Mike Acheson received the 2018 MOHR Outstanding Disability Employer Award on Tuesday in recognition of National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

Pinewood Employment Services manager Danae Lambert nominated Acheson for the award because she believes he went above and beyond the duties of an employer since he began hiring his employees from Pinewood Inc.

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Pinewood helps individuals with disabilities with the job-seeking process. The nonprofit organization offers customized employment and other services, such as employment exploration, development and support.

"Mr. Acheson is actively involved with his employees, not only during working hours, but during their off-time as well," Lambert wrote in the nomination. "He includes them in family activities and has provided opportunities and experiences that may not have been available to these individuals."

Acheson opened Sammy's Pizza in Cloquet in 2000. A few years later, he began hiring people with disabilities through Pinewood Inc. in Cloquet.

"I was honored beyond belief," Acheson said. "I get more benefits from these kids than they get from me." He said Lambert asked for his approval to nominate him. He gave permission, then promptly forgot about the conversation. He said he never expected to win because he believes many people nominated are more deserving.

Lambert explained that she has been impressed because Acheson has hired and trained several employees from Pinewood, as well as consistently provided transportation for employees to and from work as needed.

Acheson has employed several staff members for as many as 15 years. He has photos of him and the employees dating back to 2004.

"These kids are my children," Acheson said. He explained that although he calls them "kids," the 10 employees are all in their 20s and 30s.

He only hires employees who can work on their own, without a job coach. As with all employees, some are not a good fit and do not last.

"They're so lovable," Acheson said. "It's a shame how some people with disabilities are treated. They are so vulnerable, and sometimes people take advantage of that."

He said he thinks having employment at Sammy's gives them a sense of pride and accomplishment.

"Where else can they be mainstreamed like this?" Acheson said. He said he believes the work is even more important to his employees because they can do it on their own.

He occasionally brings a few of the employees out to his cabin for a special treat. The day usually includes a ride around the lake on his pontoon boat and a stop for a cheeseburger on the way home.

"It's probably their best day of the whole month," Acheson said. He also donates food to the Pinewood Christmas party every year and hosts a Thanksgiving meal at Sammy's for the employees.

"They are a part of my life," Acheson said. "I will continue to do this as long as I am alive."