Introducing Ben Gross and Customized Employment

Written by: Jeff Mortimore, RSI Community Connector

Introducing Ben Gross

Ben Gross is a real joy to know, but he is also a bit shy. So when he started expressing his dismay with his job duties, I took note. Ben had been working in a janitorial position for many years and simply was burned out and wanted more. Specifically, he wanted to be around people.

As part of the Exploration process of Customized Employment, we worked together to find the ideal conditions where Ben could thrive in his job. We found that Ben wanted to be a part of a team and a contributing member of an organization. We were also able to ascertain that Ben would work better in a routine situation and with lower demands on mobility.

Our search and networking led us to apply at TJ Maxx. As this was considered a competitive position, Ben worked with me to build a skills-based resume and he was also assisted in completing an application. Ben received an interview and was given a job offer shortly after in the production area. Knowing that Ben would need support and redirection for this position we trained his Program Supervisor to be an employment specialist for Ben. A task analysis was created that would provide a detailed step out of his job duties. The task analysis would be available for any member of Ben’s team to implement if needed.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Customized Employment is the connection with the employer, and this relationship proved to be the game-changer for Ben. The staff and management at TJ Maxx were instrumental in making Ben feel comfortable and supported, and this is what we refer to as “natural supports” something that happens when we express kindness and care. Ben had found his ideal conditions, and, yes, there was some struggle with change. However, when there is this synchronicity between employee, employer, and employment specialist, good things will happen. It’s been nearly two years that Ben has held this position, and he continues to gain new skills in his work and in his friendships.


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The Changes Ahead

“You learn from a conglomeration of the incredible past – whatever experience gotten in any way whatsoever.”Bob Dylan


By: Jeff Mortimore, RSI Community Connector

Many of us have seen a great deal of change in the last few months. For some, it’s been a bit too much change! However, I can guarantee you that change is one of the few things we can count on next to death and taxes, as they say. When we’re in the midst of change, it can result in a smorgasbord of emotions. Grief, anger, fear, isolation, and anxiety being just a few of the negative effects on the body and soul. But, change can also evoke excitement, motivation, power, and purpose. Depending on what path you choose to take.

My wife and I are about to head out on one of the first big adventures we have experienced in years. Moving to Duluth nearly four years ago was perhaps one of the greatest adventures in my life. I had to make some personal changes during this transition, leaving behind a life that was lived entirely in the West. I was warned in advance about the bugs, the humidity, the bone-chilling cold, and of course, the hot dishes. However, nothing prepared me for the remarkable beauty of the open waters and the rolling hillside that would become my home.

It wasn’t an easy transition, as I had to leave behind the comforts of a life lived so long in one place. My family, friends, sagebrush, and mountains were all left in the rearview mirror. When I close my eyes, I can still feel the solace of open spaces. However, this is not a soliloquy on sentimentality, but rather about the inspiration that change can enact on the soul if you are open to it.

Change is often seen as a problem, an unnecessary intrusion into our life of comfort. We long for comfort. However, when people are busy making change they don’t often step back just that little bit to think about the process itself.

The beginning of change starts in the pre-contemplation phase. This is a very active phase, where one senses the winds of change, but still doesn’t see the potential threat or problem to themselves.  Pre-contemplators will often underestimate the value of change and overestimate the challenges and problems that come with it. They may also downplay or deny the magnitude of the problem. In other words, change is on the horizon but has yet to show up in a more personal way.

The next stage of change is contemplation. At this stage, people are seeing the bigger picture and paying more attention to those who have succeeded. They are weighing the consequences of changing versus the consequences of not changing. “Can I do this? What will be the cost? How bad is the problem really? Could I get away with not doing anything?” Contemplators can be ambivalent and put off making any necessary changes. However, putting off action can also create an unseen tension in thinking change is possible. This tension can push people back to the pre-contemplation phase of reevaluation or it can result in taking action towards the change.

Eventually, change can evolve to the point where action is necessary to adapt. This is the stage that people are very familiar with because it is the most visible stage. If someone is forced into action without going through the previous stages, they will often struggle and resist. And, as they say, “the real struggle with change is in the resistance.” The action stage can be broken down into stages as well, but generally successful change requires consistency and continued effort. This stage requires a commitment to stay focused and work actively at making changes. Creating new habits requires this effort.

