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Daily Republic Q&A: New LifeQuest director

LifeQuest executive director Daryl Kilstrom will retire after 35 years at LifeQuest at the end of the month. He is being replaced by Steve Johnson. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)1 / 2
Employees work in the wood shop at LifeQuest in Mitchell Wednesday afternoon. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)2 / 2

Steve Johnson feels like this will be a homecoming, even though he has never lived in South Dakota.

Last week, the 55-year-old Johnson was announced as the new executive director of LifeQuest, a Mitchell-based agency that works to create opportunities to enrich lives for people who have developmental disabilities.

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"When I was growing up, the town I am from was just about the size Mitchell is today," the Aurora, Ill., native said. "Everyone knew each other and it had that nice Midwest feel. I've really missed that after I've lived in some large metropolises."

Johnson, who begins his duties March 17, has a degree in electrical engineering and worked in the personal computer and Internet boom in northern California for such companies as Intel Corp., ITT and Cisco Systems. After that, he shifted his focus to advocacy, model residential settings, and technology applications for people with developmental disabilities.

Johnson is taking over for LifeQuest Executive Director Daryl Kilstrom, who held the job for 35 years and is retiring.

The Daily Republic conducted a question-and-answer session with Johnson earlier this week. Here are excerpts from the interview:

Q: Why were you interested in this position?

A: For the last 14 years, basically the mission of LifeQuest has been my own personal mission: To work with people with special needs and do whatever we can, use whatever knowledge I bring to the table, to improve their quality of life. When I came across the job, my initial reaction was to do a lot of research on LifeQuest and I was very impressed with what they've accomplished.

Q: Do you have any ties to South Dakota, the area or Mitchell?

A: I don't. I grew up in the Midwest outside of Chicago. For me, it's the first time since leaving for college that I'll end up in the Midwest. It feels good.

Q: Do you think moving to South Dakota will be a big change?

A: It will be a big change, but for me it will be a very positive change. I've lived in places like San Jose, Phoenix, Seattle. There are lots of people around, but you don't know anybody. It really doesn't have that hometown feel to it, and that's something I'm looking forward to with Mitchell.

Q: Do you have family?

A: I don't have any children or a spouse, but I have six siblings and my mother is still alive. They all are in Wisconsin or Illinois, so I'll actually for the first time be getting closer to them.

Q: What are your expectations of this job?

A: The first goal is to really try to fill those very large shoes that Daryl is leaving behind. I don't have great expectations. I just want to make sure the services that exist right now and are running well continue and don't skip a beat during the transition. The next step is to sit down with the board of directors and look long-term and at strategic planning, finding out the goal for the organization for the next year, the next two years and five years.

Q: Do you have any major plans or upgrades, or do you first want to get acclimated with the area?

A: I want to get acclimated and understand what the current challenges are and what Daryl would have started working on had he stayed in the position. I think the one thing I do bring to LifeQuest is that experience outside of South Dakota. If LifeQuest has that interest in expanding outside of the state, I certainly bring that to the table.

Q: What was your job before accepting your new position with LifeQuest?

A: I worked for the business I launched back in 2005. I had relocated to San Jose to take a job with Cisco Systems. I had 20 years in the I-Tech industry. I was not happy with the lifestyle and not happy with the challenges that come with that.

Q: So how did that transition into this field?

A: At the time while working for Cisco, right next door to our corporate headquarters was a state-run developmental center. One day, I happened to go over there, just because I wanted to see what it was. I sort of got looped into volunteering and that turned into an interest and I said it was time for me to change careers. I wanted to do something that has an impact.

I decided to shift gears and bring my management in technology to the world of special needs.

Q: When did that start and what did that entail?

A: The first business we launched, that was in 2001. I left Cisco, and a part of the leave package was I got Cisco to donate a lot of excess equipment to the nonprofit I was starting and I'm going to bring it over to the developmental center and we'll get these individuals who live here set up to use some of that technology at that time with laptops.

This was the very early stages of tablet computers, and I said that was the key. That was my initial goal was to assist them with technology. It was working with laptops and tablets to provide assistive technology to the individuals who lived at the developmental center.

I did that for a year and a half. We got that kicked off, and the state of California announced they would close the developmental center.

Q: Then what happened?

A: In 2005, a group of families came to me asking for help. They knew it would be a dumping center where kids would be shoved into dangerous neighborhoods and poorly equipped homes. I took my engineering background and thought of ways we could build innovative solutions for this.

We said, "Let's design new models, built for the health care needs, and incorporating some design innovations and making sure the homes are properly staffed." We were successful in getting several pieces of legislation passed that developed these new designs, and as a result of that 58 homes were opened to move 400 people into the community.

In 2010, the homes we opened transitioned into more of a transitional service provider and we transitioned back into the technology piece. I love doing residential care, but really my forte is looking at innovation and how we can take whatever services and how we can do that better. That's when we transitioned to social networking for families and individuals with special needs, so people could reach out and connect. It was setting up a website, starting a newsletter, and some online sales to the group home providers. We set up a web store for that.

Q: Daryl Kilstrom has said he wants to help the new executive director during the transition process and help that person get acquainted with the job before he leaves. How do you feel about that?

A: Fantastic. I have the greatest admiration for him because I know the effort it takes to build an organization like LifeQuest. What we built in California wasn't near as big, but I know those early growing pains that he's been through. I really welcome sitting down with him and I want to pick his brain and gather as much knowledge as I can. The only concern I have is two weeks might not be enough, which is the overlap that we have. But I understand he has some important things to attend to, too.