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LifeQuest turns 50: Thursday event to note agency's anniversary

LifeQuest Executive Director Daryl Kilstrom leads a tour of the Mitchell-based nonprofit's building, where people with disabilities acquire new life skills and are encouraged to live meaningful lives. LifeQuest will celebrate its 50th anniversary next week. (Laura Wehde/Republic Photo)

For his 80th birthday, all Virgil Kistler wanted was to see "The Price Is Right" and Bob Barker in person.

In 1996, Kistler got his wish with a little help from LifeQuest, a Mitchell-based nonprofit service that helps people with disabilities acquire new life skills and lead more meaningful lives.

Seeing Bob Barker wasn't the only first for Kistler on that trip; he also dipped his feet in the ocean, drove through mountains and got stuck in a traffic jam.

Peggy Swift accompanied Kistler to California, and the trip remains one of her fondest memories of her 16 years as a LifeQuest supervisor.

"Virgil patiently waited in line for hours, but finally got to see Bob and hear 'Come on down' in person," Swift said.

After half a century in operation, LifeQuest is ripe for reminiscing -- and that's exactly what staff, clients, family members and past employees and board members are doing in preparation for the service's 50th anniversary celebration next week.

An anniversary cookout will take place from 4 to 6 p.m. Thursday at LifeQuest, located at 804 N. Mentzer Avenue in Mitchell. The event is open to the public and will be a time for fellowship, food and appreciation.

Over the years, times have certainly changed, said Deb Brink, who has assisted LifeQuest clients since 1979.

Typical jobs for disabled people once included handweaving rugs out of rags and refinishing furniture. Today, many of those same people, and a lot of new faces, have advanced to stringing window pulleys, building wooden pallets, and sorting and stamping mail.

"I enjoy helping them achieve their goals, get their own job, make new friends. To come to work and get a smile and a hug from them means a lot," Brink said. "We have a lot of fun together. We make their day; they make our day."

LifeQuest's size and scope have grown considerably, too. The agency served 54 disabled people when Daryl Kilstrom came aboard as executive director in 1979. Today, around 200 in the Mitchell area and another 700 statewide are part of the LifeQuest program.

Some clients -- "support persons," to use LifeQuest lingo -- need round-the-clock care, and have for years. Others contact the service on occasion for help with specific tasks -- everything from laundry, cooking and personal hygiene to getting to and from the doctor's office and filling out paperwork.

"People work six to eight hours a day, and the rest of the time they do other stuff. Well, we're responsible for all that other stuff, too -- recreating, living, socializing, going to the doctor. All of those are things we are committed to helping people do better, or experience for the first time," Kilstrom said.

Supervisor Carol Gibbs said LifeQuest's focus has improved in her 22 years as an employee. It's now much more "person-centered," she said, with goals set by the individual seeking assistance. Requests range from help getting jobs in the community, a driver's license, or a friend, to assistance in going to church, living in their own homes, or joining a community organization.

"We have changed our mindsets to realize that we are working with people who have a disability, and at some point in everyone's life a disability could be present," Gibbs said.

In the past 30 years, LifeQuest's budget has shot up considerably, from $500,000 to over $8 million.

Programs have expanded and multiplied, too, including job placement. When Kilstrom started, most jobs were performed at LifeQuest's inhouse production facility. Today, the service has helped disabled individuals find employment at a variety of sites, often in hospitality and retail.

"Now, over half the people we serve have jobs in the community, at places you and I go. We see them every day," Kilstrom said.

LifeQuest began as the James Valley Association for Retarded Citizens in 1959. Over the years, the service has undergone several name changes, including the Mitchell Adjustment Training Center from 1970 to 2006.

Peggy Hofmeister was 10 when her father, Chuck Snow, helped found the organization.

"I do remember knowing something very important was happening and that my family had a part in it," said Hofmeister, who now lives in Sioux Falls. "(My parents) would be so proud and pleased with how far the program and the people have come today, farther than they ever could have imagined."

Hofmeister's memories and those of dozens of others will be published in a booklet, to be distributed at a community cookout Thursday in honor of LifeQuest's 50th anniversary.

About a third of LifeQuest clients are from Davison County, another third from the surrounding seven counties, and the last third from across the state.

According to Kilstrom, the agency employs around 185 people and has a 25 percent turnover rate, compared to a nationwide rate of 60 percent within nonprofits.

"We consider ourselves kind of lucky," Kilstrom said with a smile.