Discovering LIFE

Published 6:26 pm Friday, October 14, 2022

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After 70 years, LIFE Mower County is going strong in their mission of inclusion for developmentally disabled


It should be no question as to why LIFE Mower County chose the name it did because “life” is a central part of what they do.

Austin’s turn-to program for the developmentally disabled, which turns 70 this month, is devoted to ensuring the best possible life possible. It’s in everything they do.

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“We want people to be part of the community, living the best life they can,” said Executive Director Dawn Helgeson ahead of the group’s 70th Anniversary Celebration this past Sunday. “Every day when we have stuff it’s life skills. Simple, basic life skills. Learning to have different opportunities out in the community.”

LIFE’s very first version of existence dates back to the 1950s with a few families joining with a state organization to provide opportunities for their children, which eventually led to the formation of ARC, however, when the organization began to merge chapters across the state, Austin’s chapter along with a handful of others chose not to and instead chose to remain independent.

“We had to change our name and have been doing the same thing we’ve been doing for 70 years,” said Program Director Jamey Helgeson.

LIFE in Mower County is a model of what a program for the developmental disabled should be, but it also shows how far these types of organizations have come over the years.

In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t that long ago when the answer was simply be to institutionalize those with disabilities, oftentimes leaving them in terrible environments that didn’t really treat anyone.

“Even to the point that when people died and lived at the institution, they only were known as a number,” Dawn said.

It’s a far cry different than the goals LIFE achieves every day in making sure the developmentally disabled are a valued part of the community, taking part in its activities and holding down jobs.

Instead of focusing on the disability, LIFE focuses on the person.

“The person has a disability or this person has Down syndrome — not putting the disability first,” Dawn said. “It’s made a big difference in a lot of people’s lives. When you see somebody experience something for the first time and they are here with their friends and they are able to do things together and out in the community. We want them to be included in the community.”

In a lot of ways, LIFE has been about opportunities for not just the developmentally disabled but their families and friends.

Experiences that perhaps haven’t been shared before are now open for all.

“Some people have never gone on vacation before,” Jamey said. “When we went to Michigan that was the first vacation they’ve ever been on. Or they’ve never been to a Twins game. It’s just kind of neat to see their reaction. ‘I’ve never been here before, this is so cool.’”

Over the 70-year span of LIFE, the idea of involving family has become more central to the core of what the organizations does. In a lot of ways, it’s one of the most important tenants of what LIFE does.

LIFE Mower County has also opened the door for members to compete in sports and sporting events. Photo provided

“If you have a family member that has cancer you get involved in that cancer [effort],” Dawn said. “I just think families need support.”

“Just like this last event; the social get together doing ice cream,” said LIFE’s newest employee, Community and Family Outreach Coordinator Danielle Hernandez-Miller. “We had families, siblings — everyone came together.”

LIFE has also enjoyed being community supported and embraced.

“One thing that stands out to me was in the 2004 flood, when we lost our other building and a lot of people after we lost everything thought we were just going to shut down and be done forever,” Jamey said. “But we pulled all the wet papers apart, dried everything out, got the money for this building and we’re still here this many years later.”

“People came together,” Dawn added. “Everybody came together.”

At its heart, LIFE is about inclusion and with that friendship. Those working at LIFE aren’t just program coordinators they oftentimes become friends to those who they serve.

“We’ve been here forever and some of our volunteers have been here forever so you got those friendships over the years. You know a lot about them,” Jamey said. “You’ve got to have fun while you do it.”

With currently close to 100 members, LIFE is also looking to the next 70 years and wondering about what the organization will look like.

Some of its members are getting older and inevitably pass away. That has led attention being turned toward finding ways to get more families and younger members involved in the good works at LIFE.

“I would definitely like to see that family support and then growing that community together and have more choices to do things,” Hernandez-Miller said. “Having something life-long. I would like to see it continued life-long.”

And above all else, LIFE needs to be a destination.

“Just to be able to get the younger families to know there is a place they can come to and have some support they need and meet other parents and collaboration,” Dawn said. “Provide things where they can come and feel safe. We need that younger generation to carry on.”