Monday, May 26, 2008

A Tribute to a Colleague & Friend

Editor’s Note: At its annual meeting held on May 19, 2008, Minnesota APSE—The Network on Employment honored Jackie Mlynarczyk, CEO of Kaposia, Inc. for her career achievements and contributions in advancing supported employment opportunities for Minnesotans with disabilities. As CEO of Kaposia for more than 30 years, Jackie blazed a trail promoting the idea that youth and adults with significant disabilities should be a working force in Minnesota’s economy. Under Jackie’s leadership, Kaposia transformed a traditional “day program” into a viable business partnership with private industry. She was a pioneer in advancing a vision that adults with significant disabilities could be economic assets and contributing members of our workforce when we work to identify and market their innate interests, talents, and strengths.

The article presented below first appeared in Kaposia’s corporate newsletter One Step Ahead. I was given permission by the newsletter’s editor (who happens to be a close friend of mine) to reprint it for my readers. The article shares the news of Jackie’s retirement as well as the fond wishes and reflections of many of her closest colleagues and friends.

To the CEO: A Tribute to Jackie Mlynarczyk

By Kelly (Lavin) Merchant

Just shortly after the New Year, Jackie Mlynarczyk announced that after 34 years of dedicated service, she plans to retire July 1, 2008. Jackie's leadership and vision have been unmatched as a champion of supported employment for individuals with developmental disabilities.

From the humble beginnings at Neighborhood House as a Day Activity Center, Kaposia has grown to a $4M company serving 300 individuals, through innovative service development and delivery.

As Jackie prepares for her retirement, many are remembering her. Recently, the company contacted a number of individuals to gather their reflections. The response was overwhelming, so space prevents printing all of them but excerpts from some of the responses are highlighted in this article.

Jackie, you have been a mentor to me for a long time. Your strong, but fair leadership style, combined with your passion for the mission of Kaposia and your commitment to excellence have stuck with me for over 20 years.

- Karl Samp, former Kaposia employee

My close association with Jackie in many positions over 22 years at Kaposia has left an imprint that influences me in many ways but especially great admiration for compassion, her integrity, her absolute clarity of vision never wavering in the face of the best and the worst of time. She leads by example and has taken great care to infuse the organization with the fundamentals to carry on for the next 45 years.

- Kathie McNulty, former employee

My first impression of Jackie was that she was far too young to be in her position. She has always had a youthful appearance, but looks can be deceiving. It has been an honor to work with Jackie. I thank you, Jackie, for your dedication and the difference that you have made in the lives of people with disabilities.

- Connie Flora, Senior Employment Specialist

Of course Jackie was here when I came to Kaposia in 1995. After a few years I was asked by a friend to join his engineering company, for which I left Kaposia. This lasted for one full year, at which time Jackie asked me to see a movie with her at the Minnesota Historical Society. The featured documentary, "A Few Simple Words," was produced by the group Remembering With Dignity, which worked to place names on anonymous grave markers at a Minnesota state institution where residents were buried in nameless, numbered graves. The group asked to have their state formally apologize for years of neglect and abandonment. Being there that night was a very moving experience, with testimony from former residents of the state institution. I cried, and decided I'd really rather work for Kaposia again. Thanks, Jackie, for helping me see where my heart was.

- Bonnie Gibson, Administrative Assistant

When I think of Jackie, I think of someone who is passionate about the work she does. Her enthusiasm and energy she brings is contagious. She is a tireless advocate for individuals who work with Kaposia. She has a great commitment to providing them with the opportunity for a very full life.

- Heidi R. Gesell, President & CEO of Bank Cherokee

When I interviewed for the position of Work Activity Assistant almost 27 years ago, I'd only been out of school for a couple of years and never had worked with adults with disabilities before. Jackie took a chance on someone who didn't have any experience with developmental disabilities, and I appreciated it. We've come a long way from recycling pop cartons in Lincoln Elementary School in South St. Paul to working with hundreds of individuals in competitive jobs in the community.

- Jerry Nelson, Employment Support Team Coordinator

I met Jackie in the mid 1980s at a meeting of the Minnesota Supported Employment Project when she invited me to visit Kaposia. Supported employment and community integration were more "ideas" than "reality" in those days, and people had lots of reasons about why it could not be done. Kaposia had looked at the significant barriers and rather than turning back, was actively creating solutions. From then on when someone told me supported employment could not be done, I could say "Kaposia is doing it anyway!"

- Carol Rydell, Service Development Coordinator

One of Jackie's greatest strengths is that she is very detail-oriented. A couple of us go to lunch with Jackie several times a week. The problem is that everywhere we go, Jackie runs into someone she knows. So while I am doing my best to be incognito, Jackie is running around the restaurant saying hello to all of the people she knows. Jackie's orientation for detail has been one of the truly great characteristics of her tenure at Kaposia. She keeps the history of so many individuals served by Kaposia through the years that it is hard to know where Kaposia begins and ends without her part of its history. And I guess that's the real impact of Jackie Mlynarczyk-the impact that she's had on so many lives.

