WAITE PARK – Few places in the St. Cloud metro area have quite as many things going on at any given time as WACOSA.

The nonprofit, headquartered on Sundial Drive in Waite Park, recently secured a $16,000 Central Minnesota Special Needs Fund grant to provide daily physical therapy to individuals with complex physical and intellectual disabilities.

It’s just one facet of the organization – which is the largest in the St. Cloud area serving individuals with special needs.

WACOSA has a staff of 160 and six locations with a service area radius of around 40 miles. The organization was formed in 1963 by a group of St. Cloud area parents, says Carrie Peterson, Fund Development Manager.

“At that time, individuals with disabilities were put into state institutions or regional treatment centers,” Peterson says. “So, these parents got together because they wanted more for their kids.”

“We formed to provide people – at that time, children – something to do outside of the school year,” added Nancy Betts, Quality Assurance Director.

Today, the organization serves around 700 clients per year, mainly by referral, with a strong focus on employment. People arrive at WACOSA with a variety of barriers to employment, including physical and intellectual disabilities, traumatic brain injuries and serious mental illness.

Clients in search of jobs work one-on-one with staff members to sketch out employment goals and make connections with area businesses or organizations that could be good fits. Once hired, clients have the option of having on-the-job support from a coach.

There’s no one-size-fit-all plan, says Peterson.

“You’re dealing with a huge spectrum of employees. We have people who work at McDonald’s, but then we have a client who works for a financial services company and wears a suit every day.”

“Often, they need a little extra help or support finding the job and getting a little on-the-job training," Betts says. "And then we never see them again. That’s really the goal.”

While employment is the objective for some clients, others are focused on finding volunteer opportunities, joining social groups or learning basic life skills, says Executive Director Steve Howard.

“We try to be person-centered. We ask, ‘what do you want for your life?’ And then we help guide (clients) in that direction.”

For some, employment comes in the form of WACOSA-based work. In 2007, the organization formed DocuShred, a mobile document shredding and recycling company. ThriftWorks, a secondhand store that functions as a months-long skills training program, opened in 2013. Both programs contribute revenue back into the organization.

Howard says the programs are showing positive results. Of the 48 individuals trained in the ThriftWorks store program, 17 were placed into competitive jobs directly related to skills they learned.

“They leave the program able to maneuver through any kind of work setting,” he says. “(The program) is homed in on each person and what they need to learn.”

While state funding for WACOSA fluctuates year over year, Howard says the organization continues to grow. Future goals include forming more business partnerships, seeking out more thrift store training opportunities, and establishing a larger footprint in Sauk Centre.

They also plan to devote more time to early intervention by reaching out to school districts, he says.

“We don’t have anything exact right now,” he said. “But I think it would be fair to say this organization never sits still. And we’re excited about that.”

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