Red Wing leaders had a vision in the late 1960s to bring a new nonprofit program to the historic rivertown that would serve individuals with disabilities with employment, training and life enrichment.

Interstate Rehabilitation Center, which later became ProAct, opened in September 1969. It celebrates 50 years of service at two events this fall.

In 1968, the Red Wing Jaycees and special education teacher Joel Steging began efforts to develop a “sheltered workshop” which resulted in William Ogren being hired as IRC’s first executive director, said Sally Ogren, director of ProAct in Red Wing.

In the spring of 1969, Bill Ogren was working to raise money and scout out locations for the fledgling nonprofit concept.

“He worked extremely hard at that,” said Sally Ogren, Bill Ogren’s wife. Red Wing Shoe Co., dozens of other businesses and the United Fund, which later became the United Way, put up the needed funds to establish IRC.

Participants at ProAct gain skills in an adapted CPR class taught by designated coordinator Sarie Bohmbach (not pictured). The class is very important to participants, says Director Sally Ogren, and not many programs have this offering. Photo provided by ProAct
Participants at ProAct gain skills in an adapted CPR class taught by designated coordinator Sarie Bohmbach (not pictured). The class is very important to participants, says Director Sally Ogren, and not many programs have this offering. Photo provided by ProAct

The original executive director found IRC’s first home in the administrator’s house and laundry buildings at the old City Hospital. It was next to what is now the Goodhue County Historical Society on Oak Street a few blocks west of downtown.

Sally Ogren said IRC was initially seen as a way to save taxpayer dollars by serving individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Red Wing, rather than at an institution. The move toward community-based services was on.

“Of course, their lives were so much better here, and they were able to partially support themselves with their earnings,” she said.

People with disabilities who wanted what IRC had to offer in its early days also needed places to live. Initially, foster homes were established, Ogren explains. Area families rented rooms to individuals with disabilities. Some took them into their own homes.

By 1970, 32 individuals or participants with disabilities were being served by the nonprofit and a system of boarding homes had been developed. Early on, participants came from Goodhue and Wabasha counties. Others came from the former state institution in Faribault.

Many were older, in their 50s and 60s. “It was delightful,” said Ogren, “because they were having the time of their lives. They wanted so much to do everything right so they wouldn’t get sent back to Faribault. Some had family here and some didn’t,” she said. “I remember their faces, the people.”

IRC solidifies

As ProAct’s predecessor was ramping up in the early ’70s, its first executive director was also increasing his profile. William Ogren was named “Outstanding Young Man of the Year” by the Red Wing Jaycees and became a city alderman. He also led a record setting United Fund campaign, raising $91,000 (which is about $550,000 in 2019 dollars) recalls Sally Ogren. The United Fund was the predecessor to the United Way of Goodhue, Wabasha & Pierce Counties.

IRC was growing, and soon moved a number of people to the Towerview campus for production space. It continued to produce aprons, wooden toys and other craft items near City Hospital. IRC also opened a downtown store to sell leather items, craft supplies and other products.

“The man who ran the store was a local person with disabilities who had prior experience,” Ogren said.

IRC shared contract work with the Wabasha County Disability Advisory Committee and held its first annual awards banquet in 1973.

With the mid-1970s fast approaching, IRC was again outgrowing its space. It served 60 participants by the summer of 1974, too many for the Towerview location. Plans were drawn up and funds were raised for a new building, but supporters realized the new building would be quickly outgrown, Ogren explained.

Then a 40,000 square-foot structure opened up in Red Wing’s industrial park. “The location was a big factor, because we were performing work for other businesses and had capable individuals ready to work in the community,” Ogren said. “Though there was opposition, the logic of the situation won out.”

IRC purchased the building at 204 Mississippi Ave., and moved in July 1975. After many expansions and upgrades, Pit continues to operate at this location.

The move to what was then the western edge of town prompted a need for more transportation, so IRC applied for funds to start a new bus service. Dial-A-Ride began to serve IRC and Red Wing senior citizens. Ownership of the service was later transferred to the city. Today, it’s operated by Hiawathaland Transit

New director, work areas

In September 1976, a new executive director, Roger Stensland, came on board, according to an IRC Annual Report timeline. And, by 1978, IRC had four distinct work areas: packaging and assembly, a leather shop, wood shop and upholstery. A third of its participants were engaged in recreational activities, which included softball, Frisbee, horseshoes, basketball, bowling, bingo and library visits. Full-time staffers now numbered 20, serving 80 participants. Sick leave and vacation benefits were first offered in the following year.

As 1980 began, tragedy struck in March when Stensland died unexpectedly at the age of 42. While overseeing the nonprofit, he had also led efforts to build an addition that would house the Goodhue County DAC.

