Joe changed our world, Black Hills Works changed his

December 9, 2023 | Black Hills Works Newsroom, Uncategorized

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 and Emma, 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.


The Impact of a DSP: Sheila and Waylon

December 9, 2023 | Black Hills Works Newsroom, Uncategorized

Waylon joined Black Hills Works two years ago, moving from the South Dakota Developmental Center in Redfield to participate in our behavioral health program. He loves to be outside, go to the park, and visit car shows and monster truck rallies. He likes his staff, especially Sheila, who also serves as his advocate. “Black Hills Works is Waylon’s family,” she says. He always waves excitedly from his window when he sees her arrive at the Black Hills Works apartment building where he lives. 

Sheila herself began working at Black Hills Works in November 2022, and she knew right away this was the place for her. “This is my calling. I like to help people and offer support.”

The behavioral health program provides a range of services to adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities who are also experiencing high mental health needs. Supports are provided with opportunities to overcome their behavioral challenges. 

Sheila notes, “Most of the people supported in this program don’t have family or many informal supports. That is what makes me so passionate about my job! I want to help the people I support to have the safe and fulfilling life they deserve.”

The growth that Waylon has experienced in his short time at Black Hills Works is astounding. “He is a testament to the power of good supports,” Sheila proudly reports. “He’s very fun and likes to be around groups.”

When he first joined Black Hills Works, Waylon used a wheelchair, was nonverbal, and was almost noncommunicative. Staff worked diligently with him to build muscle strength. He is now able to walk with a walker and has much more freedom as a result! Through speech therapy, he is learning to use a communication tablet. Waylon also uses sign language with his staff. With a chart, he can choose a restaurant to eat at every Tuesday. He uses the pictures at Walmart.com to indicate to his staff what food he would like to purchase as they plan his weekly menus.

The Black Hills Works assistive technology team, along with staff like Sheila, have been instrumental in supporting positive behavioral changes. Waylon loves going for rides so much that he often refused to go back into the building upon returning home. By adding wheels to a large sled, the assistive technology team created a fun game that helped Waylon transition more easily back into the building.

Waylon isn’t the only one, however, who has experienced benefits. Working in the behavioral health program has impacted Sheila personally. “People take so much for granted. This job reminds me every day of how much I have to be grateful for. It also has helped me be a better mom. My experiences here have shown me what is important to teach and show my kids.”

Sheila says that, when you’re employed as a DSP (direct support professional) or behavioral health technician, “The positivity you receive from the people we support makes it all worth it. You know you are making a difference! The training you receive and the team you’ll be working with are phenomenal! At the end of the day, we are all in this together to ensure the people we support are living their best lives.” 

Thanks to the passion and commitment of Black Hills Works staff like Sheila, hundreds of individuals we support, including Waylon, are thriving and growing. Our direct support staff are the heart of all that we do, and our entire community is a better place because of them.

The Works – Q3 2023

December 9, 2023 | Black Hills Works Newsroom, Uncategorized

The most recent edition of the The Works newsletter is now available!

In this edition of The Works, you will meet Peggy and Tracy, just two of our 65 faces for 65 years! Your generosity means that Peggy, Tracy, and all their friends lead very full lives! You will also read about the Hettich family’s Special Olympics memorial fund, brand new bocce ball courts, and more! Information about our upcoming Sapphire Jubilee, our annual gala, event is also included! 

Thank YOU for your impact. Thank YOU for changing lives! 

Hettich Family Establishes Special Olympics Memorial Fund

December 9, 2023 | Black Hills Works Newsroom, Uncategorized

Sports were everything to Gary Hettich.

Born with Down syndrome in 1967, Gary’s parents, Linda and Dennis, never considered “sending him away” as some professionals encouraged. 

“Gary never felt he was different,” said Linda. “From a very young age, the community embraced him.” 

Starting in the 3rd grade, Gary began competing in Special Olympics. Swimming, softball and basketball were his favorites. 

Special Olympics event were a family affair. Dennis coached softball for 30 years and the Hettichs grew close to other families who had loved ones participating. 

“Special Olympics was not just for Gary,” said Linda. “It was family. We made lifelong friends. I don’t know what we would have done without it.” 

Their connection to other families only grew when Gary began receiving services from Black Hills Works. Through Black Hills Works, they also met Bill Clucas who was a great part of Gary’s life, and instrumental in many people’s lives, shared Linda. 

When Gary passed away in 2020, Dennis and Linda knew the best way to honor his memory was to establish a memorial fund to help athletes without the resources to participate – many of whom were Gary’s friends.

