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Multi-Community Care and Homes expands its services

Jeffery Peterson has had his share of personal struggles, but he discovered that helping people with disabilities has enabled him to overcome darker days.

As a direct support professional for Multi-Community Care and Homes in Litchfield, Peterson has worked since June with David Harper, who has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

“In the context of everything, it allowed me to grow as an individual,” Peterson said. “That’s what I mean by leaving the past where it is – because the same problems continued over and over and over again. And when I started here … I didn’t know what to expect. It’s a blessing to be able to do what I do. It’s just, it’s a win-win situation for everybody. The clients have a better quality of life rather than living in an institution, and we get to work with some very sensitive, charming (and) charismatic people. I’m not even sure how to describe the blessing to you … it’s been an eye-opening experience for me.”

Multi-Community Care and Homes, formerly Meeker County Community Homes, is a private, non-profit corporation that has provided 24-hour care to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities for more than 40 years. People like Peterson, who found fulfillment in working with those who have disabilities, are more important than ever, as the company is struggling to fill 11 direct support professional slots.

“We are definitely in a staffing crisis,” said Deb Sandell, executive director for MCCH. “We are short-staffed on an ongoing basis. This is true for others in our field. It is partly due to the wages, low unemployment rate, difficulty of care, and I am sure, many other factors.”

Some changes at MCCH were undertaken to distinguish it from county organizations and others.

“We decided to change our name because a lot of people thought that we were associated with Meeker County Social Services or different county-funded organizations, and we’re not,” said Sharaya Hagen, program director for MCCH.

“A lot of thought went into that, too, to keep that acronym,” said Abbey Wuollet, MCCH program coordinator. “But we also now have five different houses.”

MCCH provides support to 16 people in four homes in Meeker County, each of which houses four people, in addition to a fifth home that houses one person. MCCH also serves 12 people who live in their own homes or their parent’s homes in Litchfield or the surrounding area.

“As things change, it’s more of a homey atmosphere to have fewer people in one home,” Wuollet said, as she explained MCCH’s adjustments.

The Minnesota Legislature passed Statutes 245D.07 in 2014, which emphasizes person-centered support that an organization such as MCCH must learn to apply.

“So it’s exactly what it sounds like,” Wuollet said. “You put that person in the center of their care. And (in) the old way of care, decisions were made without that person’s input. Quality of life was not prioritized, so care has changed.”

“Person-centered really became a very big thing when 245D came out in 2014,” Hagen said. “But the changes with person-centered keep evolving and adding — you know, for us to understand the person as a unique individual, and then branching off of that.”

“How can we get to know them more every day, on what they want and what they don’t want, so that we can provide care according to their needs?” Hagen added.

Another thing that has changed is community integration, Wuollet said.

“Finding out, ‘does this person like to go to church every week?’” Wuollet said. “‘Do they like to go on nature walks?’ Like, ‘what do they enjoy going out and doing?’ And that’s really where our big focus is on.”

Prior to the law change, bringing people with developmental disabilities out in public was discouraged in many ways, Hagen said, but now “... we’re actively trying to get our individuals out into the community and help them build relationships with people who don’t have developmental disabilities.”

Some of the individuals who receive support have become either honorary members of Lions Club or active volunteers at their church, Hagen said.

The people who Hagen supports are like family to her, which adds joy and energy and balances tougher days.

“For us as caregivers, it’s hard sometimes to not be able to tell the person that we are supporting, how much we do care about them,” Hagen said. “Because we have to maintain a professional relationship.”

Employment has been a big issue for MCCH, which has caused staff members to work longer hours and days.

“The staff give all of themselves so that the people we support constantly have someone there with them,” Hagen said. “To provide the care. I mean, we have so many staff that are working double shifts and triple shifts, overnights and working hours and hours of overtime, because we are short-staffed.

“So, is there burnout, is there frustration, is there hard days?” Hagen asked. “Absolutely, but so many rich times, too, that if you get to see somebody make a small success… Those small things where we could be a part of an accomplishment or helping someone reach a dream, those to me outweigh the negative any day.”

