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EVERYDAY PEOPLE: Anything but typical

Todd Panko (left) met with his Productive Alternatives case manager, Amy VanKeur

Todd Panko is going for a personal record.

The Brainerd native has worked at Grand Casino in Mille Lacs for nearly two decades, having worked his way up from dishwasher to prep cook in the casino’s kitchen. Todd said he thinks he’ll work at the casino until he retires.

“That would be something if I could work at one job for 43 years,” Todd said. “I just have to work on setting my alarm clock.”

Todd Panko struggles with a developmental disability that would typically make it challenging to get and keep a job for a a long period of time, but Todd is anything but typical.

When Todd started at Grand Casino in 1992 he was just 22 years old. He landed the job with the help of a job placement center that assisted people with disabilities in finding work. Kevin Larson, now a manager with Productive Alternatives, remembers his early days of working with Todd at the previous agency as a job coach.

Larson said he has watched as Todd has made great progress in his career path.

“He kind of worked his way up through the ranks and now he’s a respected member of the team,” Larson said. “I didn’t anticipate him making it that far. It’s really impressive.”

Larson said when Grand Casino opened in the early 90’s there was an opportunity for employment for workers with special needs and Todd was working at the placement agency’s work center.

“He was just one that we felt would fit,” he said.

Larson said the thing he was been most impressed with has been Todd’s resourcefulness. Living in Brainerd and not being licensed to drive a vehicle, Todd relies on others to get him to work each day. He said he rides with a co-worker or calls Productive Alternatives to help him get there.

Todd meets with an on-site job coach each week to go over employment goals, review work and set new goals for the future. Every six months Todd meets with Amy VanKeuren, his case manager at Productive Alternatives. VanKeuren said she helps Todd work through behavioral issues or other challenges he might need to change to be successful in his job.

“We empower them to maximize their skills in the vocational world,” VanKeuren said.

Todd said his job as a prep cook gives him the opportunity to do something he loves — make food.

“I make stuff like salads and dressings and cut up chicken and fish,” he said.

Todd said his specialty salad is a French ham salad and he also likes the make Ambrosia. “It sounds fancy,” he said.

For Todd, the benefits are pretty simple.

“I like the work there. I like the money I make,” he said. “I like the people.”

Larson said the social aspect of Todd’s long-term employment has given him meaningful interaction with his co-workers.

“I think it’s really helped him from a social standpoint,” he said. “He’s made a lot of friends he would have otherwise had.”

Todd said while he does like his job, his schedule is definitely not all work and no play. Todd, an alum of Aitkin High School and who was involved in high school sports having played basketball, is still active in bowling, disc golf and is still a worthy opponent on the tennis court. Todd said in 1993 he took the crown as the state bowling champion for the state of Minnesota.

“I felt pretty good about that,” he said of his title. Todd played in the national Pro-Am tournament the same year. “I was actually 25th in the nation. That’s not bad when you add up the bowlers in all 50 states.”

Besides his athletic prowess, Todd is also an aspiring poet. He said he likes to write love poems for the ladies and poems about competition. Todd said he gives away the poems he writes down and stores the rest in his memory. If you run into him around town, just ask him. It’s more than likely he’s got a poem worked up he’d love to share.

SARAH NELSON KATZENBERGER may be reached at or 855-5879.