When Dennis passed away a year later, Linda was able to also honor Dennis’ memory with gifts to their Special Olympics memorial fund.  Linda knew that was what he would have wanted. It was always their hope that the fund support athletes-in-need well into the future.

“Our time with Special Olympics Storm team at Black Hills Works were some of the best times of our lives,” said Linda. “Special Olympics brought families together. We want to give that blessing to other families.” 

We are grateful to the Hettichs for their thoughtful generosity. 

The Dennis & Gary Hettich Memorial Fund is helping to ensure no one is left out of the joy of competition and friendship – a fitting tribute to a father and son for whom Special Olympics was everything. 

The Workplace — July 2023

December 9, 2023 | Black Hills Works Newsroom

View and download the July 2023 edition of The Workplace by clicking the image below.

Parents’ Advocacy Inspires All-Ability Theater

December 9, 2023 | Black Hills Works Newsroom, Uncategorized

Today, thanks to community support, Flutter Productions is a vibrant part of Black Hills Works, providing theater opportunities for people of all abilities. 

The inspiration for Flutter Productions and all-ability performing arts in South Dakota, however, started with one man almost two decades ago: Dr. Ron Reed. 

His daughter, Kathy, has been supported by Black Hills Works for 34 years. Like so many of the people we support, her story is one of determination and defying the odds. Now in her fifties, doctors advised Kathy’s parents to send her to live at the state institution when she was only a toddler. Dr. Ron and Marian Reed fiercely ignored that advice, knowing she deserved more. As her mom says, “We refused to warehouse her.” 

At the time, Dr. Reed was the chair of the theater program at the University of South Dakota. Mrs. Reed taught composition and literature there. The Reeds were excited to accept positions at Purdue University in Indiana because of the new programs being put into place for kids like Kathy and relocated for a time.  

Governor Richard Kneip, however, was so determined to bring the Reeds back to South Dakota that he even asked the governor of Indiana to release Dr. Reed from his contract at Purdue without Dr. Reed knowing. Dr. Reed then became the Secretary of Education and Cultural Affairs and helped bring about groundbreaking progress for individuals with disabilities South Dakota. In an uphill battle, he successfully helped Governor Kneip implement special education programs throughout the state. Meanwhile, Kathy thrived in the program at Kibben Kuster School in Rapid City and was part of the last graduating class there. Her father later spent 13 years working for Black Hills Special Services.

After finishing high school, Kathy began attending day services at Black Hills Works while living at home. Kathy’s parents took her everywhere (and still do!), including play practice when they were acting or directing. One evening, Kathy asked to join the actors onstage for curtain call at a dress rehearsal at Black Hills Community Theater. Witnessing her excitement as she stood onstage, her dad knew it was time for adults with disabilities to take their place in the spotlight. 

In 2006, Kathy and other performers from Black Hills Works participated in a joint production of Oklahoma. This paved the way for Heather Pickering to found Flutter Productions, the first all-ability theater company in South Dakota. Kathy’s mom notes, “Everybody learns from mixed ability theater.” 

This year, Flutter Productions celebrates its fifteenth anniversary! Over the years, Kathy was involved in several of its performances and still remembers the songs she learned for Oklahoma.

Today, the Reeds are enjoying retirement. Kathy lives with them, and they clearly adore her. She enjoys puzzles, memory games, color coordinated outfits, and painted fingernails. But most of all, she loves music! Her mom teases Kathy about her singing, and Kathy jokes back, “Offkey! Loud!”  

The determination of Dr. Ron and Marian Reed ensured that not only Kathy, but all citizens of South Dakota with disabilities, have the resources needed for their education as well as amazing opportunities like Flutter Productions.

Thanks to the support of people like you, Flutter Productions has grown and thrived for 15 years!  Please considering donating to Flutter or purchasing tickets to their upcoming performance of “Alice’s Adventures” so the work that began by the Reeds so many years ago can continue to inspire and provide opportunities.

Annual Community Impact Report – 2022

December 9, 2023 | Black Hills Works Newsroom, Uncategorized

Black Hills Works’ 2022 Community Impact Report, “Opportunities Imagined,” is now available!

Jackie, a person we support who is also employed in our central kitchen, is featured on the front cover. She’s just one of nearly 600 people with disabilities whose days were filled with opportunities you helped make possible!

Your contributions help Jackie and her friends secure meaningful employment, perform on stage with Flutter Productions, participate in their favorite sport as part of Special Olympics, create beautiful art at the Suzie Cappa Art Center, and so much more!

Please download your copy of “Opportunities Imagined” to see all that you made possible in 2022! Thank you!

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The Workplace — June 2023

December 9, 2023 | Black Hills Works Newsroom

View and download the June 2023 edition of The Workplace by clicking the image below.