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Land purchase preserves 625 acres for wildlife

A 625-acre tract of land acquired by the Meeker County Pheasants Forever chapter will be dedicated as a state wildlife management on Sept. 7.

The local Pheasants Forever group spearheaded the four-year-long project that led to purchasing the $2.1 million property just southwest of Kimball, previously owned by Peter and Paul Heid. The land acquisition funds came from the state’s Clean Water & Land Legacy Amendment and North American Wetlands Conservation, each contributing $650,000 to the chapter. An additional $110,000 was raised for habitat improvement, parking areas, fencing, signage and more.

“The Heid brothers were interested in selling it to us (Pheasant Forever), because of what our mission is, (which) is to build wildlife habitat,” said Jeff Miller, Pheasants Forever member. “So they wanted the land to remain and be used by the public, and so that’s why they chose us.”

This particular land becomes the largest wildlife area in Meeker County, Miller said. It will be open to the public for hunting pheasants, deer, turkey, ducks, rabbits or to simply enjoy the wildlife experience.

“There will be planting of native grasses,” Miller said. “We call that habitat improvement and native prairie restoration. There will be work done to supplement naturally what’s there. Pheasants need wildflowers. When a mama pheasant has baby pheasants, the chicks live on insects initially, and insects are attracted to wildflowers. So we go in and plant wildflowers in these areas, which enhances the habitat for raising chicks (and) raising pheasants.”

“The other things that the pheasants need is cover — the tree lines,” said Paula Miller, Jeff’s wife. “You can provide it with habitat, with the grasses and stuff, to eat. The other thing they need is cover, which is on that property, to roost in, to spend the winter in, because they don’t go south.”

Before the chapter could turn the land over to the Department of Natural Resources for it to become a wildlife management area, the DNR required the chapter to be able to execute a few developments on their own.

“Because they (DNR) didn’t have the money to do it,” Jeff Miller said. “So that was part of the deal, the state said, ‘Sure we’ll take the land because it’s beautiful wildlife property, but before we do it this, this and this has to be done and we can’t afford to do it. So we want Pheasants Forever to pay for it.’ And that’s what our organization does. With the help of all these partners, we put together the $110,000.”

At the upcoming dedication, invitees will be introduced to the wildlife management area, and they’ll be served pulled pork sandwiches. The gathering will recognize the contributing partners, Miller said. The state Legislature, county and township representatives, and the organizations that contributed will be present, Miller said.

“The big question is, ‘Why are we doing what we do? Why are we buying up this property? Why are we taking it off the agricultural scene?’” Jeff asked. “The answer is, ‘because if we don’t, then there won’t be any of it.’ And your grandchildren and my great-grandchildren or whatever, won’t be able to drive down the road and see a ringed-neck pheasant, or a white-tailed deer, or a cotton-tail bunny, because there won’t be any habitat to support them. And I think that’d be a shame.”

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Weird Alley immortalizes singer who made Darwin, twine ball famous

It was bound to happen.

And, well, what better time than the present?

Like many cities that name a street near a stadium after a sports star who became famous playing at the venue, Darwin took a step in immortalizing one of its favorite sons last week.

Mayor Josh Johnson installed a new street sign Thursday, temporarily replacing the Twine Ball Lane sign, which marks a short alley that runs just south of Darwin’s iconic twine ball, with one designating it as Weird Alley.

After completing the installation, Johnson sent an email to publicists for “Weird Al” Yankovic to inform him of the change, which is intended to recognize the attention the singer-songwriter has brought to the town of 350 residents through the years.

“We just really wanted to convey our appreciation for Al and what he’s done for Darwin,” Johnson said. “We’re certainly fans here. And we’re excited to be tied to an artist like that.”

That tie, of course, comes from the artist’s 1989 release of “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota,” a kind of humorous ballad with a record-setting twine ball as its focus.

