Notable Women of Austin: Helgeson a force behind The Arc Mower County

Published 6:14 am Tuesday, February 5, 2019

By Carolyn Bogott

American Association of University Women

Dawn Helgeson, executive director of The Arc Mower County, leads an organization that does amazing things with limited resources.

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She is completely dedicated to her 240 “friends” with intellectual or developmental challenges and to their families. Her eyes shine as she states “I love coming to work every day.” And with quiet persistence, Dawn works tirelessly, advocating for her many “friends,” in housing issues, school issues, employment, pay issues, transportation, just “any which way” she can help make life more fulfilling for them.

Dawn Helgeson, executive director of The Arc Mower County

Dawn comes from a farming background and got an accounting degree and was first hired as an accountant at The Arc in 1989.  She quickly became involved in the kids’ programs as well as in the Special Olympics.  She has been a coach for Special Olympics for 29 years, involved in all the sports: bowling, track and field, softball and basketball.  She finds it very rewarding to help provide this opportunity for people to compete at their own ability level.

The Arc Mower County had 40 bowlers compete in a state meet the end of November, for one example.

Since 1995, when she was named executive director, Dawn’s responsibilities have included grant writing, fundraising, meeting one-on-one with “friends” and their families, helping to supervise recreational activities, strategic planning, custodial duties, as well as coaching and bookkeeping. 

“I do whatever needs to be done to keep the program running,” she said.

The Arc has a board of community volunteers. Board President Laura Tjomsland said, “Dawn Helgeson is extremely dedicated to the mission of The Arc. She supports the clients that are served, beyond the call of duty.  Her humanity to man is first rate!”

The Arc also has a group of 20 “friends” who develop leadership skills to advocate for themselves. This second group, called People First, works to involve  “friends” in giving back to the community.  They have been involved in Paint the Town Pink as well other community fundraisers. This group also attends conferences with other people with intellectual and developmental challenges to learn how to enhance their advocacy, and how to integrate into the community.

Dawn explained that The Arc is the descendent of one of the first chapters of the Association for the Epileptic and Feeble Minded in Minnesota, which was incorporated here in Austin in 1953.  Things have changed dramatically since then in how society views those with special challenges.  Many of The Arc’s participants now have jobs and live independently, where formerly they might have been institutionalized.

“However, the stigma is still out there. All people deserve a chance to learn and grow. That is what life is all about,” Dawn said.

It is clear that work remains to be done so that all members of our community have full opportunities to grow and enjoy life.   Dawn would welcome your volunteer hours or financial help at any time for her work at The Arc.

For more information about the Austin Branch of AAUW, contact program co-chair, Sue Grove  or Carolyn Bogott