WHITE BEAR LAKE — This year marks the 50th trip around the sun for Northeast Residence (NER) and coincides with a new chapter in the nonprofit’s story of supporting people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
The White Bear Lake-based organization started the new year by officially merging with Hammer Residences of Wayzata, which itself turns 100 years old in 2023. The unified entity, Hammer & NER, will celebrate the dual anniversaries during its annual “Reach for Ralph” summer fundraiser in June.
“Whether you started last week or have been around as long as I have, there’s just such a sense of pride that we have done what we’ve set out to do in providing safe, happy homes and fighting for getting our people accepted into the community the way we have,” said Lin Curran, chief of East Metro Operations, who started working for NER in 1987.
Hammer & NER manages 44 group homes and apartment programs in the west metro and oversees 24 group homes in the east metro. In addition to housing people with disabilities, the nonprofit provides onsite nursing and support care and assists residents with transportation to jobs and appointments. Altogether, the organization supports 243 people in its homes and employs about 550 staff members.
Curran, however, still remembers when NER operated out of a former convent in downtown White Bear Lake. In those early days, it served nine residents with just three staff members.
“That’s kind of unheard of nowadays,” she said.
St. Mary of the Lake Church was next to the convent, which meant church members often invited NER residents to breakfast events and often provided musical entertainment. NER staff also introduced residents to the wider community by taking them on trips to the parks, beaches and downtown area.
In the early 1990s, NER raised enough money to get a group home on White Bear Avenue for its residents to live in. That home had six upstairs bedrooms and four downstairs rooms. NER then gradually moved residents to four-bedroom homes in White Bear Lake afterward.
Moving residents out from a campus setting into a residential one with the group homes came with challenges, mainly involving prejudice and ignorance from other White Bear Lake community members.
“Back in the ’80s, people were truly afraid of people with intellectual disabilities; they just didn’t understand,” Curran said. “I think they were all kind of just lumped into this big basket of ‘bad people.’”
A more recent challenge for NER was navigating the coronavirus pandemic while still providing continuous care for residents. Curran remembered how in early March 2020, the management staff had to create COVID-19 logistical plans for its providers in a matter of days. Despite that being a trying time for NER, Curran said it succeeded in limiting the virus’ spread among residents.
“People did get COVID. It was minimal. We had very minimal hospitalizations, and nobody passed away in our care from COVID,” Curran said. “I think all the staff are very proud of that. We took it seriously very fast. It was a lot of work, but we got it done.”
Just before the pandemic broke out in 2020, NER had approached Hammer about joining forces. Hammer acquired NER on Jan. 1, 2021, and finalized the merger this year, making Hammer & NER one of the largest nonprofit disability services in the state.
Hammer & NER Director of Communications Barbara Brandt said the reasoning behind the merger was to share resources between the two organizations, since they each share similar goals and provide similar services.
Brandt also noted how Hammer originated from humble roots: It was started by and named after Alvina Hammer, a nurse who started the Hammer School near Minnehaha Falls before eventually relocating to a larger property outside of Wayzata.
“Taking the time to pivot, reassess and innovate is really exciting to me, and what the model will look like in the future together,” Brandt said. “We have innovated throughout the years, and I just think there are many more new things that we’re going to be doing and new ways of doing it that will be very impactful for the people we support.”
Hammer & NER Communications Specialist Jennifer Hipple said two looming challenges for the organization — and direct support caregivers in general — are meeting the needs of residents with disabilities as they age and creating better employment opportunities for caregivers.
House File 7 — or the Caregivers Stabilization Act — was introduced this year in the Minnesota Legislature and is one Hammer & NER is hopeful will get passed. The bill would, among other things, invest more resources into increasing reimbursement rates for long-term care facilities and thereby increasing workers’ pay.
In the meantime, Hammer & NER welcomes additional assistance from volunteers in the public when it comes to serving residents. Among the volunteer opportunities are one-on-one activities with residents, the “Cooks in the Kitchen” meal program and various events throughout the year that need volunteers.
“We work really hard to find just the right fit for people who want to volunteer,” Hipple said.
To learn more about Hammer & NER’s history, services and volunteer opportunities, visit hammer.org.
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