MANKATO — When MRCI, a nonprofit that provides employment for people with disabilities, first acquired a warehouse near the Minnesota State University campus in the late 1970s, up to 400 clients arrived daily to do light assembly and packaging work.

The building at 15 Map Drive is now on the market and empty of those workers, who are increasingly working out in the community for hundreds of employers.

MRCI is holding a public sale of surplus office furniture from the building and others in the region as part of multi-year plan to consolidate its buildings while providing more choices to clients to match their personal interests with meaningful work. The sale started Sunday and continues today.

“Part of what’s happened is we’ve moved more and more people into the community getting jobs, so the number of people working in-house is diminished,” said MRCI Executive Director Brian Benshoof. “Over the last 15 years, a lot of that kind of work has gone overseas, and we’ve found it more challenging to come up with work for people to do.”

The plan to consolidate was already in place before the pandemic. But in March, when Gov. Walz announced a stay-at-home order to slow the spread of COVID-19, the only MRCI clients who could keep working were essential workers at places such as grocery stores. The pandemic forced MRCI to lay off about 350 people.

That put a financial strain on the organization, which is funded by the state of Minnesota based on service hours. As more clients were hired to work at a variety of jobs, the extra space was not longer needed.

“A large piece of our funding went away March 18, and so did our revenue,” Benshoof said. “We were left with a number of buildings where we only used half of the space. Over half of this building wasn’t being used, and it was getting expensive.”

MRCI will consolidate its two Mankato locations into one, at 1750 Energy Drive, which will be used to house administrative offices.

In April, the nonprofit began holding virtual gatherings for clients to help curb the sense of social isolation during the pandemic. Those events will continue.

“We do a daily check-in where they get to do some fun activities and socialize with each other,” Benshoof said. “In the meantime, we’re building our next generation of services that will take them out into the community every day and be engaged in their various activities.”

Benshoof said they’ve taken advantage of the past months to strengthen relationships with local companies, that have in turn offered to hire MRCI’s clients directly.

“If someone says, ‘I want to work at Pepsi,’ we don’t take 20 people to Pepsi,” Benshoof said. “We look for the job that person is interested in and go through an intensive discovery process of exploration. We help them find them that job and support them, so it’s very individualized.”

Tami Reuter, the chief business and marketing officer for MRCI, said the goal is to immerse clients into the community, providing more opportunities for social interactions and relationship building. Plus, it allows clients to consider a job that best suits their interests.

“Our clients can now say, ‘I work for Hy-Vee, Taylor Corporation, Pepsi or GC Distributing,’ instead of MRCI,” Reuter said. “They can attend the company picnic and get all of the other perks with employee discounts and parties — just the pride of being a fellow co-worker.”

Clients will not only have the ability to choose when and where they want to work but can also opt to spend their days doing a variety of educational and social activities.

“For the first time, individuals at MRCI have the option to choose,” Reuter said. “No one is telling them you have to work somewhere. They have a choice whether and where they choose to work and what activities they choose to participate in. Choice matters.”

The individualized approach means MRCI will be selling its fleet of over 80 buses in exchange for purchasing about 200 minivans. For daily outings, the 1,300 clients they serve will be placed into small groups of four and one staff member each day. How they choose to spend each day in the community will depend on what each group decides to do each week.

“They might attend a class at the community center or do some volunteer work; they might go out for coffee or lunch,” Benshoof said. “In the process they’re developing relationships with the people that live in the town they’re in, and people get to know them as opposed to sitting in a room all day with 50 other people and doing the same thing every day. We’re hoping this will be enriching and integrated.”

Benshoof said MRCI’s new approach is unprecedented in Minnesota. While the pandemic has forced them to adapt, he said it will ultimately lead to advancing their mission of serving both clients and employers.

“All of this will help us provide better services to people and to be financial stable for a long time,” he said.

Dan Greenwood is a Free Press staff writer. Contact him at dgreenwood@mankatofreepress.com