STILLWATER, Minn. — Joel Loer’s co-workers at the Washington County Government Center know they can’t distract him when he has a job to do.
Loer, who works for the county’s community-services department, is intensely focused when sorting papers, stamping envelopes, collating packets and assembling urinalysis kits.
“He’s a time-saver,” said Karen Brown, who works as a case aide in the department. “If we had to do our own packets, it would take us forever.”
Loer, who has Down syndrome, has been working for Washington County since 1990. His job, his mother says, gives him a chance to form meaningful relationships and share his talents with the community.
The community is about to show its appreciation: A celebration to mark his 30th work anniversary will be held Tuesday, Feb. 4, at the government center in Stillwater; the county board has declared it “Joel Loer Day.”
The chance to belong and contribute can ease the social isolation that burdens many people with intellectual or developmental disabilities.
“He loves his job,” said his mother, Joan Loer, of Bayport. “That’s his life — his job. He hates it if he has to miss a day. He loves the people he works with. They are so good to him.”
Loer, 51, works with a job coach, Pam Stockwell, an employee of Rise, a nonprofit organization that supports people with disabilities and other barriers to employment. He lives in a group home in Maplewood, where a Rise employee drives him to work at 9:30 a.m. and back home at 2 p.m., five days a week.
Loer helps assemble informational packets on adoption, aging, child support, chemical dependency, medical assistance, foster care and other services. On a recent weekday, his task was collating materials for the department’s mental-health intake packets. He gathered papers, put them in order and bound them with a large paper clip.
Loer sits at a desk near the department’s community-service window and greets employees as they walk past.
“If you walk by Joel and you don’t say ‘Hi,’ he hollers at you,” Brown said. “Even if you’re having kind of a bad day, you just have a smile after talking to Joel.”
Financial technician Mary-Anne Rabenort greets Loer with a booming, “Hello, my guy! How are you? Let’s see your socks. What jazzy socks are we wearing today?”
Loer lifts a leg of his corduroy pants to reveal multicolored stripes.
“He always wears a jazzy pair of socks,” Rabenort said. “He has socks for every season.”
Most of his collection came from co-workers, who have given him so many that “we were asked to quit buying them,” Brown said.
Loer brings his lunch from home four days a week, typically a salad with chips, Jell-O and fruit. On Fridays, he and Stockwell go out to eat. A favorite destination is Boutwells Landing, a senior housing center in Oak Park Heights.
“They have great pizza,” Stockwell said. “As we’re driving, he’ll pretend to be dead. I’ll be, like, why are those people looking at us so weird? And then I’ll look at him. He is very funny.”
Loer is a shopper and is meticulous about his outfits. “He knows he has to dress well for work,” Joan Loer said. “In his room, he’ll have four or five outfits hanging on the closet doorknobs. He has them ready to go for the next day.”
“When we’re done shopping, he’ll say, ‘Good shopping!’ ” Joan Loer said. “And no matter what holiday it is, he’ll wish you a happy Easter.”
Among his other favorites: ketchup, coloring with his iPad, dancing, riding horses and bowling.
But Loer’s true passion is travel. He’s been to Fiji, Mexico, Hawaii, Disneyland, Disney World, San Diego, Colorado and Branson, Mo. He travels with family, the group home and a tour company that coordinates trips for people with developmental disabilities.
“If they offer a trip, he’ll sign up,” Joan Loer said. “He loves to fly.”
‘We will take him home’
Turk and Joan Loer didn’t learn that their youngest son had Down syndrome until after he was born on July 6, 1968, in Winona, Minn.
“We had two other children: Jaclyn was 18, and Jon was 9, so they’re all nine years apart,” said Joan Loer, 91. “I was 39 when he was born, and at that time, they didn’t do the test (for Down syndrome) ahead of time.”
Turk Loer told the doctor: “We will take him home and love him.”
Joel Loer was born with a congenital heart defect called Tetralogy of Fallot, a set of heart defects that hinders the flow of oxygenated blood to the rest of the body. He’s undergone three open-heart surgeries, the first when he was 10. In November 2018, he was hospitalized 13 days for heart failure. He is on a low-sodium diet, and doctors monitor his fluid intake.
On his own
Joel Loer was enrolled in special-education classes through the Northeast Metro 916 School District until he turned 21. After he graduated, he began to search for work with help from a East Suburban Resources case manager. He didn’t like janitorial or cafeteria work, but “he loved folding clothes,” Joan Loer said. “To this day, he folds everything of his just beautifully. That’s what he liked, and that’s what kind of job they looked for.”
No laundry jobs were available, so Joan Loer, who was active with Arc St. Croix Valley and sat on Washington County’s social-services advisory committee, asked if the county ever hired people with disabilities. They didn’t. Joel Loer is thought to be their first.
Rise works with people who have a wide range of service needs, providing day support and employment services. The county pays Loer indirectly, through Rise and a local staffing agency, using state funds that help developmentally disabled people live on their own.
Stockwell started working as Loer’s job coach five years ago.
“I just look forward to working with him every day,” she said. “He does things that make me melt. He picks up on when a person is not happy or is having a bad day or whatever, and he can just turn their day around — which to me, it means a lot. He brings joy to a lot of people — not just in this office, but this entire building.”
Cpl. Chanin Klontz, who works in court security with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, met Loer in the cafeteria.
“He’d always say, ‘Hi, cop!’ when I walked in,” Klontz said. “We talked a little bit, and then one day, I asked if he wanted a cookie to go with his sandwich, and he said, ‘Yes, please!’ I’d buy him a chocolate-chip cookie once or twice a week. It’s the little things, right? I always asked him if he was working hard, and he’d say, ‘Yep.’ ”
Everyone needs a sense of purpose, Klontz said.
“You have to have something to do,” he said. “You can’t just sit around all day. You have to have a purpose and a reason to get up in the morning. It’s exciting to see that somebody like Joel is out there and able to be productive when they have a challenge in their life.”