I’m sorry to say that the change process is a never-ending cycle, as much as we tend to resist. I really struggle with the cliché “be in the moment.” But, it is often in the moment where we are truly effective and objective. Yes, there is the issue of goals and dreams. However, when we can adjust to the winds of change and the storms of the moment, we can take action and we can adapt. So, as we head off on our new adventure, I can’t focus on the weather, the possibility of a flat tire, or an overbooked campground.  Instead, I can only prepare my heart for the wonders that change can provide. The open road, the sudden downpour, the chartreuse sunset, and the grasslands of North Dakota. I’ll see you when we get back, and I guarantee you I will be a changed man.


Learn more about Jeff’s work at RSI on our Community Connections page.

Between Routine and Grief

“What we once enjoyed and deeply loved we can never lose, for all that we love deeply becomes a part of us.”  -Helen Keller


I realized early in life that I am not at my best in the morning hours. I rise most mornings at 5:30 to the sound of birdsong and distant train rumblings far away. It’s a peaceful awakening. I definitely don’t bounce out of bed with a spring in my step, but I do get out of bed with purpose. It’s a time that I find solace and peace, a deliberate act that is now part of my routine.

Experts say that almost 80 % of our day is driven by routine and habit, and when we are forced to change our routine, it results in chaos to our system. Our brain, wired for response and cue, is now at a loss of direction and guidance. I recently experienced this situation first hand, and it totally disrupted my morning routine, one that I had spent years perfecting.

One of the steps of my morning routine is to enjoy my first cup of coffee and retrieve the newspaper from the front steps. There is just something so peaceful about the aroma and tang of a good cup of coffee, coupled with the news the paper provides. The paper also serves to connect me to the community, providing snippets of events, functions, and tidbits that I would otherwise not be aware of. I knew that this pandemic was having a devastating effect on the newsprint industry and that our local paper would not be spared of cutbacks. They even warned the readers how and when it would take place, but somehow I resisted the inevitable. 

Yes, my morning routine was disrupted this month when the Duluth News Tribune was reduced to only delivering a real paper twice weekly. Though they offered readers the option of online membership, things were just not the same. I noticed this some time ago. Holding a Kindle or smartphone is NOT the same as holding a book with a spine and pages. Now, before you accuse me of whining into my coffee, hear me out, please. I am grieving! It’s not just the fact that I don’t have my paper in my study with my coffee, but that this change signifies the end of an era. I either have to change my routine or replace it with something else. 

This pandemic crisis has meant that many of our routines have changed on a global scale. Sometimes grief is the result. It hurts when something important has been taken from us. The result is always the same, we feel bereft and confused. Routine helps us cope with change, and more importantly, it helps to reduce stress levels. When your life is organized and set in a routine, you know exactly what to expect.  This takes the guessing out of the equation, alleviating the symptoms of anxiety. Our brain craves routine, and so does our entire limbic system.

It appears that we will most likely continue to see change and disruption to our routines in the coming days and months. Knowing that, how do we prepare our mindset for the uncertainty ahead? I have shared in some of my past writings that my new routine is meditation and mindfulness. It has replaced my morning newspaper. So how do we replace those lost routines?       

Here are but a few suggestions to consider:                                                                                                                 

1) Find humor in the situation. Try not to take yourself or the situation so seriously. This mindset can provide some degree of levity and lightness to your heavy load. What’s interesting about humor is that it can be a shared experience and it helps in the healing process.  

 2) Talk about the problems more than the feelings. We all have feelings and have been taught to “suck it up,” but research has shown that continually talking about our negative emotions can actually hinder our healing process. I’m not saying to dismiss your feelings, but consider spending more time actively identifying the problem and zero in on the solution.                                                           

3) Focus on your values instead of your fears. Reminding ourselves of what’s important to us; family, friends, faith, achievements, great music, artistic expression, connectedness, and so on can create a surprisingly effective buffer against whatever troubles may be ailing us.

I’ve heard it said that our post-pandemic world will not look nearly like our pre-pandemic world, and I wonder if many of us remain paralyzed by this thought. The first stage of grief is paralysis, a sudden lack of options, and the confusion of disruption. However, the important thing in dealing with grief is understanding your emotions and your capacity to overcome and even flourish in the days ahead.


Learn more about Jeff’s work at RSI on our Community Connections page.