“The DAC generally served people with developmental disabilities who were not able to be a part of IRC,” said Ogren. It was eventually spun off as a separate nonprofit service.

By the summer of 1980, a modern office area and loading dock were added. IRC helped develop a new community education program for adults with disabilities and received a two-year certification from the Minnesota Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. In September, David Leiseth was hired as the third executive director, and would serve until his retirement and the merger in 2002.

In 1981, IRC was serving more than 100 participants and the industry was changing. For the first time, a majority of the contract revenue for work performed by participants came from outside of Red Wing. On the housing side, a new trend was emerging to place people in group homes. And Red Wing Health Center started serving people with traumatic brain injuries.

In 1982, national certification entered the picture as IRC began preparations for accreditation by the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities. Its first three-year accreditation would come two years later. Leiseth was elected president of the Minnesota Association of Rehabilitation Facilities.

Also, in 1984, a substantial remodeling and expansion effort was approved. This brought accessible bathrooms, improved heating, a tiled lunchroom and an enclosed woodworking department. A supported employment program began with two grants from the Minnesota Division of Rehabilitation Services. IRC’s budget reached the $1 million mark for the first time.

Coinciding with a new brain injury program, IRC received grant funds in 1986 to provide computer-aided diagnosis with help from IBM. Therapy and vocational transition services were given to 31 individuals. The brain injury program was the first in Minnesota and one of only a few in the U.S. That same year, IRC was named the Rehabilitation Facility of the Year by the National Association of Rehabilitation Facilities.

Mobile work crews began in 1988 with janitorial services for factories and offices in and around Red Wing. One year later, the nonprofit was involved in community fairs to reduce barriers for people with disabilities. It again worked with the Red Wing Community Education program to enhance services for adults with disabilities.

A need over the river

IRC began serving its first Wisconsin residents in 1990, welcoming 18 new participants. “There wasn’t much in the way of services in Pierce County and their social worker or assistant director, Chuck Balzer, referred individuals who couldn’t get jobs in the small communities over there,” said Ogren. “We had jobs they could learn and do.”

IRC was building restaurant booths along with its other work at that time.

In the following year, IRC applied for a day training and habilitation license to serve 30 individuals in Red Wing and 10 in the Zumbrota area, where a new office had been opened. Three years later, IRC offered a new location in downtown Zumbrota called ProAct. With community integration as a goal, it served 13 people. IRC had grown to serve 210 individuals overall.

The mid-1990s to early 2000s would bring added services in the production department, more work crews in the community and regular Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities accreditations. Self-advocacy education efforts ramped up and there was a greater use of assistive technology.

A complete computer system was donated to IRC by Scott Sodergren, owner of Express Personnel Services. Members of the Red Wing Kiwanis Club built and donated planters for flowers. The year 2000 was particularly exciting, when the move from state institutions to community housing was completed for people with developmental disabilities.

While the larger push statewide is more recent, person-centered planning at IRC was already underway.

“We wanted to ensure that participants had more knowledge of their choices in work, leisure and community activities,” Ogren said. With approval from Goodhue County Social Services, IRC’s day training and support services were expanded to serve 100 people.

2002 merger

IRC’s name and organization changed in 2002 when it merged with Eagan-based Owobopte. The larger ProAct era had begun.

ProAct in Red Wing and Zumbrota would serve 283 individuals in the next fiscal year, with 141 in extended employment and 124 in day training. Steve Ditschler was the president and CEO at the time of the merger and continues in that capacity today.

Board Chair Paul Kramp, now with Alliance Bank in Red Wing, reported excellent results in 2003, despite funding uncertainties, both from government sources and economic conditions in general. ProAct’s Red Wing and Zumbrota locations would together serve 300 to 350 individuals per year over many years that followed.

Borrowing from Toyota’s Lean Manufacturing system, the Red Wing site received a grant from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development to carry out Lean and Adapted Lean training in 2015. New efficiencies were found, processes improved, and contracted services were enhanced.

The nonprofit also started ProAct eRecycling Services in 2015, which gathered electronics from a wide area and trained participants in disassembly, customer service and organization. The program received national attention. The service continued until the reimbursement rates for raw materials made it impractical to maintain.

In a testament to its efforts to integrate people with disabilities in the work world, ProAct in Red Wing has supported crews and employees at more than 50 outside organizations in the area, explains ProAct Designated Coordinator Joyann Johnson. It has also contracted with hundreds of businesses for packaging, assembly and other work performed in-house.

“Change in many forms is our constant challenge as we continue to provide person-centered, positive and exciting service offerings to individuals with disabilities,” Ogren said.