Yankovic’s song, which runs 6 minutes and 50 seconds, parodies the styles of Harry Chapin’s “30,000 Pounds of Bananas” and Gordon Lightfoot’s “Wreck of the Edumund Fitzgerald” with a refrain that says:

“And all of us were joined together in one common thought

As we rolled down the long and winding interstate in our ’53 DeSoto

We’re gonna see the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota

We’re headin’ for the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota”

Though Yankovic’s song never mentions Darwin by name, the lyrics have prompted thousands of people to visit Darwin through the years, Johnson said.

“It depends on the day, but I tell people that a pretty good estimate in the summer is 100 to 150 a day,” Johnson said. “Some stop and roll down their window and take a photo and leave. But the majority will get out, walk around and get a selfie with the twine ball.”

Rural Darwin farmer Francis A. Johnson, no relation to the current mayor, collected scraps of twine and rolled them into a ball for decades. By the time he died in 1989, Johnson’s twine ball weighed nearly nine tons and stood 12 feet tall. Two years after his death, the ball was moved into Darwin, where it sits under a protective shelter on the town’s main street.

“The vast majority have heard the song,” Johnson said of twine ball visitors. “Anywhere from 30 percent to 80 percent are there just because they’re Weird Al fans, and they become twine ball enthusiasts through their love of him and his music.”

One of many Twine Ball Museum volunteers, according to Johnson, says of the twine ball, “It’s their Mecca. It’s like a required pilgrimage for Weird Al fans.”

All of that is what prompted Johnson to order an extra street sign when the city purchased new signs as part of a Darwin Community Legacy Foundation project. Twine Ball Lane was among the new signs purchased last year, to designate the previously unnamed alley, but the mayor thought Weird Alley was a fitting tribute when additional signs were ordered this year.

“I thought it would be a nice thing to do to thank him,” Johnson said. “I had it for a while, and we thought the timing would be right now, because of him coming to the State Fair.”

Yankovic was scheduled to perform Tuesday night at the Minnesota State Fair grandstand, a concert that a large contingent of Darwin residents already were planning to attend.

Along with notifying Yankovic’s managers, Johnson also planned to announce the recognition on social media. Funny thing happened though — after hearing from his publicists of the sign, Yankovic beat Johnson to the punch, tweeting through his @alyankovic Twitter account: “Sure, the Grammys and platinum albums are nice and all, but now I know I’ve finally made it: they just re-named the alley next to the Darwin, MN Twine Ball.”

Johnson said he saw Yankovic’s tweet and immediately responded through the @DarwinTwineBall Twitter account: “To celebrate @alyankovic’s @mnstatefair appearance this week and to honor all he has done to promote the Twine Ball and Darwin, Twine Ball Lane will now also be known as Weird Alley. Thanks for everything, Al! This here’s what America’s all about.”

As for being scooped on Darwin’s big news, Johnson chuckled and called it a good thing.

“He’s got 5 million followers,” Johnson said. “It’s pretty exciting to have him initiate it, him unveil the name change. I’m kind of surprised by how much legs it got. But for Al to put it out versus us, that’s brought some notoriety to the Twine Ball account, as well.”

No official action was taken by Darwin’s City Council on the street name change, Johnson explained, because the alley was unnamed, and the naming did not affect any mailing address.

The plan is to have the alley marked as Twine Ball Lane most of the time, he said, but it will rotate to Weird Alley when the artist is on tour and “in the neighborhood.”

“Whenever he’s in the area, or touring within several states, we’ll have the Weird Alley sign up,” he said. “We get a lot of fans who are attending his concerts who stop by during those time periods. And they’re always really, really nice folks. It’s fun to chat with them. It’s neat for us folks in Darwin to be able to welcome people from all over the world and kind of share Francis’ legacy with them.

“And we’re fortunate, too, to have this tie to Weird Al Yankovic,” Johnson added. “There aren’t too many artists with his staying power.”