Jean Bender Honored with AuSM’s Inaugural Changemaker Award

Jean Bender’s profound impact on the autism community was heralded by many of her colleagues at AuSM’s annual meeting of its Board of Directors, staff, and community in February 2023. Jean stepped away from AuSM’s Board after a decade of compassionate service during which she held nearly every board-officer position and grew into a fierce-but-friendly force in advocating among legislators for disability rights as human rights. We surprised Jean by presenting her with AuSM’s first-ever Changemaker Award for her extraordinary legacy of service.

Joyner Emerick, AuSM Board Member:

“Jean, I don’t know how to express what you’ve meant to me as a friend, mentor, parenting coach, advocate, community connector, opportunity manifester, and thought partner, but I can tell you that you are family … You have answered every call I have put out for assistance and support in my attempts to help Foxy obtain equitable access across life domains. You have sat through four hour long IEP meetings with us (more than once!), attended county and Medicaid assessments, gone over documents dozens of pages long, researched policy and case law with me, and helped me help educators and administrators see my child’s unique strengths and needs. There is no way to adequately thank the person who shows up tirelessly on behalf of your vulnerable child, and yet I know it’s just a tiny piece of what you give to the Minnesota Disability Community. You walk through this world and leave a trail of open doors behind you. It’s a legacy that drives and inspires me. I am so grateful to know you and to have been touched by your work. Thank you, Changemaker Jean Bender.” 

Ellie Wilson, AuSM’s Executive Director:

“You have incredible knowledge of our state’s many systems, their budding leaves, and their deep roots. Your fingerprints are all over every blossoming example of our evolution as a community, and I am profoundly grateful that you have worked so hard on this landscape before us, creating the very context in which we currently advocate for change. So many people stand on your strong and sturdy shoulders … It should not go unrecognized that your energy for this kindness and this inclusion is powered by your love of David, and Paul, the family that I know you cherish, along with your chosen family, your chosen work … And, it is with distinct pride that we will honor you for years to come with a new community acknowledgement, the AuSM Changemaker Award, in honor of Jean Bender and Family. You certainly deserve to be its first recipient, but for years to come, we will be celebrating AuSM’s best advocates and deepest supporters in honor of you.”

Jillian Nelson, AuSM’s Community Resource and Policy Advocate:

“Jean, you have been a figure of intense energy for as long as I have been a part of AuSM … You have worked on legislation that impacted law enforcement, Teffra, employment, education, safety, vaccine access, disability rights, waivers, EIDBI, rate reimbursement, guardianship, housing, higher ed, transition services, sub-minimum wage, organ transplant access, and more … You have led in the autism and disability community on Capitol Hill, with grace and compassion, and with your hand always extended – not to take but to guide and teach anyone willing to learn, be it self-advocates, other parents, or legislators … You once told me that a sign of a good leader is knowing when to step back and make space for others in the room, and that when everyone in the room knows what you would say is a good time to gracefully move on. Jean, your voice – and your heart – is woven into the history of AuSM. In the autism-affirming culture we hold, in the vision for the future, in the commitment to families. In every bill we will ever take to the hill. You are the definition of Changemaker.”

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