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MME inclusion project starts with information campaign

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RONAN — After Lauren Oliver took a new job as the executive director of Mission Mountain Enterprises last April, the pandemic caused her to change some of her plans for the social service organization.

Oliver wanted to create more inclusion between MME clients and the Lake County community before she even packed the moving truck and traveled here from North Carolina with her husband Nicholas and Cindy, a 13-year-old Australian Shepard. She is driven by the idea that people with disabilities and communities are better served when everyone works together. 

“So often, we hold people in a bubble where they live and work,” she said. “It’s important to go outside that bubble, reach outside the core group of businesses and places, which can be difficult in a rural area, but we have this beautiful community where we can reach out and work together.”

Many of the people who utilize MME services are at a high risk for COVID-19 complications, so Oliver decided to wait on some of the aspects of her inclusion project; for now, she would like to hear from people or businesses in the community wanting to work with MME – as long as COVID precautions are followed.

“We are always looking for people in the community to teach classes and lessons or skills to our individuals. We will pay,” she said. “Whether it is yoga, exercise, cooking classes, drama classes, dance, karate, music of any kind, we would love to hear who is out there and interested in enriching people’s lives with their skills and talents. We also are welcome to the idea of community members coming in to perform, as long as they wear a mask. We practice social distancing with outsiders and precautions are in place.” 

Oliver developed a safety plan that included getting all of the clients vaccinated for COVID-19.

“We have only had five of the 50 people here test positive for COVID,” she said. “Everyone has done a great job of keeping the virus out. We’ve been doing antibacterial everything and wearing masks. We needed to teach clients that they had to wear a mask in public  and most have done really well. Masks have now become like a fashion statement. We hear people saying, ‘That is a cute mask.’ A couple people don’t like to wear them so they just don’t go out. I think they have really understood how important this is.”

 Oliver recalls what the world was like before the pandemic. “I came out to Montana for the interview in March. We were just starting to hear about COVID-19. By the time I got home from the interview, there was a travel ban in place. I got home to North Carolina and everything was shut down.”

In March, she was working as an occupational therapist in a nursing home, a job she had been doing for 10 years. In 2019, she received a degree in healthcare administration with the ambition of becoming an advocate for people with developmental disabilities and older adults. 

“I want to be a voice for people,” she said. 

She also hopes to spread the word about what MME is all about. “A lot of people don’t know what we do,” she said. “I think getting that word out is part of developing community inclusion, and I think the staff here works really hard and needs recognized.”

Oliver decided to spread the word about what MME does after receiving community feedback. She said she was walking into a coffee shop to get a drink and warm up. “We were so cold from the Polar Plunge,” she said, which was an event held for clients earlier this month. A group of 20 jumped into Flathead Lake to raise funds for MME Grizzlies, a Special Olympics team. She said she was visibly cold as she ordered and the cashier asked about the event and then asked, “What is MME?” 

She decided then and there to start her inclusion project by informing the public about what the organization does. She is reaching out to the community to spread the word that MME is a non-profit corporation funded by the state to provide quality support for people with intellectual disabilities, focusing on a commitment to empower people to grow and succeed. Services include day programs where people can enjoy activities, support, connection and job opportunities. The corporation also offers four group homes between Polson and Ronan. 

Oliver and her husband bought a house in the area and have been enjoying the outdoors since the move here. 

“We love hiking and biking,” she said. “We moved here with the idea that we wanted something small: a place where we could be part of the community. We have found that. The people here have been happy to embrace new people and made us feel welcome.” 

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