February 23, 2022 |

Advocating to Make a Difference

“To have an acquired disability is life-changing,” said Julie Reinert as she recounted the moment her son’s life changed. “He was in a motocross accident when he was 18 years old. That one second in time changed his life, and the lives of our entire family.”

From that moment 15 years ago, Julie has been advocating for her son, who now lives with a traumatic brain injury (TBI). In those first hours following the accident, she advocated for a new doctor at the hospital when she was told that Kory had a 0% chance of living. She knew Kory was a fighter. He survived and further defied doctors when, after two years, also regained his ability to walk.

“Kory has an awareness of who he was before the accident,” said Julie. “It frustrates him, understandably, that he can’t do the things he used to and he is impulsive. For me, finding housing and TBI-trained staff has been our biggest challenge. For him, he just wants a normal life and a place to fit in.”

In 2015, after years of struggle, Kory accepted placement in a residential program in Oklahoma. The plan was for Kory to live there for three months to complete a comprehensive assessment. It wasn’t until August 2019, after four years in Oklahoma, that he was among the first to live in Black Hills Works’ new “Governor’s House,” a home located near the agency’s The Brain Injury Rehabilitation Center (TBIRC), and made possible by a state grant secured by the Black Hills Works Foundation. TBIRC is the only program of its kind in South Dakota.

Kory is doing well now and is working toward achieving his goal of independence. He journals regularly and is working to publish his first book. Still, he recognizes that achieving his dreams will take time. “It’s like eating an elephant; one bite at a time.”

Julie, who is delighted to have Kory close to home, is now a full-time advocate and devotes her time to helping other families of individuals with developmental disabilities and brain injuries.

“South Dakota is a wonderful place to live unless you have a traumatic brain injury,” said Julie. “The system needs to change as countless families are impacted every day. We all worry about what will happen when we are gone.”

Recently, in January 2022, Julie and Kory had the opportunity to share their story with state legislators in Pierre. They met with several legislators, making the point that South Dakota citizens were struggling in silence at home, and for others, who were placed out of state, South Dakota taxpayers were paying for these services that could and should be available in the state at much less expense. They advocated for affordable housing, expanded supervised assisted living services, and higher wages to keep and maintain quality staff.

“We gave it our all, advocating for whoever we could get to listen,” said Julie. “I was so proud of Kory. He was so engaged in advocating for everyone with a disability in our state.”

Julie credits Dr. Justine Ashokar, the Director of TBIRC, for some of what has been achieved for TBI survivors. “Dr. Ashokar has gone above and beyond to help us secure funding from the state and has created the traumatic brain injury residential services blueprint for South Dakota, which restores my faith that exciting changes and opportunities are on the horizon for TBI survivors in our state.”

After their time in Pierre together, Julie had to laugh. “Kory said I need to respect Dr. Ashokar more, who I had been calling ‘Justine.’ ‘She earned the title of ‘Doctor,’ he’d tell me, and he’s right!”

Yet, even when admonishing his mom, Kory says the same about her.

“She has gone above and beyond to help me. I am making progress.”

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