Update to RSI’s Inclusion and Diversity Plan

Written by: Claire Farmer-Lies, Marketing and Communications Specialist

In our statement shared with our community and all of our employees on June 11th, RSI Leadership addressed the recent events in Minneapolis and around the country that have been happening in response to the murder of George Floyd on Memorial Day. In that message, we also recognized the need for RSI to do more to address our own contributions or complacency in systemic inequalities that disproportionately affect people of color. It is time for us to reflect on our role and practices as a healthcare provider and an employer so that we can do better.

It’s important that we start this process by listening to the experiences and ideas from our employees, especially Black, Indigenous, people of color, people with disabilities, and people from the LGBTQ+ community. Our ultimate goal in having these conversations is to craft a corporate inclusion plan for our company that is sustainable, fair, and employee-driven. It will lay the foundation for us to continue to do the important work that we do, but with a larger focus on equity and inclusion.

We have scheduled listening sessions with our employees in the coming weeks to get their ideas for how we can sustain more inclusive and equitable working and living spaces, which will include in-person sessions, virtual sessions, 1:1 conversations, and anonymous submissions. Together, we can create more balanced workplaces, living spaces, and a community that doesn’t just tolerate differences, but appreciates and values them. We will continue to share updates throughout this process.

Cultivating Hope

By: Jeff Mortimore, RSI Community Connector


I have been digging into the concept of hope lately. I must admit that I haven’t always thought that hope is the best strategy. Instead, I felt like hope was the final straw. A desperate attempt to reach out for a solution. Instead, after digging a little deeper, I have found that hope is really a mindset, and in order for us to build this skill, we must first focus on our current ways of thinking. 

These are certainly interesting times we live in, unprecedented as they say. We’ve needed to work extra hard to manage our emotions well. We’ve also had our fair share of mixed feelings during this time. Feelings such as anger, righteousness, blame, fear, and sadness can wash over us throughout the day, and the roller coaster of emotion can fray the edges of hope.

Just when you feel like you’ve found your rhythm, life can throw a wrench into the situation. Life is full of interruption and change, some positive and some negative, if not downright devastating. So, how do we really learn about hope, and how do we practically apply it? One of the key processes in developing hope is that when we are faced with a situation we are not happy with or that hurts us, we need to understand that we cannot change the situation, but we can change how we REACT to it!

The first key to developing hope is to know and understand the situation. Knowledge is power, and stopping the emotional discourse and negative dialogue helps put us on the path to a healthier start. Knowledge is a very powerful tool to help you move forward, and the more you know about the situation and different perspectives, the easier it is for you to take the next steps with more clarity and objectivity.  

You’ve probably heard the phrase “trust your gut” before. This is actually more realistic than it sounds, and here’s why: We have receptors in our guts that are wired to our brains. These receptors help trigger safety reactions to fear, happiness, and even intuition. Think of the last argument you were in and how it might have made you feel sick to your stomach. Or, think of the last time you had to take on a huge endeavor such as public speaking, running a marathon, or going to the dentist. Did you experience the feeling of butterflies in your stomach? Your gut will often react before your brain has had a chance to absorb and digest all of the information. Its reaction is often the right one, as it doesn’t rely on the chemical reactions of fear or happiness, it just responds to the situation and the information presented.

Ultimately, hope is really about action. When faced with a tough situation, start by looking at the problem and writing down what steps need to be taken to help change or resolve the issue. This will help to remove your mindset from the negative and into a more positive action-focused mind frame. This may take some time and practice, but it’s important to persevere. When you begin to look a bit deeper into hope, you will begin to see the seeds of resilience, self-awareness, confidence and, yes, happiness! Mastering hope is a learned skill. Hope is always an option, and one I encourage you to use in these times when we are bombarded with messages of despair. 

Learn more about Jeff’s work at RSI on our Community Connections page.

The Lost Art of Rest

“Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.”  –Thich Nhat Hanh


By: Jeff Mortimore, RSI Community Connector

Last week I heard the term “caution fatigue” for the first time. Caution fatigue has been observed in our everyday life, like when you ignore an alarm of some sort and don’t take it seriously because you have heard it many times before. Its onset can be caused by chronic stress, reaching our emotional capacity, and decreased sensitivity to what’s going on around us.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began to move more directly into our lane, we reacted with immediate preventative measures. However, as time went on, we started to get used to these abrupt changes and it became part of our daily routines. Caution fatigue started to creep in when the threat became less personal, although still disruptive. 