- Jon Alexander, Director of Operations (President Elect)

As her role as leader grew with Kaposia's expansion, it was sometimes difficult for her to show the lighter side of her personality. This changed back in the late 80s when a consultant suggested she bring some fun into her job and with her team mates. Jackie took that message to heart and soon she and several coworkers started a Kaposia Fantasy Football League. For the next five years, our group became compulsive league players. We all went out and bought fantasy football league books, read the sports page regularly, held our fantasy party to pick our teams each season and had a beautiful two foot trophy for the player who had the most points at the end of the season, along with the winning purse. Jackie won at least two of those trophies. To this day, Jackie will be the first to make sure we put time for team fun on our calendars. I guess it worked!

- Patti Peyer, Director of Human Resources

When Jackie interviewed me almost 17 years ago for a job at Kaposia, one of the questions I was asked was "who are your heroes?" I'm not sure what I said at that time, but I know what I would say now. Jackie's advancement in Kaposia from doing hands on work directly with people with disabilities to becoming the CEO of a company, especially during a time when women were often not in executive management roles, is a journey I greatly admire. Her visionary leadership has taken a small innovative company who saw that "developmentally delayed" children and adults were capable of much more than society thought possible.

- Peg Ring, Human Resources Assistant

When I joined Kaposia in December of 1991 as Director of Sales and Marketing, my goal was to do a good job without disappointing my 5-foot imposing supervisor. After completing my first month on the job, waiting for me at my home was a bouquet of flowers commemorating my one month anniversary. The parade of flowers and sentiments continued the 10 years I spent with Kaposia! I've been to a lot of places and have worked for many organizations but have never felt such a sense of belonging as I did with Kaposia.

- Cindy Amadick, former Kaposia employee

I think Jackie actually demonstrated that she was approachable and that CEO's don't know everything when she announced that she was coming out to K-Tel in her jeans to work directly with the individuals. It was 1995 and Hennepin Services had recently opened. She arrived with treats and then asked me, yes me, what to do. Being a new employee, I was not sure if I should be telling the CEO what to do. She quickly assured me that she wanted to learn hands on from me about the individuals in Hennepin Services. I will remember many things about you, yet most fondly, the CEO who wore jeans, worked directly with individuals, and became real.

- Heidi Maghan, Hennepin Services Coordinator

When I think of Jackie, I think about how cheerful, optimistic and good natured she is. She always looked and planned ahead. She made a lot of progress and Kaposia has come a long way. My son Michael has really benefited from her work.

- Phyllis Lenzmeier, a parent of an individual served at Kaposia

Jackie was the best boss I ever had. Throughout my twelve years at Kaposia, I marveled at her ability to be flexible and adaptable. We shared a common vision and undying belief in the potential of people with disabilities. Jackie has never wavered from that commitment. While others compromised or gave up, Jackie persevered. Her passion, tenacity and appreciation of all people set her apart as a leader. Kaposia has made a difference in the lives of too many people to count, not to mention improving the field of community-based services for people with disabilities in Minnesota and the nation.

- Bob Niemiec, former Kaposia employee

Jackie's life and my life have touched at a lot of different points, going all the way back to mutual friends from high school, sharing a love for the North Shore and starting a women's investment club. But I was most honored when Jackie asked me to serve on the Kaposia Board of Directors. I was elected and have been serving for six years. This organization epitomizes Jackie's warmth, her dedication to equality and her commitment to excellence.

- Dawn Hyde, Kaposia Board Chair

Postscript: By the way, I was not interviewed for this article but would like to share my own views about Jackie Mlynarczyk anyway. I met her many years ago during the early days and struggles of implementing supported employment in Minnesota. We became instant friends and colleagues because of our mutually shared values and goals. Jackie’s contributions to the Minnesota's supported employment movement are legendary. In the early 1980s, not very many CEOs in Minnesota (or the United States for that matter) were taking affirmative steps to transform the vision and services of traditional adult day programs to supported employment. I was always impressed by Jackie’s courage and determination to make supported employment such a strong focus and cornerstone of Kaposia’s core services. She was unique, smart, and tenacious in accepting the challenge of social and organizational change. And the proof of her impact is evident in the results. Today, Kaposia is a nationally respected leader in the provision of supported employment services.

Perhaps the best compliment I can give Jackie Mlynarczak is a personal story concerning my daughter, Kelly (Lavin) Merchant. Several years ago, Kelly was considering a career in supported employment and approached me about her options. We had already agreed that working with her Dear ol’ Dad was not a good idea for either one of us. And so Kelly queried me about other organizations whose services I valued. I told Kelly there were few places where I would choose to work myself. And Kaposia stood atop of my short list. I shared with Kelly that Kaposia was an organization that consistently lived up to its vision and values. And Kaposia was well-respected for its abilities to secure integrated employment and competitive wage results in support of adults with intellectual disabilities.
Finally, I shared with Kelly that Jackie Mlynarczyk was a terrific CEO, leader, and role model she could definitely learn from. Kelly went to work for Kaposia about three years ago and has thoroughly enjoyed working for Jackie. Not only has she been inspired by Jackie’s vision and leadership but by the personal touch she brings in her daily interactions with Kaposia’s employees.

I would to extend my heartfelt congratulations to Jackie Mlynarczak on a stellar career and offer my best wishes for a well-deserved retirement. Stay in touch my friend!

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