The Minnesota Council on Disability (MCD) Exceptional Advocate award goes to citizen advocates and legislators who do notable work for people with disabilities.
Building an inclusive and just Minnesota for people with disabilities is an effort that requires dedication and partnership throughout the state. We need exceptional advocates to turn election results into meaningful benefits for Minnesotans with disabilities. We need them to make effective policy. And we need them to make Minnesota inclusive, accessible, and welcoming to everyone.
MCD is sincerely grateful for the work of these advocates and is proud to recognize them.
On this page:
Exceptional Advocates Nominated by the Public
Members of the community nominated each recipient with the following remarks.
Remarks lightly edited.
Representative Brian Daniels
Profile: Representative Brian Daniels
Nominated by Sonny Wasilowski:
I nominate Representative Daniels because he is a tireless advocate. He continues to present bills to enhance the lives of Deaf, DeafBlind, and Hard-of-Hearing legislative sessions after session. He manages to gain bipartisan support (authors) for House and Senate bills.
Organization: Options Resource Center for Independent Living
Nominated by Sheri Snetsinger of White Earth Human Services:
I would like to nominate my good friend and fellow advocate, Jesse Smith, for the 2023 Exceptional Advocate Award.
I’ve known and worked with Jesse since 2016. At the time, I was new to our White Earth Tribal Vocational Rehab program. Within our community, I had often heard Jesse’s name as someone people could go to for guidance while applying for Social Security Disability. He was also known as the go-to guy for help finding donated adaptive furniture to assist with everyday comfort and mobility. Jesse actually works for Options Resource Center for Independent Living with locations in Grand Forks, Roseau, Thief River Falls, Crookston, Bemidji and northeastern North Dakota. Options is a great agency that has a wide range of independent living services and resources.
Once I began working with – and referring clients and community members to – Jesse, I really started to understand and appreciate how much he does for everyone he meets and works with. Immediately, he begins to visit with whomever he’s serving. His attitude is always positive and confident. You know that you can confide in him your history, background, and current struggles. You sense immediately that he’ll go to bat for you. He’s available in-person or over the phone to help you to navigate all the current life obstacles you’re facing. On the rare occasion that Jesse doesn’t have a solid answer for your questions, he’s quick to get back to you. Jesse travels miles upon miles each week to serve not only White Earth Reservation, which is 3 counties in northwestern Minnesota, he also serves greater northwestern Minnesota from Grand Forks to his office in Bemidji.
It’s been an honor learning from Jesse and serving our community members with him. He takes the time to fully understand their situation and provide guidance and support. He helps them to find their voices in order to advocate for themselves and/or their families. He is respectful and courteous.
Senator Foung Hawj
Profile: Senator Foung Hawj
Nominated by Nikki Villavicencio, Minnesota Council on Disability Chair:
Senator Foung Hawj has always been an early adapter and includer for the needs of people with disabilities. In the 2023 legislative session, Senator Foung Hawj made sure that the legacy bill included the Council on Disability. In the 2023 legislative session, Senator Foung Hawj made sure that the legacy funding included archiving and including the disability community and recognizing the 50-year anniversary of the Council.
Organization: Gage Gives Back
Nominated by Mary Hauff of Minnesota Inclusive Higher Education Coalition:
I met Gage last year when he was advocating with his school district to attend college classes as part of his transition IEP [Individualized Education Plan]. We have gotten to know one another in a short period of time. He was immediately interested in helping advocate at the State legislature for the Inclusive Higher Education legislation. As a person with a disability, he did not hesitate to testify and share his lived experience. He and I have presented at the MCD public policy preview, testified at the Higher Education Committee hearings and wrote a MCD blog. Gage wants to make a difference and advocate not only for himself but other Minnesotans with an intellectual and developmental disability who want to go to college.
Gage’s advocacy did not start with testifying at the legislature this year. He has co-presented on inclusive education and does presentations to raise awareness about shaken baby syndrome through his nonprofit, Gage Gives Back. He is making a difference through his advocacy and is deserving of the Exceptional Advocate Award.
