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‘Helping people with disabilities live their best lives’

Chippewa River Industries, in operation since 1968, has two different areas of focus

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April 29, 2024

CHIPPEWA FALLS – In today’s ever-changing workforce, with businesses finding it difficult to fill their employee ranks, which is why Chippewa River Industries (CRI) President/CEO Dave Lemanski said it looks to an untapped pool of employees to fill its positions.

With about 200 employees, Lemanski said about 60% of CRI’s workforce comes from people with disabilities.

“People with disabilities fill a role at CRI,” he said. “We’re no different than any other industry – we are scrambling for the workforce and have to be creative. Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people retired early and lots of people didn’t want to go back to work.”

Lemanski said CRI found its placement level during the pandemic increased quite a bit with the people it serves “because they wanted to work.”

“After the pandemic, we found employers were more open to hiring people with disabilities,” he said.

Having said that, Lemanski said there is still a lot of education needed regarding the value of hiring people with disabilities.

“We work with our local chamber of commerce groups and educate employers on how positive it is – both to the business and the people they are working with,” he said.

Lemanski said CRI has been around since 1968 – starting operations in the basement of a church.

“It started in (St. Rose of Lima) Church – like most work centers started in a church – in Cadott,” he said. “We’ve grown and evolved into a 60,000-square-foot facility headquartered in Chippewa Falls, with offices in Eau Claire and Rice Lake.”

Lemanski said in January 2009, after nearly 41 years of county oversight, CRI became incorporated as an independent nonprofit, 501(c)(3) organization.

“The onset of family care throughout Wisconsin and the need to expand services and production capabilities were the two main reasons for the change,” he said. 

Service arm

Lemanski, who has been with CRI since 2001, said the company has two different arms.

“One is the service arm where we serve people with disabilities and apply our mission to all the programs where we help people become engaged in their community,” he said. “We serve approximately between 400-500 people per year in a variety of programs. We offer several vocational rehabilitation-oriented programs along with life skills, which help people live more independently. It’s not like doing someone’s dishes but more about teaching them how to do their dishes.”

Lemanski said CRI’s mission is to help people reach their highest level of independence in their community – “whether that’s through work, home or recreation.”

“We recently opened a community-based day service program – most day services in the state are facility-based, but this one is all community-based,” he said. “This means people come to us and chat with us for about 15 minutes about what we’re going to do that day. Then we jump in our vehicles and take on the activities – that could be going to a local animal shelter, talking with the DNR  (Department of Natural Resources) about fishing and fishing licenses or going to the mall. It can be a whole slew of activities we come up with to help our consumers.”

Lemanski said CRI predicates its services on a person-centered service structure.

“If someone comes to us, they can see our menu of programs and pick and choose their own goals and what they want to do,” he said. “When people ask me, ‘what is a typical day like for someone with disabilities?’ I say to them, ‘it depends on what they want to do that day.’”

Lemanski said CRI’s services are tailored to the individual.

“Whether that individual wants to work at the CRI facility, wants support at their job in the community or assistance with a life skill, such as budgeting and safe/healthy living principles, we are here for them,” he said. “We want to help people with disabilities live their best lives.” 

Enterprise arm

Lemanski said the company’s other area of focus is its enterprise arm.

According to its website (, CRI offers a variety of automated and hand packaging/assembly services and delivers flexible packaging and assembly solutions to companies nationwide, utilizing principles of lean manufacturing.

“We have a salesperson, and that person goes out and procures different projects for us to do in-house,” he said. “We’re selling a third-party, co-packaging service to various companies. We have several companies we do a fair amount of work for.”

Lemanski said CRI has an enterprise arm for several reasons.

“First, it helps us expose the consumers we work with to different types of work opportunities,” he said. “They have the chance to develop soft and hard skills. For example, if someone wants to get a job in a warehouse, we can train them on how to use a forklift – assuming they have the requirements to get on one. They can take that skill with them to the next job.”

Lemanski said he wants people with disabilities who come to CRI to grow their skills and eventually move to other jobs – something that is required by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services – “we support that.”

“We have six job developers at CRI,” he said. “Their sole job is to help our consumers who want a job in the community, get a job in the community. We help them set up interviews and a whole host of things. Once they obtain employment, we support them in that job through a job coach. The frequency of those types of services is individualized.”

Lemanski said not only does the enterprise arm provide those work opportunities for people with disabilities in-house, but it also provides a setting where a mixture of people work together.

“We create this integrated work setting here – that’s the way it should be,” he said.

Finally, Lemanski said, the revenue CRI makes helps offset any revenues the company can’t incur from something like Medicaid-funded services.

“Oftentimes, Medicaid is a vulnerable funding stream, so it may not be able to fully fund a certain service,” he said. “Therefore, we can use some of the revenues from the enterprise arm to offset some of those unfunded or under-funded service areas. Our enterprise arm accounts for about 57% of our total revenue. We have a goal to increase that to between 80-90%. When I started 23 years ago, that pot of revenue represented about 10% of our revenue. That growth has been strategic.”

Lemanski said when he first started, CRI was serving about 120 people with disabilities through its various programs and work employment.

“We’ve tripled the number of people we serve per year and flipped our entire revenue structure so we’re more dependent on our enterprise,” he said.

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