November 26, 2023 |

Joe changed our world, Black Hills Works changed his

Black Hills Works is pleased to share the following letter, written by Trish Gulbranson. Her brother, Joe VanBockern, was supported by Black Hills Works for 40 years before his passing in 2016. His story, through her eyes, is a fitting contribution to our collection of stories during Black Hills Works’ 65th Anniversary.

As she shares, her parents, Harold (aka “Van”) and Emma (aka “Pat”), worked hard to find appropriate services for Joe during his youth. Their struggle parallels the challenges many families of children with disabilities faced in the 60s. Her forward-thinking parents eventually moved to Rapid City to secure support from Black Hills Works, a decision she now sees as inspired and one that changed Joe’s life immeasurably for the better.

Trish and her siblings – Lisa, Minna, Jean, Royce, and Tom –remain supportive of Black Hills Works, changing lives with their financial contributions, just as Joe’s life was made full by donors before them.  

Update: Trish’s sister, Lisa, and her husband, Eugene, on behalf of the VanBockern Dean Family Foundation, have agreed to match, dollar for dollar, all donations received by December 31, 2024, up to $65,000, in celebration of Black Hills Works’ 65th Anniversary. Like Trish, Lisa is so very grateful to Black Hills Works for giving Joe the life he had.

Read Trish’s beautiful blog and then double your donation today!


Joe changed our world, Black Hills Works changed his.

Submitted by Trish Gulbranson

I grew up in a small farming community in South Dakota with two brothers and three sisters. My brother, Joe, who was born with Down syndrome, was 2 years older than me. 

I remember as a small child in the early 1960s going to visit Joe in Redfield, South Dakota, at an institution for people with intellectual disabilities. My parents, like so many other parents in that era, were just following the guidance of professionals, but it never felt right to them or me.  I remember the big iron gates closing when we left from our visits with him. He was being locked in. Contrast that to Black Hills Works and you can see how this organization changed the world – changed our world!

Joe eventually spent most of his childhood at home with our family and there was a small school in our little town for people with disabilities. Joe then spent his teen years a few hours from home at the University of South Dakota in a group home. 

During my senior year of high school, my parents retired to Rapid City and we took Joe with us. They secured services through Black Hills Works for Joe. 

We had no idea how impactful Black Hills Works would be! Initially, Joe received day education from Black Hills Works and lived at home. When he became an adult, he lived at Black Hills Works. He always had a job, most notably at Rapid City Regional Hospital (now called Monument Health), retiring just 5 years before his passing. Joe never met a stranger, always ready with a hug or handshake. He also strumming his guitar and singing, food, pretty girls, the Dukes of Hazard, shopping bowling, and especially traveling. He took lots of vacations! 

Joe was supported by Black Hills Works for almost 40 years until he passed away in 2016. The people at Black Hills Works were so good to Joe. Even in his sunset years, he enjoyed spending his days at Black Hills Works day education center, doing latch hook projects and painting. I’ll never forget the tears his Black Hills Works family had for him at his funeral service, the stories they told, and all their kind words. 

I have a long history of trust for this organization. My father was on the Black Hills Works Board of Directors for a period of time, and he and my mom always talked about what a class act Black Hills Works is. When my parents passed away over 20 years ago, my sister, Jean, became Joe’s guardian. She shared my parents’ perspective, saying that all her interactions with Black Hills Works were so positive. 

Why do I choose to continue to donate to Black Hills Works, even now after Joe has passed? 

I feel indebted to the life Black Hills Works gave Joe. Black Hills Works was his family too. They didn’t just develop him, but they truly cared about him. I also donate because I trust that Black Hills Works will use my contributions wisely, which is something I consider before donating to any organization. 

Joe was a very special part of our family. He was so funny and we have “Joe-isms” that we continue to repeat because they still make us laugh! Black Hills Works brought out the best in Joe and allowed him to flourish. My parents always said that Joe and Black Hills Works were gifts. Joe taught us compassion, acceptance, and how to laugh. Because of him, we met the amazing people at Black Hills Works.  Because of Black Hills Works, Joe exceeded even our expectations in so many ways, but none more than the love and laughter he shared with his family, friends, and staff. 

We shall forever be indebted to Black Hills Works for his care and their love. 

About the Author: Trish Gulbranson, Joe’s younger sister, is the founder and CEO of Derma Health. Founded nearly 20 years ago, Derma Health’s mission is to change thousands of lives by Uplifting, Inspiring and Encouraging. To learn more, visit dermahealthinstitute.com.


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