Occupation: Northeast/Northwest Minnesota Toward Zero Deaths regional coordinator
What do you actually do? My background is business and public health. My job is two-fold. First I lead the interdisciplinary partnership of the five Es: enforcement, engineering, emergency medical services and trauma, education and everyone (including you) in a data-driven, evidence-based approach to reduce fatal and serious injuries on northern Minnesota roads. My job is to bring these partnerships together to look at each serious injury and fatal crash in our region and look at the contributing factors - speed, impairment (drug or alcohol), distraction and seatbelt use - to see our trends and make improvements. Since the inception of TZD, Minnesota has decreased deaths on Minnesota roads by 40 percent. I office in Duluth and Bemidji, and cover the most northern 19 counties.
Years in your job: Seven
Education: Bachelor’s degree in business communication and humanities from the College of St. Scholastica and a master’s degree in public health from Walden University, where I’m pursuing a doctorate in public health.
Family: Daughter of Gary and Dr. Diana Kostrzewski; sister to Tiffany Van Vooren; proud aunt to Zachary and Matthew Van Vooren; and proud honorary aunt to Tyler, Mireye and Tenique Moose.
Native of the area? I recently began calling myself a Duluthian when I realized I’ve lived here longer than where I grew up. I was raised in the Red River Valley on a potato and grain farm in the far northwest corner of the state in Stephen, Minn.
What drew you here? This story makes me laugh! My parents moved to Duluth after I graduated high school. I came to Duluth kicking and screaming, planning to stay for only one semester at St. Scholastica. Not only did I stay past that one semester, I graduated from CSS and have now lived in Duluth for 18 years.
Favorite place in the Northland: Superior Hiking Trail
How do you spend your free time? My Dad sustained a spinal cord injury three years ago and is paralyzed. I put aside finishing my doctorate so I could help my parents with this huge life change. I have returned to graduate school to finish my dissertation and earn a doctorate in public health. I have very little extra time. What I make time to do is hike the Superior Hiking Trail. There is not a bad section on that trail. I also enjoy serving as a motivational speaker and traumatic brain injury educator.
How can the Northland retain younger people? Provide jobs and help employees pay off their student loans. Perhaps help pay off student loans for those who went to college here and stayed.
Influential person in your life: I am surrounded by strong women who have been role models and pillars of strength, and who have helped make me the woman I am today. These women include Dr. Tammy Ostrander and Barb King, who without them I would not have succeeded in college with a brain injury.
I appreciate “The Lady Slipper” hiking gang, a group of women 30- to 60-years-old with whom I hike. As we hike the Superior Hiking Trail, we talk and laugh about life and provide support to each other.
Finally, my main pillars of strength are my mom, Diana, and my older sister, Tiffany. My sister has been ever-present, cheering me on through my darkest of days. I am also fortunate to have been raised by amazing parents who have been married for 43 years and have been through so many trials in life, including my brain injury at 18, and now my father as a paraplegic. My mom earned a degree per decade, while working full time and caring for her family. She is the most brilliant, dedicated, compassionate and caring person I have ever met. She instilled in me the values I use to pull myself up by my bootstraps and have a positive attitude, despite the twists and turns in life.
Biggest accomplishment? Since I became brain-injured at age 18, I think that filled my life with extraordinary value - when you have to fight to learn to walk, talk, read and write again, you value relationships, experiences and people more. I know who my support team was then, and those are the people I have carried with me as my family moving forward.
There are many accomplishments I’m proud of; however, the top of the list may be graduating with honors from college despite neurological testing suggesting I would not succeed in college.
I just re-launched my brain injury education/motivational speaking business and will be keynote at several upcoming rehab and neuroscience conferences. Part of my business is working with high-functioning, brain-injured women. There was not a service like this for women like me when I needed it. I’m not a therapist or counselor, but I have 18 years of experience living with a brain injury.
When I was 24 years old and the keynote speaker for an international conference on vocational outcomes after brain injury in Vancouver, British Columbia, I presented to an audience filled with neurologists, neuropsychologists and rehabilitation therapists. When I finished my presentation, all 500 in the room gave me a standing ovation. Not everyone with a brain injury has the ability to articulate what it’s like to live with a brain injury. God gave me that gift so I can help educate those serving people living with TBI.
I am so proud to be a part of the Toward Zero Deaths team working toward eliminating serious injuries and deaths on Minnesota roads. I always say to share the road and drive like you’d want to drive around your child. Everyone is someone’s child.
Three people – dead or alive – you’d like to have dinner with: Walter Matthau, as “Grumpier Old Men” is my favorite movie and he makes me laugh. James Corden because I enjoy his carpool karaoke, but I struggle with the traffic safety aspect of what is happening in the car and would love to have a chat with him about that! MaryEllen Weir, my beloved ballet teacher, who helped make me the woman I am today. She died too soon and I didn’t get a chance to tell her what she meant to me and say goodbye.
Five-year goals: Hopefully I will finish my doctorate within the next two years. I have an idea for a book that I’d like to see published by my mid-40s. I’d love to dance in Duluth’s Dancing with the Stars - not sure what constitutes a star in our fine city, but I would love to have that opportunity to dance again!
What’s the best book you’ve read recently? It wasn’t a book; it was a script for “Sense and Sensibility,” the play scheduled for later this fall at The Little Theatre at St. Scholastica. I’m doing some of the choreography for the show.
Social media: www.minnesotatzd.org and www.hopehumorinspiration.com