Many years ago, my husband Roe and I had an “Ah ha!” moment: our son, the middle of our three children, begged to leave his high school where he was being mainstreamed in all his classes to go to a private school for kids with learning differences where he said, “Everyone will be like me.” When he got there, his anxiety level decreased so dramatically that he finally had the chance to thrive and make friends. It was there where, as a volunteer, I began to see connections between those high school kids with more profound learning differences (LD) and the adults on welfare I had worked with as a public health nurse many years earlier. It was devastating to realize that, counter to the then-prevailing wisdom that kids would outgrow their LD after the K-12 years, our son and others would actually be facing 60 years of adulthood with very real problems.
When our son had to go more than 1,000 miles away to a post-secondary program, and when I saw that most programs had an academic, rather than a vocational and life-skills emphasis, I (rather naively) thought it was time I do something. In 1993 I enrolled in the Masters of Public Health graduate program at the University of Minnesota and used this population of young adults with LD as my “population at risk” for the poverty cycle. My professors encouraged my endeavors as I did the research and then helped develop and run an eight-week summer pilot project for 12 young adults. That program was so successful that it became the dream of MLC. I incorporated Minnesota Life College on June 9, 1995 as a nonprofit corporation and asked 15 experts in various education, business, and legal fields to serve on the founding Board of Directors of MLC. Not a single person declined.
Our founding premise was that Minnesota Life College would be a three-to-four-year, college-like, apartment-living program for an underserved population—young adults with more profound learning differences who were considered too “high functioning” to be eligible for government services but who still had difficulties making their way in the real world. MLC would be a “college” of vocational and life skills with the goal of helping students achieve personal and financial self-sufficiency.
MLC has been a collaborative effort all along. Without the sweat equity of the founding Board of Directors and without the financial and people resources of our corporate partners, MLC would not and could not have gotten off the ground. We also received encouragement and very practical help from the seven programs we visited and benchmarked during the year-long planning phase.
We opened our doors to 13 pioneering students on August 19, 1996. The community of Richfield (a first-ring suburb of Minneapolis) turned out in force for the ribbon-cutting ceremony, as did the students’ and staff’s families, university professors, corporate partners, and many other contributors. The first year was what perhaps could be called a "typical first year," with an all-consuming nature and a number of ups and downs. I will never forget the parents’ dinner we held at the end of that first year: I was apologizing for not delivering a perfect program when one mother and father interrupted and said they didn’t know about having a perfect program, but that MLC had offered their daughter her first experience ever of having true friends instead of people who used her. Within minutes other tearful parents were sharing heartwarming stories about their young adult children. We reflected later that if we had had a video camera capturing those testimonials, we could have used that video to get funding from any business or foundation we approached.
Staff-intensive programs such as MLC are quite expensive to run, and we always sought state, county, local, and grant funding to ensure accessibility to financially diverse families. It is important to acknowledge the role that Buffets, Inc. (Old Country Buffet and HomeTown Buffet Restaurants) and the Hatlen Foundation have played in the start-up and on-going success of this venture. Tremendous financial support, given by Buffets, Inc. (with Roe Hatlen as its Co-Founder, CEO, and Chairman) and company individuals, along with invaluable resources of time and functional expertise, allowed MLC to carry forth its vision with a sound mission.
As the Founder, I envisioned young adults with learning differences having the same opportunities that we took for granted with our other children: to be part of a college-like community, to have several years to mature and discover their abilities and strengths, to participate in meaningful job exploration, to focus on physical and emotional wellness within a compassionate and respectful environment, and to have fun and make lifelong friends.
During my 10 years, MLC networked all along to create ties with the University of Minnesota, community and technical colleges, legislators and policy makers, and community foundations and businesses. We were committed to ongoing program evaluation and accountability and constantly asked ourselves which strategies would most help our students gain the competencies necessary for successful adult living.
I am delighted that the current Executive Director, staff, and Board have taken our original vision and enhanced and built upon it to create an even better Minnesota Life College.