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After 35 years at LifeQuest, Kilstrom to retire

Daryl Kilstrom, executive director of LifeQuest, is patted on the back by Brandon Wolff as he walks through the communal break area at LifeQuest in December. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)1 / 3
Daryl Kilstrom, executive director of LifeQuest in Mitchell, talks with Jeff DeNure as Rachel Eich waits behind them in December at LifeQuest. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)2 / 3
Daryl Kilstrom, executive director of LifeQuest in Mitchell, laughs with Rachel Eich on Dec. 19 at LifeQuest. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)3 / 3

Daryl Kilstrom took a six-week job, never knowing it would turn into a 35-year career.

In September 1977, the now-executive director of Mitchell's LifeQuest took a position with Aberdeen's Adjustment Training Center filling in for an employee who was on medical leave. The short-lived job entailed working alongside people with disabilities, driving around town in what he called the RUM (reusable, used materials) truck and picking up items such as cardboard and paper.

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"The job was just being a friend," he said, becoming emotional as he told the story. "It's really what it is all about, just taking the time to learn another person and what they're like."

During a recent interview on his 66th birthday, Kilstrom's memories of working on the RUM truck showed exactly why that job led to a career. Kilstrom has worked at Mitchell's LifeQuest for 35 years, starting his executive director job at the Mitchell-based agency in February 1979.

LifeQuest's mission is to create opportunities that enrich lives while working with people who have developmental disabilities. Kilstrom described his job duties as "just running the place," but he has been in charge of operations for the agency that serves a total of 1,115 people with about 1,050 staff members, including satellite areas outside Mitchell.

Sometime this spring, Kilstrom will retire, but he is in no rush to leave. He has not even circled a date on the calendar for his final day at work. Instead, he plans to leave once someone new is hired to take his job.

"And I even want to spend a few weeks with them," he said. "It's looking like March might be a little early. It will be mid-March or April. I'll stick around until we get someone in. If that ends up being April, it wouldn't be the end of the world."

Chris Lippert, a member of LifeQuest's board of directors and former board president, said there has been an offer to a candidate for the executive director job, but that person withdrew from the process. Applicants are now being reviewed again.

"The position is so hard to fill because it's not a position you should or could earn just by your credentials," Lippert said. "It's a position you earn because of what's in your heart and the mission of your life.

"Daryl lives for the clientele at LifeQuest. Everything he does and every action he takes is to benefit those persons, the employees, the clientele and their families. You have to find someone who has the right heart, intentions and integrity. To fill his shoes, that's pretty much impossible."

Kilstrom said his retirement is related to his age. He and his wife, Velda, planned when they both reached 66 they would quit full-time work and see what else life has to offer. He said the only plan for retirement now is to go to Virginia to watch his granddaughters graduate from college in May.

"I've been doing this so long, I don't know what it's like to not have a crisis, timeline or project hanging over me," he said. "I would like to experience what it's like not to have that for a while."

It's clear Kilstrom has made an impact during his career with LifeQuest. After the RUM truck job, he continued working for the Adjustment Training Center in Aberdeen, totalling nearly two years of service. Then, he saw Mitchell's LifeQuest was hiring an executive director and applied for the job.

Somewhat surprisingly to him, he was offered the position. The 1966 graduate of Mitchell High School then moved back to his hometown to work for Mitchell Area Adjustment Training Center, which in 2006 changed its name to LifeQuest.

Since Kilstrom arrived, LifeQuest has evolved immensely. When he started, there were 36 staff members; today there are 190 who provide comprehensive services, and another 860 who provide family support services.

LifeQuest served 54 people on a full-time basis when Kilstrom started, compared to 160 today. The agency also serves 90 people for employment placement and another 865 people around the state with the family support system. The family support system is "extremely part-time services" in which people with disabilities, mainly children, continue to live with their own families.

"Daryl is a pioneer," said Pam Hanna, LifeQuest's program manager for quality assurance who has worked at the agency for 29 years. "Without him, I'm not sure that would have happened. He saw the need for children to live with their families and took a chance to do it. If he wouldn't have taken those steps, I'm not sure it would have gotten off the ground like it did."

Perhaps the most eye-popping change during Kilstrom's tenure is the size of the organization's budget. It was $450,000 when he started, and today it's $9.3 million.

"The people we're supporting now have way more intense needs than they did in those days," Kilstrom said. "A lot of the folks we serve are in wheelchairs, they require total assistance with eating, dressing, bathing. So we've become a lot more than what we used to be."

About 70 percent of LifeQuest's funding comes from Medicaid, a joint federal-state health care program for the needy. That funding mainly covers employee salaries and support for clients.

LaVonne Murtha, of Mitchell, has worked at LifeQuest for 23 years. She said Kilstrom has done an impressive job advocating for increased funding for LifeQuest and other agencies like it.

"He's put in a lot of time getting more money for us and went to bat for us in Pierre for financing," Murtha said. "This place was so crowded before, and he's helped us get additional space, and that's helped production grow."

Murtha works directly with people who have disabilities at LifeQuest's office, east of Mitchell High School. At the office, clients work small assembly and packaging jobs, like letter mailing preparation and woodworking, among other duties.

During a recent stroll through LifeQuest's halls, Kilstrom engaged in small talk with the employees and clients. Everyone referred to him on a first-name basis, showing their comfort and informal relationship with the man who runs the agency.

There's no doubt that interacting with people on a day-to-day basis has been his favorite part of the job.

"We're here to help them have a better life, and when you see them get a piece of a better life, it's very rewarding," Kilstrom said, "especially when you see them smile and enjoy what they're doing and know that you had a part in that."