Robbinsdale man with disabilities finds voice, thanks to employment

Michael Johnson didn’t talk much when he started volunteering at Papa Hawk Sports and Collectibles in Golden Valley a few years ago. Today, he’s a paid employee with a lot to say.

Johnson was a customer of owner Mark Hochstaetter’s store for more than 20 years, before the staff at Johnson’s group home called up one day and asked if he could get a job.

"I was open to it. I figured we could find something for him to do, and we have," said Hochstaetter.

Hochstaetter says it took several months and lots of paperwork with the state to put Johnson, who has developmental disabilities, on the payroll, but he was eventually able to give him a paid position two days a week.

Johnson, who is a passionate card collector and Twins fan, has flourished in his new role. Staff at his Robbinsdale group home say he used to prefer to spend most of his days in his room, but now he’s motivated to get moving in the morning. But most notably, he’s become more verbal.

"Mike is a changed person," said Hochstaetter. "When Mike first started here, he barely said two words or barely put a sentence together, and now he helps customers."

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment among those with disabilities was at a record high in 2023. Despite that, they remain much less likely to be employed than someone without a disability.

Hochstaetter says Johnson is proof that employment can be a life-changing experience for individuals with disabilities.

"I like it here," said Johnson. "I’d like to live here, but I know I can’t."