Hutchinson woman formed club for young adults with special needs using a different approach

Mona Hjerpe worked as a special education teacher for years, and considered herself well-versed in the options available for individuals with special needs.  But when her own daughter, Meghan, who has special needs, turned 21, Mona found out how limited those alternatives can be.

Some members of Meghan’s Place show their paintings of Simba after participating in an art class. Mona Hjerpe started Meghan’s Place as a way to give young adults with special needs a place to come together to socialize, have fun and engage in community activities. Mona and her daughter, Meghan, are pictured on the far right. Contributed photo

In Minnesota, the public school system offers a curriculum for those with special needs throughout high school.  Young adults from ages 18 through 21 can choose to continue their education and get assistance with daily living skills through the Transition Assistance Program (TAP). But at age 21, these adults “age out” of the program.

Most young adults go on from TAP to one of several options.  Often the path is to a center-based program where individuals work in assembly or other positions, either for an hourly wage or as ‘piece work’ – being paid by the number of finished ‘pieces.’ For some families these are acceptable options, and for many individuals, they provide a position with wages attached that allows them to become productive members of society.   

“But Meghan is a social butterfly,” said Mona about her daughter.  Mona couldn’t envision Meghan sitting for hours performing repetitive tasks, even with the additional support, such as job coaching and mentoring, that many of these situations provide.

Meghan “had a wonderful experience” with the school district, explained Mona, and especially enjoyed the social aspect of going to school.  So being in a manufacturing environment just didn’t seem like it would be a good fit for her.

“It is so hard,” said Mona, discussing the employment options available for people with special needs, “because people with disabilities struggle to maintain full time employment.” Parents struggle too, she said.  Often, said Mona, adults with disabilities either can’t maintain a full time schedule, or the jobs that are available are only part time. Meghan, for instance, has worked as a hostess at a local restaurant, but it is only for a small amount of hours, a few days a week.

Meghan’s peers also have found it difficult to find work other than the center-based assembly positions that are standard fare.  Sometimes the positions these young adults have found are part-time jobs at local businesses; some individuals may work two to three part-time positions – or perhaps do volunteer work.

“But what do they do in between?” asked Mona. “These kiddos – young adults – have a lot to offer,” she said.  “But they also need some supervision – and sometimes they need guidance or assistance.”

As they considered options for their daughter, Mona and her husband Kurt began developing an idea. “What about a club?” asked Mona.

Soon, the idea of a club – a social center that Meghan and her friends could belong to – began to take shape.  They could offer activities such as cooking and baking, and bring in people from the community to teach or demonstrate other skills.  They would offer memberships, and members would have certain privileges.  But they would also have social occasions when they would be open to the public, and perhaps be open to younger adults or teens as well.

Mona and Kurt’s idea led to buying and rehabbing a building in Hutchinson.  They gratefully found that community members donated time and money as well as personal items to help them complete the center.  By 2017, Meghan’s Place opened, with Mona Hjerpe as the executive director.

Meghan’s excitement can be seen in every photo posted on Facebook or on the website, as she participates in activities with friends and neighbors, enjoying camp experiences, outings, and art projects, among other things.

Mona (peaking in on the right side) with a group of members just hanging out Meghan’s Place. Contributed photo

In its second year now, the club offers memberships to young adults ranging from 21-30 years old.  Meghan’s Place promotes community involvement, offering volunteer opportunities to those who are interested.  Conversely, members themselves also volunteer at various sites in the community. With their Friday morning coffee shop, they invite the public in to enjoy free coffee with members of the club.  Baked goods are also available, often baked by the members in the club’s kitchen.  Once a month they have an activity night, such as a cookout or game night.  Weekly visits to the library and monthly visits from Therapy Dogs International are part of the ongoing agenda at the club.  They also participate in Special Olympics (with their own Meghan’s Place team), offer inclusive summer camps, and have special social events during the holiday season.  The Program Director, Jacob Jorgensen, is on hand to help with many activities and to supervise as needed.

Meghan’s Place tries to offer a supportive environment where young adults with disabilities can grow and learn.  They try to do the same types of things that “normal” young adults do – going to the health club, cooking, sometimes eating out.  They are trying to encourage members to “live their everyday life, but be engaged in the community,” as Mona put it.

As a private organization, Meghan’s Place does not get state or federal funding, instead relying on donations from private investors, which they believe helps them keep pricing low.  They are grateful for the wonderfully supportive community that they have found in Hutchinson, Minnesota.

More information can be found on Meghan’s Place online at meghansplace.org (and also on Facebook).