In the 40 years he's served as executive director of the LISTEN Center in Grand Forks, Charlie Bremseth has seen changes in the opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities-and in societal attitudes towards them.

He's had a lot to do with bringing those changes about, those who know him best said.

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Bremseth is retiring from his position with the LISTEN, short for Love is Sharing The Exceptional Needs, Center on Dec. 31. Christy Potts is taking over.

In the mid-1970s, Bremseth wanted to be a special education teacher, but "once I got into this job, I saw so many possibilities to make people's lives better," he changed direction.

"Every decision I made, it seemed, just led me here," he said.

When the courts ruled North Dakotans with disabilities were to be moved out of institutions and into community housing, such as group homes and apartments, Bremseth and others developed programs to address their needs.

At the time, "the city of Grand Forks overall was hesitant about these folks moving into the community," he said.

"We were making history," he said. "I feel very proud of being part of that. It's a real remarkable feat, taking (hundreds of people with disabilities) out into the community and building supports for them."

The programs have flourished.

Last year, the LISTEN's Drop-in Center had an attendance of 17,000 in the past year, about 10 times the level when he started out, he said.

"That says a lot about an agency people don't have to come to," he said. "They come by choice."

About 800 people with disabilities visit the Drop-in Center on North Washington; LISTEN also sponsors a day services program on the city's south side.

Throughout his career, he's earned the respect of many who are concerned about people with disabilities.

Bremseth "is probably one of the most passionate people I've ever met," LISTEN Board President Russ Prochko said.

The retiring director is well-known for "his genuine concern and care for people with developmental disabilities," said Prochko, who has been a board member since 1992.

People with developmental disabilities "used to be kind of excluded" from society, the president said.

"Charlie is all about getting people with disabilities out into the community," Prochko said.

That exposure can only improve people's understanding of those with disabilities, Prochko said.

Bremseth has worked "to make sure they are treated like everyone else and have the same opportunities as others," Prochko said. The director also has spread the idea that the people he helps "appear different on the outside, but on the inside, they are just like you and me," Prochko said.

Prochko greatly admires the work of LISTEN staff members and their leader, he said.

"I believe some people are cut out for this kind of work," he said. "Charlie was born to do this."

Bremseth has built a network that addresses the needs of people with disabilities, including housing, education, vocational training, recreation and living skills, said Peter Johnson, a UND spokesman who also sits on the LISTEN Board.

"Anyone who knows Charlie, knows that he's a great supporter and defender of the disabilities population-not only locally, but statewide and regionally," said Alice Hoffart, a LISTEN board member of more than 20 years. "He feels very strongly about, is loyal to and will fight for (people with disabilities). Clients are first and foremost for him, and have been his entire career."

Bremseth said he hopes people will not be fearful of those with disabilities.

"Don't be afraid to visit with them, talk with them, engage," he said. "Everyone wants to be talked to and loved.

"I am proud of the way the city has accepted them, and people are working with them, so they can live like other folks, experience what everybody else experiences-that's awfully important."

Acceptance by the community "is something we always hoped for, and now we're seeing it," he said.

"It can only get better," he said.