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LifeQuest notes successes in midst of tough fiscal climate

Life makes sense to Robert Goehring and Dennis Brosz, both longtime clients of LifeQuest in Mitchell.

Both men have shown that, with some help from LifeQuest and community acceptance, they can support themselves and live independently and productively.

LifeQuest, a private, nonprofit community agency that provides services and support to people with developmental disabilities, held its annual dinner meeting Thursday at the Highland Conference Center in Mitchell and celebrated the personal and financial sacrifices that have helped to make a difference in the lives of hundreds of its clients in the past 51 years.

The organization also noted the contributions of staff members and recognized individual and organizational donors who have joined the ranks of those who have given $10,000 or more since 1990.

Executive Director Daryl Kilstrom outlined his organization's recent and long-term accomplishments and emphasized, during these tough economic times, LifeQuest's continuing fundraising efforts.

Those efforts support people like Brosz, 66, and Goehring 37, who are among the 160 LifeQuest clients who manage to live independently and hold jobs that move them into the mainstream of life in Mitchell.

LifeQuest has 195 full- and part-time employees and it also pays wages for about 790 individuals who provide occasional support to area families who have members with disabilities.

"The impact we have on people's lives is very positive," Kilstrom, 62, said in a recent interview.

LifeQuest, formerly the Mitchell Area Adjustment Training Center, or "Mot-see," as the acronym came to be pronounced, became LifeQuest in 2006. It celebrated its 50th anniversary in May 2009. The organization's creation was an important milestone for Mitchell and the disabled.

"We were one of the first such agencies in South Dakota," Kilstrom said.

Kilstrom, who came to Mitchell in 1979 and has held his job for 31 years, said he first worked with the physically and mentally disabled when he took a transitional job as the driver of a recycling truck for the Aberdeen Adjustment Center.

In those early years at Aberdeen, a disabled co-worker showed him the ropes, Kilstrom said, and taught him a personal and professional life lesson that he has never forgotten.

"He taught me that people with disabilities are people, too," he said.

People like Robert Goehring and Dennis Brosz.

Goehring has worked part-time at Mitchell's County Fair Food Store for more than 10 years, and Brosz has been at Walgreens since 2006.

They don't struggle with their disabilities; they live with them, and in a broader sense, share them with others.

Those same disabilities become, in some unexpected ways, their gift to others.

"I guess to me it's important for people to see LifeQuest individuals out in the community," said County Fair grocery manager Bridget Neugebauer, Goehring's longtime supervisor.

"It's also a learning experience for my children," she said. "If I kept my children in their own little world, my kids would never know there are Roberts out in the world."

Goehring's energy is contagious.

The only thing that upsets him, Neugebauer said, is a change in his schedule that might limit his personal contact with customers. "He loves that interaction with the customers and loves to joke," she said. "I've been here 10 years, and Robert was here before I got here."

Goehring stocks shelves from 6 a.m. to noon, three days a week.

"Robert is dependable and punctual and usually never calls in sick, but when he does, it's because he's legitimately sick," she said.

"He is super to have around. He's very energetic and he makes customers smile," she continued. "He likes to sing and his favorite song is 'O Christmas Tree' -- even in the middle of July."

County Fair has several LifeQuest clients on staff, Neugebauer said. Some, like Robert, do stocking work on the floor and others may carry orders to customer vehicles. County Fair also offers job shadowing and job coaching to some LifeQuest clients.

Others may wrap baked goods in the store bakery, and others spend time bagging produce for sale.

Walgreens Manager Carl Beckstrom said Brosz, who works part-time, two days each week, has been at the Mitchell store since 2006.

"He's worked out great. He's an actual employee of Walgreens and is required to do what any employee would do, and LifeQuest's Career Connections helps him out," he said.

Brosz gives as much as he gets and adds something extra to the overall work experience at the store, Beckstrom said.

"When he comes in, you definitely know he's here. It's been a lot of fun. He's got something to say to everybody-- in a good way," Beckstrom said.

Finding the resources to support clients like Goehring and Brosz has become a challenge.

The bad news is that LifeQuest, like many similar agencies, must struggle to cover growing expenses each year.

The good news is that services have not been cut and LifeQuest is "on top of the world" from a service and quality standpoint, Kilstrom said.

But doing more with less has become the new normal, said Kilstrom, who calls the current financial picture "dire" for agencies like his.

"I've been in this job 31 years and, financially speaking, this is the worst it's ever been," he said.

The organization gets about 86 percent of its funding, or about $6.9 million for the 2010-2011 fiscal year, from service fees from government programs like Medicaid.

"LifeQuest has come off 15 years of very flat funding during which time the average rate of reimbursement from state, federal and local government aid increased only 2 percent. That's during a time that salaries were going up an average of 4 to 4.5 percent a year," Kilstrom said.

LifeQuest received a zero percent increase in government funding last year, which "was tough, but now we're entering a second year of zero percent," Kilstrom said. Still, there are bright spots. The current down economy, which left LifeQuest with an operating loss of $134,000 in 2008, is slowly coming back. LifeQuest saved 23 years to develop an endowment fund, Kilstrom said, and it created the LifeQuest Foundation in 2008. The foundation broke the $1 million mark this year, Kilstrom said, growing from $993,989 in 2009 to $1,207,850 in 2010. In recent years, the foundation has covered only fundraising costs of about $66,000 to $69,000, but in July it began contributing about $67,000 annually to LifeQuest's operational budget. Donations have been solid. From 2008 to 2010, individual and corporate donors have pledged $428,151. "We've got some good friends out there," Kilstrom said.