Beginning when she was a student at University of Wisconsin-Stout, Natasha Jerde had no doubt about her career path — once she discovered vocational rehabilitation.
“I didn’t realize there was this field focused on helping individuals with disabilities find competitive, integrated employment. It combines two things I value most: people and work,” Jerde said.
Her career choice was solidified as a student when she worked full time from Friday nights to early Mondays at the Arc of Dunn County caring for adults with intellectual disabilities. “That job confirmed working with and for individuals with disabilities was my calling,” she said.
Jerde, a native of Colfax who lives in Hammond, earned a bachelor’s degree in vocational rehabilitation, now rehabilitation services, from UW-Stout in 2006. Then she earned a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling and vocational evaluation from UW-Stout in 2008.
Her career has been on an upward spiral ever since. Last summer, she was named director of Minnesota State Services for the Blind, leading a statewide staff of about 120 people in 11 cities in addition to the main office in St. Paul.
The agency has been her home since her UW-Stout days. She interned there and was hired full time in 2008 as a vocational evaluator, then as a counselor for individuals who are deaf-blind. In her 11 years, she gradually took on larger administrative roles, leading to being hired as director.
"We knew we were looking for a driven, experienced leader," said Carol Pankow, assistant commissioner for Workforce Services at the Department of Employment and Economic Development, in a news release. “We found that in Natasha. She carved her own path, emphasizing policy development, program administration and quality assurance as the best way to help individuals become independent and successful in competitive employment."
The State Services for the Blind helps those who are deaf-blind throughout Minnesota, upwards of about 10,000 clients each year. Services include tools and training for employment, support for seniors and producing accessible materials for accessing information, such as Braille and audio.
Jerde is excited about technology and what it can do for clients, like new apps being developed, podcasts, text messaging, the Radio Talking Book Network, distance learning and webinars.
“There are a lot of exciting things I’m looking forward to doing. Vocational rehabilitation is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2020, and we want to make sure we’re around for another 100 years,” she said.
“It’s a big job, being in my 30’s, but I felt I was well-prepared for it. I’d been given a good opportunity to develop a skill set through on-the-job training and great mentors. I love the agency and the people we work with and work for,” said Jerde, who noted that about a half-dozen other UW-Stout alumni work at the agency.
People of all backgrounds, including seniors who experience vision loss, need and value the agency’s services, she said. “We have had lawyers, a rap star, teachers come through our program. We want them to be able to have the careers they’ve been dreaming about,” Jerde said.
Jerde has a certificate in deaf-blindness from Northern Illinois University and taught an evening sign language class at UW-Stout for five years. She also participated in a state of Minnesota leadership development program, Emerging Leaders Institute.
Early life lessons
Her passion for helping people grew out of her childhood, seeing her mother interact with co-workers and customers as a bookkeeper and office manager at a feed mill, Prairie Ag Supply in Menomonie.
“She had a wonderful customer service presence. I saw how she loved people. That’s what vocational rehabilitation is all about,” said Jerde, who then was Natasha Lemler. She is married to Brent Jerde, a CNC machinist at Waterous Co., and they have one child.
At UW-Stout, Jerde found “some of the best instructors I’ve ever experienced, how real they are and how they brought in their own experiences” to the classroom.
One of them was Professor Michelle Hamilton, Jerde’s academic adviser, program director, professor and work supervisor. Hamilton said UW-Stout is “proud” to have Natasha represent its programs.
“As a student, Natasha was a flexible, creative thinker who took appropriate risks and enjoyed a challenge. Even prior to graduation she had carved out a professional niche for her career in the evaluation and assessment of individuals with dual sensory loss,” Hamilton said.
“Natasha was a first-generation college student. In our first class together, I was impressed with her motivation, enthusiasm and overall approach to her studies. She was an engaged learner who willingly took responsibility for her role as a student and employee (graduate assistant),” Hamilton said.
October is Disability Employment Awareness Month. UW-Stout also is home to the Stout Vocational Rehabilitation Institute.
Natasha Jerde, who has two degrees in rehabilitation from UW-Stout, stands by the Minnesota State Services for the Blind mission statement in St. Paul.