Nikki Thompson likens her job to the sweet side of being a parent—when the people they serve spread their wings and do a little flying.
“It’s so rewarding and inspirational,” says Nikki, who has worked as a direct support specialist for Black Hills Works for nearly a decade. “I feel like I have 28 kids and I’m getting to witness them progress and gain independence.”
Tyler Brink, a person the organization has served for several years, is a good example. Now 27-years-old, he wanted to move out of his mother’s house. Black Hills Works partnered with his family to make it happen. Tyler now rents a home with four other gentlemen, says Mary Corneliuson, a front line leader at Black Hills Works. The home has remote monitoring so they can receive support quickly.
There are 21,625 kids in South Dakota school district special education programs--all who will age out and graduate from the Department of Education and no longer be eligible for support. Most of them will transition into needing adult services with Community Support Providers to make a positive transition just like Tyler has done.
Source: South Dakota Department of Education, 2018.
In her 35 years with Black Hills Works, helping people they serve move toward independence is one of the rewarding parts of her job. “It’s interesting to see that light click on when they move out of their family’s house,” she says. “The laundry starts to pile up and the dishes are sitting there. The appreciation for the things their family did for them gets deeper. They nearly immediately become independent.”
Tyler is outgoing, sociable and loves technology. He’s always on the lookout for new apps and gaming equipment and loves taking things apart to see how they work. Moving out of his mother’s house was a learning curve, as it is with everyone. The realization that Tyler could make his own decisions slowly began to sink in.
“It happens when they go to the grocery store and they realize they can pick their own cereal,” Mary says. “Or they can spend their money how they wish, or they can stay up past 9pm and watch TV. They can make decisions they weren’t making before when they were with their family.”
Mary says Tyler is flourishing on his own, making his mark on the world. One of those steps was starting a part-time job at Ace Hardware. Mallory Buxton has worked as a direct support specialist at the organization for eight years and says Tyler has liked being part of the community through his job. “He’s really found something he enjoys,” she says. “It’s something that fits him perfectly.”
He has also participated in Flutter Production plays, and competes and travels to basketball games as part of Special Olympics. He’s also more vocal about his needs. “He communicates better with us directly now,” Nikki says, as he used to call his mother when he had a concern. “He’s matured and he’s more outgoing. It’s so cool to see how much he’s done.”
Nikki said Tyler’s story underscores the importance of an organization like Black Hills Works in the community—and in the state. Black Hills Works serves hundreds of families each year. The organization offers many residential options, including apartment living, a leased home, home ownership, group homes and family homes. Residential livings is an important step toward independence for many people they serve.
“For Tyler, he gets to go out into the world and make decisions for himself,” Mallory says. “Without Black Hills Works, there wouldn’t be as many choices for him, especially for living situations. A nursing home wouldn’t be right for him. If he doesn’t live with mom, then what?”
Nikki agrees. “Our organization is extremely important,” she says. “Without it, there are so many opportunities that would have been missed for people, or where they would have been brushed aside or stuck in stereotypes.”
The organization also partners with families to walk them through the journey of a member of their family moving out of the home. “Breaking ties is hard for parents too,” Nikki says. “So, we offer education and support for the parents and families as well.”
Tyler has a strong sense of family, Mary says, something that Black Hills Works supports and champions for many of the people it serves. He likes to attend relatives’ sporting events, celebrate birthdays and participate in vacations. Mary recalls him going out of his way to make sure he purchased a present for his father for a birthday. “He doesn’t forget those things.”
Black Hills Works has helped provide a healthy situation for him to grow up, she adds. “His family is in town and he can have that independence and growth but still be near them. He wouldn’t be happy if he didn’t have that.”