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Governor seeks jobs for disabled

By Bob Mercer

Capitol Correspondent

PIERRE -- The South Dakota awards for disability employment handed out Monday by Gov. Dennis Daugaard in the Capitol's rotunda came with good stories.

The governor, whose parents were born deaf, told of people with disabilities who are successful in their jobs and their professions.

And he spoke about business owners and disability-services professionals whose efforts make for better workplaces and opportunities.

He also drew on his experiences including lessons from his parents, who taught their children the importance of getting to the job 15 minutes early and staying 15 minutes late.

"Work provides a great sense of self-worth," Daugaard told the small gathering who came to honor their co-workers and friends receiving the awards.

People with disabilities often have a strong work ethic and strong character because of what they face in life, he said, and they tend to be loyal and stay in their jobs for long times. Daugaard said they often are the best workers an employer has.

Earlier this year, the governor appointed a task force on employment of people with disabilities. He wants state government to emphasize hiring people with disabilities.

At a time when South Dakota's 3.9 percent unemployment is second-lowest in the nation, employers struggling to hire workers should look more to people with disabilities as a solution and recognize their abilities, Daugaard said.

"We need everyone, those with disabilities as well as those without disabilities," he said.

The stories of the 2013 awards recipients covered the breadth of South Dakota.

Daniel Hammett, of Box Elder, who has cerebral palsy, works as a park guide at Mount Rushmore National Memorial. He once returned $8,000 to the Social Security Administration.

"He suggested they give it to someone who needed it," Daugaard said. "I don't know if I'd have returned $8,000. That's impressive." He received the 2013 award for outstanding employee with a disability.

Lori Kober, of Vermillion, is the nation's only deaf woman who is owner and director of a funeral home. She's also been the deputy coroner for Clay County.

"Her unique skills, abilities and love for people have helped her excel," Daugaard said. She received the award for outstanding citizen with a disability.

Anita and Randy Hall, of Sioux Falls, are managers of KFC/A&W Restaurants for DeeJay's QSR Inc. They received the award for outstanding private employer in the small-business category.

The governor said they work with the Sioux Falls School District's Project Skills vocational rehabilitation program. He said they've found "a diverse team makes for better problem-solving, serving all customers more effectively and creating a richer culture for all to enjoy."

Daugaard said they appreciate the assistance of job coaches and job developers, use online training modules for employees and have step-by-step instructions throughout the workplace that use pictures and symbols for job tasks.

They provide information and support to other managers in the region for getting started in hiring and keeping quality employees with disabilities. Daugaard said they attended a school meeting to help a student who wanted more work hours and responsibilities and now puts in 35 hours per week.

Burger King/Dakota King Inc. received the outstanding private employer award for larger businesses. Owner Tom Walsh and district manager Mike Leslie developed a "guest ambassadors" program for the restaurants.

Daugaard said they also took a variety of other steps to ensure the employees with disabilities felt they were in a secure, safe and friendly place. He said they've made a lasting impact on people's lives.

Tom Walsh Sr. and Tom Walsh Jr. accepted the award Monday. "The Walsh family is generous to many, many people in their community," Daugaard said.

The National Park Service and its staff at Mount Rushmore National Memorial received the outstanding public employer award. Daugaard said they emphasize integrating the work force and are a model employer for people with disabilities.

Maria Jongbloed, of Watertown, began her career in 1995 in Woonsocket as the only special education teacher from pre-kindergarten through grade 12. She later worked at Henry and has been in the Watertown School District the past eight years.

The governor presented the outstanding award in transition services to her. Daugaard said Jongbloed understands the need for team approaches to helping students with cognitive disabilities.

"Her focus is on providing students with life-skill opportunities, skills students will need as they transition into adulthood," Daugaard said. "Maria is willing to take on new challenges to meet the needs of her students."

The 2013 distinguished service award went to Lyle Cook, who is director of the Native American vocational rehabilitation program in Eagle Butte. The governor noted Cook's efforts to increase awareness through powwows, public forums and events throughout tribal lands in South Dakota.

He serves as a liaison for tribal governments and tribal organizations in relationships with state boards and services. The governor said Cook is a person of strong personal beliefs and commitments.

"His dedication to the best interests of people with disabilities in his community, the state and the nation are exemplary," Daugaard said. "He willingly serves, helping to develop and forge alliances that promote independence and employment for people with disabilities."