Stress, at various levels, affects all of us. It sometimes feels like we are all carrying a piano on our back. This past weekend, I  finally found the cure to all of our ills….REST. Okay, calling this piece about rest as lost art is probably a stretch. However, I believe that many people don’t do enough of it. The lack of true rest drains us to the point where we’re never really fully energized, fully present, or fully awake. It means our relationships start to lack energy and connection. It means we have a harder time feeling joy. I have caught myself taking breaks or finishing my workday, only to get on my phone or laptop for mindless drifting. It feels like the thing I want to do…when I have rest time. But, it’s not really rest. I don’t feel refreshed afterward, only more depleted.

So, what does true rest really look like? Further, what are the factors that keep us from enjoying this simple pleasure? For me, rest can feel unproductive. For someone like me who is dedicated to experiences and outcomes, this is the antithesis of a productive practice. We all have our own barriers, like time management, deadlines, emails, and other responsibilities that hold us back from truly resting. But the bottom line is that rest is critical to our well-being and productivity.

My new fascination with rest started early in the pandemic. I could see that my anxiety level was on the rise and I was terribly distracted by the daily updates from the White House pandemic team. So, I downloaded a meditation app on my phone and committed to a more disciplined meditation practice. This daily commitment opened the door to a more profound look at my mental state and starting my day by meditating became one of my better habits. Eventually, I wanted more. It may seem counterintuitive, but meditation enhanced my awareness and work focus. The simple act of closing my eyes and doing nothing was a great mental and physical break.

Of course, there are many other ways to achieve rest. Getting outside, connecting with nature, pulling weeds, or being fully present with a simple non-work activity like enjoying a cup of tea. This is a time to focus only on the activity and to drown out the nagging tasks, work topics, and personal struggles. The key is to make this the ONE thing you are doing. A single task. Give the activity your full focus. Give yourself time and space, savor the moment, and notice all of the sensations involved with the experience. If you find that your mind takes you in other directions, be kind to yourself and be curious as to why that thought flits into view. Then, simply start over.  Rest requires discipline, too!

Are you tired? Are you craving rest or an escape? If so, give yourself a few moments of true rest. Not by checking your phone, not reading or watching online feeds, but true rest. Ask yourself this throughout the day. You might find that you need more true rest than you realize.



Learn more about Jeff’s work at RSI on our Community Connections page.

Rethinking Fear

By: Jeff Mortimore, RSI Community Connector

I started to resume connecting 1:1 with the people I work with at RSI during this past week, and I was surprised by the array of emotions that I experienced. I must say that it was not like riding a bike, not even close. It was more like just focusing on balancing the bike! Remember what it was like when we first made the attempt to ride without training wheels? A little shaky.

However, after checking in with my sudden social anxiety, I was able to identify some of the challenges of the open road ahead. I, like so many others, have been obsessing about the virus. I have found myself paying extremely close attention to all facets of the pandemic, and tuning into news has become a habit.  I think that I’m trying to ascertain some level of certainty to ease my fears. The reality is that so much of this situation is a journey into the unknown.  

So, what do you do when worry seems to be the proverbial piano on the back? The solution, I think, isn’t found through more worrying. Rather, it’s doing all we can to achieve as much clarity as possible, and understanding that uncertainty is part of life. Doesn’t that help? I must say that I have now started to be a bit more mindful of the amount of news content I’m consuming. But, here are some things that really have helped me to fight a better fight:

Use the pause button. Shortly after the virus veered into my lane, I committed myself giving myself time for calm.  I adopted the practices of deep breathing and meditation. The bottom line is that I was being hijacked by the flood of thoughts and emotions, and running and escaping wasn’t working.

Embracing the fear. The best approach is to be aware of the risks that we face and do all we can to be prepared for any serious or imminent dangers. This is a scary time, especially for those who are more vulnerable to the virus. I realize that I am responsible for my own safety, as well as the safety of those in my community but that by looking at the science, there aren’t any unknowns to feed my fear.

It would do us well to give ourselves more credit, as we have all survived hardships and tackled obstacles at some point in our lives and seen the other side. Now is the time to connect with our bodies and minds, to allow ourselves some grace, and to sleep more restfully. It will not only help us to stave off the fear and anxiety, but it will have lasting positive effects for the rest of our lives.


