Two of Perham's biggest manufacturers, sister companies Kit Masters and Swan Machine, have received a national award for their employment partnership with Perham 180, a local transitional housing program of Productive Alternatives.

The George W. (Bill) Fairweather Innovation Award, from the Coalition for Community Living, was announced and presented to the companies in an intimate surprise ceremony on Oct. 5. The coalition's John Trepp visited Perham that morning to personally congratulate the people behind the partnership.

Aimie Hallberg and Darrin Swanson with Kit Masters smile as they're presented the award. (Elizabeth Vierkant/Focus)
Aimie Hallberg and Darrin Swanson with Kit Masters smile as they're presented the award. (Elizabeth Vierkant/Focus)

Trepp was joined by Perham 180 Program Director Hannah Frederick, who nominated the businesses for the award, and two of the program's participating employees, Greg Zutter and Armas Grangruth. The group waited with excitement in the lobby of Kit Masters that morning for Aimie Hallberg, the company's director of human resources, and its owner and CEO Darrin Swanson, to appear.

As the two walked into the entryway, large smiles grew on their faces as they realized what the meeting was all about. Frederick, all smiles herself, explained her reasoning for nominating the businesses, and described how successful the collaboration has been for Perham 180.

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Trepp stepped forward, shaking Swanson's hand and presenting him with the award.

"You were nominated because you helped people achieve their goals," Trepp said. "Hannah said you took time to sit down and listen to people about their stories and understand where they were coming from, and have been flexible about work schedules."

Perham 180 serves many people in search of employment opportunities. While Perham has plenty of jobs available, Frederick said many of them are full-time and that isn't always an option for the people of Perham 180, who sometimes have large gaps in their employment history, or a shortage of employment, due to struggles with addiction, health or general stability.

Kit Masters and Swan Machine are able to offer flexible schedules and part-time work. So, when Perham 180 sat down with the companies to discuss employing the people they serve, the companies agreed.

"It's been a great program, one that we love to support and help out as much as we can and give opportunities to folks who need a little help," said Swanson. "It's been wonderful for our community and wonderful for our business, and it just seems like the right thing to do — to help out and give somebody an extra chance."

(Left to right) Armas Grangruth, Greg Zutter, Erin Roder, Aimie Hallberg, Hannah Frederick, Darrin Swanson and John Trepp. (Elizabeth Vierkant/Focus)
(Left to right) Armas Grangruth, Greg Zutter, Erin Roder, Aimie Hallberg, Hannah Frederick, Darrin Swanson and John Trepp. (Elizabeth Vierkant/Focus)

Throughout the past year, about half the residents of the Perham 180 program have been employed at Kit Masters. While Frederick said it doesn't always work out, the program has been great for those who have stuck with it.

"That barrier for some people to get employed has really been eliminated with Kit Masters," Frederick said. "It just changes lives."

One program participant, Greg Zutter, said he struggled with unemployment before joining Perham 180, but the program gave him a lot of resources, including the chance to start employment with Kit Masters.

"I didn't want to go through with it at first, but was pushed to do so," he said. "And I've been (working with Kit Masters) for nine months. Things are going really well."

Zutter plans on furthering his education, working toward his GED and a manufacturing certification. For him, Perham 180 has opened many doors.

Armas Grangruth is also grateful for the opportunities provided to him by Perham 180 and Kit Masters.

"I'd like to thank Perham 180 for giving me the opportunity to prove to myself and the community that there is a place for me here in Perham to grow some roots," Gangruth said, adding that he feels like he has a strong new start in the community with this new job.

The George W. Fairweather Innovation Award (Elizabeth Vierkant/Focus)
The George W. Fairweather Innovation Award (Elizabeth Vierkant/Focus)

Trepp told the story behind the award, explaining that in the 1960s, George W. (Bill) Fairweather decided to use his degree in psychology to help veterans who were struggling with mental health concerns. Wanting to help people with mental illness gain stability and structure, he created what is now known as the "Fairweather Lodge" program, a program that helps ex-psychiatric patients participate in their communities and find their places back in society.

He said that what Perham 180 and Kit Masters/Swan Machine have done exemplifies the goals of the Fairweather Lodge program.

Learn more about Perham 180 by visiting productivemn.org/perham-180/ or calling 218-298-0083.