Gage was also nominated by Jennifer Sommerness of the National Center on Educational Outcomes:
I have worked with Gage and his school team to include him successfully within general education environments and within his greater school and community for the past 7 years. During this time, I have seen him not only grow in his self-determination and self-advocacy, but also have seen him blossom into a full-blown advocate for people with disabilities through local, state, national, and international conferences and podcasts.
From the moment that Gage began experiencing the full benefit of being educated side-by-side with his peers, he began his advocacy journey for others. First, he focused on presenting information to classmates and at school-wide events. Within 6 months, he asked me to co-present with him at a state-wide conference. Shortly after, he asked me to co-present at the International TASH conference. This led to him being sought out by another international conference, where we co-presented virtually one year, and then were requested to present at again this year. This time in person for a keynote presentation, as well as Gage independently being a part of panel session. Gage is currently seeking out more places to share his story and advocacy, as being an inspirational/motivational speaker is one of his personal vocational goals.
In addition to state, national and international conferences, Gage has also become the leader of his own non-profit – Gage Gives Back – where he raises money and awareness about Traumatic Brain Injury and Shaken Baby Syndrome and gives back to those people and organizations that have supported him on his journey. Gage has also fought for his personal and educational rights and post-secondary aspirations throughout his educational career, by using the legal mechanisms afforded to students with disabilities: mediation, Facilitated IEPs and ultimately through filing a due process hearing complaint on his own behalf – specifically so he could access inclusive higher education and access his own community during his years of transition-aged services and programming. This was in place of what the district was offering: a special school placement for people with disabilities outside of his hometown.
The Exceptional Advocate Award is to acknowledge and recognize citizen advocates “who lead efforts to support the rights of, or programs for, Minnesotans with disabilities.” I believe that Gage Robinson embodies this leadership not only for those people with disabilities within the state of Minnesota, but also nationally. I am hopeful that you will consider awarding him this honor to add to his list of accomplishments. He works diligently on behalf of each and every person aspiring to achieve their goals.
Nominated by Chris McVey of Disability Employment Services:
I would like to nominate Jillian Nelson for the MCD Exceptional Advocate Award. She is richly deserving of the award. Jillian is a member of a number of Advocacy boards and councils, including the Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities, as well as the Department of Employment & Economic Development (DEED) Vocational Rehabilitation Services’ (VRS) State Rehabilitation Council (SRC). Jillian is someone who speaks her mind, tells her truth, and is not shy about that. She is someone who is autistic. She has a perspective and experience that need to be heard and considered.
She is an excellent presenter and facilitator. She is whip smart. She understands the legislative process. She is invested in advancing disability rights for Minnesotans with disabilities. Jillian poured her heart and soul into the most recent legislative session. The results of the session will benefit people with disabilities for years to come.
Jillian also provided significant leadership as a co-chair of the Taskforce on Eliminating Subminimum Wages. I was honored to be on the Taskforce. Jillian and her counterpart, Andrea Zuber, did a terrific job of leading the work of the Taskforce culminating in the Taskforce making multiple recommendations to the legislature, including the recommendation to phase out of subminimum wages in Minnesota. The legislature approved all the Taskforce recommendations, with the exception of phasing out of subminimum wages.
Jillian is making history in Minnesota with her disability advocacy and activism. She is exceptional and is worthy of the Exceptional Advocate Award.
Nominated by Amber Bullington:
Cammie has been advocating for the chronic/intractable pain community for years. She has many disabling conditions, including CRPS [Complex Regional Pain Syndrome]. This has not slowed her down at all in her pursuit of justice for the pain community. Cammie has organized rallies at the Capitol, participated in or organized stories in print and on television, monitored many different governmental entities, and authored several bills.
Cammie worked with others to draft the Intractable Pain Bill and get it passed during the 2022 MN State Legislative Session. This bill protects those of us with painful conditions and our providers. She continues to monitor legislation, oversees several different DHS groups, and helps train other advocates.
This past session, Cammie worked tirelessly to protect pain patients by monitoring legislative activity that could potentially harm pain patients and worked to block certain revisions that were proposed to current policies.
Cammie continues to work tirelessly for the pain community, which has been under attack by our government for years, despite her declining health. She is a wiz at gathering, compiling, and analyzing raw data. She also has a very robust network of people with which she works. Her work gathering data from state/local medical examiners in relation to opiate overdose reporting was especially valuable.
