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Willing and able: Adults with disabilities find pride, friendship through job partnerships in Perham

Tony Ross, Lisa Maninga and Chris Johnson, left to right, are part of a 10-person group of workers employed part-time at Shearer's Snacks through a partnership with Productive Alternatives. 1 / 8
Workers employed at Shearer's Snacks through a partnership with Productive Alternatives package Vic's Popcorn at the plant. "One of the things that's really fun here (at Shearer's) is that they can work together and do some teamwork," said Jody O'Brien, site supervisor for Productive Alternatives, of the workers. "That's pretty unique." Productive Alternatives is a non-profit employment service that provides vocational opportunities for adults with disabilities. Marie Johnson / Perham Focus 2 / 8
Mark Nansen has been working part-time at Shearer's for about two years. He said he's not cut out for retirement, and likes to work. He also works part-time at Productive Alternatives in Perham. Marie Johnson / Perham Focus3 / 8
Chris Johnson prepares bags of popcorn for shipping at Shearer's Snacks last Thursday. Marie Johnson / Perham Focus4 / 8
Chris Phillips, far left, assistant plant manager at Shearer's Snacks,is pictured with, left to right: Shearer's Coordinator/Planner Jackie Seidel, employees Tony Ross, Lisa Maninga, Chris Johnson, Mark Nansen and Troy Tierney, Productive Alternatives Job Coach Michelle Vana, and Productive Alternatives Site Supervisor Jody O'Brien. Marie Johnson / Perham Focus5 / 8
"I like it," said Tony Ross of working at Shearer's. “We do quite a bit of stuff here.” Marie Johnson / Perham Focus 6 / 8
Mark Nansen and Troy Tierney got a lot of laughs in while working together to bag popcorn. They both said they like the work. For Troy, the appeal is in the pace: “I like that it’s fast-paced,” he said. Marie Johnson / Perham Focus7 / 8
Lisa Maninga seals a multi-pack of Vic's Popcorn in preparation for shipping. She had a dream about working for Shearer's before it actually happened, and she calls the job her "dream come true." Marie Johnson / Perham Focus8 / 8

Just before 9 a.m. last Thursday, the crew of that day's Vic's Popcorn packaging line arrived for its shift at Shearer's Snacks, ready and raring to go. The five-member team, donning matching hardhats, safety glasses, hair nets and green shirts, stepped off the Otter Tail Express bus and through the front door of Shearer's.

As is typical, the group was greeted in the front lobby by Chris Phillips, assistant plant manager, and from there, they made their way onto the manufacturing floor. As is also typical, they cheerfully said "hello" and "good morning" to everyone they crossed paths with along the way.

"They're full of energy," said Phillips. "These guys are excited to be here, and we're excited to have them."

The workers hold positions at Shearer's through a partnership with Productive Alternatives (PA), a non-profit organization that provides vocational opportunities to adults with disabilities. PA sends five workers to the plant every weekday, along with one job coach who works alongside them. In all, about 10 PA clients rotate part-time shifts at the plant, with most working two to three days a week.

It's an arrangement that has benefits for both the company and the workers. For the company, it helps fill an employment gap—Phillips said some orders wouldn't get filled without the PA crew. It also promotes a diverse and inclusive work environment, he added, providing a tangible demonstration of the company's core values of respect, teamwork and giving back.

"They are part of the team," said Phillips. "We appreciate every day that they're here. It helps us, from the business point of view. They are adding value and are helping us get orders out the door. They play a very critical role."

For the workers, the partnership provides gainful, meaningful employment. PA employees are willing and able to work, but often run into challenges when it comes to finding the right job and getting hired. PA helps them get across those hurdles.

"For many of our clients, work is more than a paycheck," said Tammy Anderson, development director of PA. "Work offers the gift of pride, dignity, friendships, respect, self-sufficiency and being a contributing member of their community."

"We believe that 'disability' does not mean 'inability,'" said Jody O'Brien, PA's site supervisor. "We are a person-centered, non-profit organization that helps people with disabilities discover their gifts, earn supportive wages, and live life to their full ability in the community they love... Just like you and I want to be a valued and respected part of the community, adults with disabilities are no different. As one of our clients stated, 'Productive Alternatives helps me live my good life.'"

The Thursday crew at Shearer's had nothing but positive things to say about working with PA, calling the organization "good to work with" and saying "they stick with it" even in challenging situations.

The crew also had nothing but good things to say about their jobs at Shearer's. They like having variety in their work days, they said, and they enjoy working together as a team.

"This is my dream come true," said Lisa Maninga, and she meant it quite literally. Before Maninga started working at Shearer's two years ago, she had a dream that she was working there. As fate would have it, she was hired through the PA partnership not long after that.

"It's a good job," she said.

On Thursday, it was Maninga's job to prepare snack-sized bags of Vic's Popcorn for shipping. She and the rest of the team was in charge of grouping, sealing and boxing up the bags.

The crew was familiar with this kind of work, as they'd done it many times before, but they've also performed an array of other tasks at the plant; specific job duties vary from shift to shift, and the workers all said they appreciate the chance to do different things.

"I like that there's a variety of stuff to do," said Chris Johnson.

They also like that the work keeps them busy. As Troy Tierney said, "I like that it's fast-paced."

For Mark Nansen, it's mostly about a love for work in general. The 66-year-old once tried his hand at retirement, but didn't like it.

"I get bored," he said. "I like working. I've been doing it so long, it's hard to give it up."

Nansen, like many PA clients in Perham, splits his work days between an off-site job, in this case Shearer's, and the work floor at the local PA office.

PA is based in Fergus Falls and has multiple other locations throughout central and west-central Minnesota, including Perham. The Perham PA shares a space at 802 Jenny Avenue with Thrifty Alternatives, a thrift store that raises funds for the organization and also employs many of the local PA's workers.

O'Brien said the Perham office currently serves 36 clients. Any person with disabilities, age 18 or older, is eligible for PA's services. The organization gets employee referrals from county case managers, while employers usually reach out to them.

About 15 different local employers have PA clients working for them right now, including a few Perham churches, Central Market, Tesoro, McDonald's, ACS and others. Most of these off-site jobs entail cleaning or light assembly work.

PA helps its clients identify employment opportunities in local job markets, set realistic employment goals, make a plan to realize those goals, and then identifies resources and provides support to help the workers maintain their employment.

"We try to find the right fit based on what the individual wants," said O'Brien. "They tell us the type of work they want to do."

PA also provides adult day services, mental health services, transportation and manufacturing services for communities.

PA is funded by federal, state and county contracts, grants, fees for services, product sales and donations. For more information, visit

Perham area employers interested in partnering with PA may call 218-346-2131.

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Detroit Lakes Tribune as a reporter and magazine editor in November 2017 after several years of writing and editing at the Perham Focus. She lives in Detroit Lakes with her husband, Dan, their 3-year-old son and baby daughter, and their yellow Lab.

(218) 844-1452