the time” and “We take our work home with us” could come from mother or son.

Dawn said she is looking forward to being able to expand the organization’s corps of community volunteers.

“There are so many opportunities at Arc for people to get involved,” she said.

The 20th anniversary milestone seemed to have touched her heart deeply.

“I’m proud to have been a part of Arc for 20 years, because it has been such an important part of my life also for the last 20 years. I can see myself being a part of Arc in some way for the next 20 years of my life,” Dawn said.