Please consider giving Cammie the Exceptional Advocate Award. Her work has greatly benefited the chronic/intractable pain communities for years, despite her own health struggles.
Nominated by J. Johnson:
Joyce Lacey has been an advocate for those of us confined to wheelchairs for the past 44 years. She began advocating for disability rights when she was 17 years old, trying to help friends and family members who were dealing with MS [multiple sclerosis], severe arthritis, and strokes.
She has assisted the MS Society with fundraisers and educational training and awareness, helped with the Annual MDA telethon and as early as the age of five held MDA Carnivals to raise funds for Jerry Lewis and MDA [Muscular Dystrophy Association]; directed the Strides for Stokes Walk in Northwest Minnesota; worked at County and State Fairs educating the public; directed the Midwest Walk & Roll for the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation; helped with the Arthritis Foundation Jingle Bell Run and other Fundraisers; worked with Minnesota Senators and House Representatives on several Bills and testified to the Senate and House regarding Bills to enforce human rights for the vulnerable and people with disabilities.
She founded the June Lynne Lacey Foundation, which serves vulnerable adults and children, the elderly, disabled and our Veterans. The Foundation provides meals, groceries, necessities, clothing, and holiday gifts; in addition to advocating for the vulnerable, providing Scholarships for graduating seniors and providing accessible playground equipment for physically challenged children. Every day the Foundation strives to help people like myself and my family.
She has held Rallies at the Minnesota State Capitol to educate the public and encourage others to get involved.
I would like to nominate this outstanding advocate for the Exceptional Advocate Award.
Nominated by Rebecca St. Martin:
I’d like to nominate Lauren Thompson for an award. Here is a list of things she has done in the past year and prior that I have personally been witness to:
Advocating and organizing for the Murphy vs Harpstead lawsuit.
She was a key testifier at the Murphy vs Harpstead lawsuit and came out publicly once she was safe back in Assisted Living.
She continues to manage and monitor a Facebook group called PCA [Personal Care Assistance] Connections Minnesota, started in 2016, which has over 5000 clients with disabilities and PCAs networking, working out differences, providing support, making job connections, and more.
She routinely challenges my and others’ beliefs and decisions related to how we operate, behave, lead and manage in life.
She has a laundry list of councils and commissions upon which she has served, including MCD in the past and Waiver Reimagine Committee currently.
She has worked with Star Tribune journalist, Chris Seres, year after year, on making sure the public is aware of what’s going on through stories she is featured in.
She has participated in writing policy and sat in on state negotiations with Damon Leivestad and SEIU [Service Employees International Union] regarding the home care contract last year, and this work tested her physical limits and resolve.
She shared her testimony with MCD in 2019 on the Home Care Contract.
She went to Washington DC with SEIU to share her testimony there last year.
She has given testimony to state senate last year and the year prior.
She has been a fierce advocate for so much longer than I have and has taken just about every chance to publicly speak on issues where we are not fully supported and integrated by our communities and our state.
Listening Session Speakers
MCD recognizes those who took the time to share their stories in our Legislative Forum Listening Session as Exceptional Advocates:
- Rebecca St. Martin
- Mary Hauff
- Scott Berglund
- Megan Chabot
- Amanda Schermerhorn
- Kathy Cooper
MCD also recognizes these Exceptional Advocate legislators for their work during the 2023 Legislative Session:
- Representative Kim Hicks
- Representative Steve Elkins
- Representative Liz Reyer
- Representative Jessica Hanson
- Representative Heather Edelson
- Representative Mary Frances Clardy
- Representative Dan Wolgamott
- Representative Robert Bierman
- Representative Lisa Demuth
- Representative Greg Davids
- Senator John Hoffman
- Senator Liz Boldon
- Senator Omar Fateh
- Senator Erin Maye Quade
- Senator Jim Abeler
- Senator Kelly Morrison
- Senator Melissa Wiklund
- Senator Mary Kunesh
- Senator Nicole Mitchell
- Senator Torrey Westrom
- Senator Jeff Howe
- Senator Mark Koran
- Senator Jason Rarick