Amid pandemic, disability service provider makes fundamental shift in operations

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One of the largest disability service providers in the state of Minnesota is changing its program to focus on community activities and employment for its hundreds of clients.

MRCI, based in Mankato, has operated almost a dozen work centers and an adult day care program in the southern part of the state during its 67-year history.

CEO Brian Benshoof said COVID-19 accelerated the plans that were already in place to transition to a fully community-based model.

"We’re not going to use facilities at all anymore," he said during an interview. "Ninety-nine percent of what we do is going to be in the community."

For years, the buildings served as sheltered workshops and center-based programming for people with severe disabilities are now for sale. The company last month had a surplus sale of its extra office equipment and other items.

Benshoof said the pandemic created an opportunity that the nonprofit couldn’t pass up.

"In a lot of ways, it’s much easier to do when you’re shut down," he said of the transition.

MRCI will now place hundreds of clients in jobs at businesses around the region. Benshoof said other programming for those people who do not work will also be centered around being in the community.

"One of our challenges is going to be working with people who have higher needs and more challenges," he said. "They’re going to be out in small groups either working or in a group of their peers engaged in activities in the community all day long."

Benshoof said the program’s shift is a way to integrate more people with disabilities into meaningful work in the community.

The move is the exception, at a time when the industry is reeling over financial stressors from the pandemic. In early March, the state forced many programs to close to slow the spread of the virus.

Because disability service providers are reimbursed by state and federal funds, programs only make money when they are able to serve clients. As a result, smaller non-profits in greater Minnesota have begun to close.

"I think it’s going to be a time of adjustment for a lot of people," Benshoof said responding to questions about the lack of resources. "Hopefully through the course of this we don’t lose that many providers, we don’t lose all the choices, but it is a concern."