Local nonprofit focuses on abilities, helps those with disabilities gain independence

It was the early 1920s, a time when women were just beginning to exercise their newly found right to vote and people with disabilities were commonly sent away to live at institutions. Alvina Hammer was a nurse at Faribault State School Hospital, but she dreamed of a better life for the children under her care.

“She believed that people with developmental disabilities did not have to live in institutions. She believed that they should just live an everyday life,” said Barbara Brandt, Hammer’s director of communications. “Women didn’t own businesses. Back then it was very groundbreaking of her to even think of this.”

Alvina turned her dream into a reality in 1923 when she opened Hammer School, a place in Minneapolis where children with disabilities could live a full life and learn to become independent. In 1930 the school moved to Wayzata and by the early 1960s, Hammer was a full-fledged residential school with dorms, similar to a college campus.

“They have ability. It’s just maybe they need a little extra support to be independent.” Barbara Brandt, director of communications at Hammer Residences

When special education became mandatory in public schools in the 1970s, Hammer shifted its focus to residential living. The organization moved further into the mainstream community with group homes in the 1980s. Today, Hammer operates 37 group homes and 10 apartments, each with 24-hour care available.

The organization focuses much of its energy on helping the people it supports learn to become independent. In addition to the roughly 230 people living in apartments and group homes, Hammer offers in-home services to more than 1,300 people.

“They have ability. It’s just maybe they need a little extra support to be independent,” Brandt said.

A perfect example is Brian, a man in his 30s who had graduated high school but spent most of his days in his bedroom at his parent’s house. His sister introduced him to Hammer, and after five years of building the necessary life skills, he recently got the keys to his own apartment! Other people Hammer served have gone on to get married or become Special Olympics tennis champions.

Boyer & Associates supports Hammer’s Dynamics SL accounting system and is one of the sponsors for Hammer’s annual fundraiser coming up July 20.

Hammer’s whimsical logo of a happy child with outstretched arms represents Ralph, one of the earlier residents of Hammer. Unlike a typical life at an institution, Ralph lived a normal, everyday life. He played the organ, raised and lowered the flag at Hammer and was responsible for mowing and otherwise keeping the grounds clean. He lived at Hammer from grade school until his death in 1995.

“I think it’s what (Alvina’s) vision was — for people just to be people,” said Brandt. In a fun twist of events, she noted that Ralph’s great-great niece is now an intern at Hammer.

Brandt joined Hammer a short two years ago herself and quickly fell in love with the nonprofit’s mission and friendly atmosphere. She’s not the only one. Brandt said half the board members have family members supported by Hammer and this family dynamic is so much a part of the culture at Hammer that staff often refer to themselves as part of the “Hammer family.”  Hammer has also made the Star Tribune’s Top 150 Places to Work for eight years in a row now.

Despite the positive culture at Hammer, Brandt says there’s more work to be done for people with disabilities.

“I think we have a long way to go. We have a really great environment here, but I think it’s pretty harsh out in the real world,” she said. In particular, she said the lack of public transportation in the Twin Cities makes it difficult for Hammer’s residents to get around without help.

With that in mind, Hammer also has its own travel agency for adults with disabilities who want to see the world. Travel groups have gone everywhere from California to Alaska to Florida to Hawaii. With Hammer’s help, more and more people are truly living life to the fullest.

Reach for Ralph

Caretaker Mike and client Michael will share their story at this week’s Reach for Ralph fundraiser.

Reach for Ralph on July 20

Hammer’s annual Reach for Ralph fundraiser is coming up July 20, and Boyer & Associates is one of the sponsors of the event. This year’s theme is Caring for the Heart of Hammer and features Hammer caregivers along with the people they support. Even the emcee is a former caregiver who is now a well-known author and speaker.

The evening features a buffet, games, silent auction and live auction. Tickets are $85 ahead of time or $95 at the door. The casual evening takes place at the Earle Brown Center in Brooklyn Center. Learn more.