Learn more about Jeff’s work at RSI on our Community Connections page.

The Power of Friendship

By: Jeff Mortimore, RSI Community Connector

“Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”
– C.S. Lewis

It’s a time of social distancing and practicing safe measures in order to remain healthy and to keep others safe. It’s pretty safe to say that for most of us, this hasn’t come easy. The truth is, that this self-imposed isolation has come at a cost to our health. Friendships are important to our souls, as they can increase our sense of belonging and purpose, and boost our happiness and reduce our stress. It’s even been said that having just a few intimate friendships can add years to our lives. So, this time of fear and uncertainty is a wonderful opportunity to take pause and review just how important friendships are in our lives. Oh, how we long for that time when we can see, hear, touch, and feel the meaning of true friendship.

When I first met Ben, he wasn’t one to talk much. Instead, he preferred to show me what was important to and for him. He happily showed me his collections, his videos, and his weather apps. Yes, he had three weather apps on his phone, and according to his team, he spent countless hours studying the weather radar patterns. He particularly liked violent weather, and thunderstorms made him light up with excitement.

It was an easy decision to introduce him to Adam Clark, Chief Meteorologist for KBJR in Duluth. I knew Adam to be very passionate about his job and he seemed engaging and approachable. So I set it up, a blind date of weather guys. Meeting new people can be hard, but I was unprepared for such a joyful connection and laughter when they first met. Adam cracked a joke, and off they went to the soundboard and satellite feeds. Have you ever met someone that just felt like an old shoe, comfortable and safe? It was an amazing thing to see, and I quickly removed myself to the fringes to watch this wonderful process unfold.

Throughout the last year, Adam and Ben have gotten together several times in person. Each time with the same level of joy and engagement, never wavering. When the pandemic hit this country, it caught Adam square in the crosshairs as he was in Europe at the time. Luckily he caught a late flight out of London and spent the necessary time in self-quarantine. Upon returning to his duties, he had to conduct his weather programming from his home. It was also during this time that he was offered a job to return to his home state of South Carolina.

I took Ben to meet with Adam on his last day at the station, and it was very bittersweet. They met each other just as they had the first time, with joy and laughter. Old friends. They promised to stay in touch and I sincerely hope that they do. It reminded me again of how simple it can be when another human being touches your heart.


Learn more about Jeff’s work at RSI on our Community Connections page.

Our Response to the Recent Events in Minneapolis

These past two weeks have been very difficult for Minnesotans. We are all struggling to understand the senseless and unjust murder of George Floyd and the conditions that exist that allowed that violence to take place. It is hard to know what our responsibility is as an employer and a healthcare provider in the face of such blatant hatred and discrimination.

Everyone at RSI has probably seen the discrimination that people with disabilities experience in our culture. The people we serve face this in our own communities. As caregivers and advocates, we are asked to stand up and speak out on their behalf. All of us have the responsibility to do what we can to end intolerance and injustice. This responsibility extends to everyone who suffers discrimination due to the color of their skin, national origin, sexuality, gender identity, religion, age, and family structure.

None of us can be silent when we see racial injustice. Racism is a long-standing part of discrimination and has created suffering and pain that many of us do not fully understand. Our country’s painful past includes hundreds of years of the type of violence we all witnessed in Minneapolis on Memorial Day. There are systems and structures in our country that feed disparities and discrimination. Laws change and promises are made yet equality and justice continue to escape communities of color.

When people experience fewer educational and economic opportunities and more health inequities just because of the color of their skin, our whole community suffers. The cost may not be as personal as it is for those who experience it firsthand, but there is still a cost. We all need to respond to that injustice by doing whatever we can to stand up for one another and be part of creating better outcomes.

Being different, whether it is because of the color of your skin or a disability should be seen as an asset to any organization and community. Appreciating our differences, and not just accepting them, will lead to a richer and stronger community for everyone.

Please look for ways you can help bring justice to marginalized people. It is needed now more than ever. RSI will also be looking and listening to our employees about what we can do better. We understand that there is much more work to be done in our communities, nationally, and within our own organization. RSI must examine our own place in these unbalanced systems, elevate and uplift the voices of our employees and the people we serve who experience discrimination, and we must put a plan in place to make sure we are doing more to create equitable, inclusive, and safe working and living spaces for people of color.