Upon retirement, Gil Kim was ready to move back to Mississippi to be closer to his two grandchildren, Colebea, 10, and Oliver, 7. Gina Kim, Gil’s wife, was not quite as ready. After being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (PD) in 2011, Gina and Gil had built an intricate support system that worked for them, physically and mentally.
“We were never the type of people who would take a prescription and just wait,” Gil said. “Thanks to the Parkinson’s Foundation, we had a wealth of resources at our fingertips. We knew exercise was vital, so Gina became a boxer, pole walker, and a practitioner of Tai Chi. She joined clinical trials.” Living in Atlanta, GA, they were mere miles away from a movement disorders specialist (a neurologist trained in PD), a Rock Steady Boxing gym, their support groups. Gil volunteered and served on numerous PD groups. But eventually, Gina agreed to move to Mississippi, if Gil helped her build a support system.
Utilizing his strengths amassed from a 40-year career with the Army Corps of Engineers, Gil created a blueprint. “I was replicating a model that worked,” he said. He would soon find out that he was not only building themselves a Parkinson’s support system, but he was building one for an entire state.
“We relied on the Parkinson’s Foundation to help build our support community,” Gil said. He reached out to his Parkinson’s Foundation network in Georgia to help him plan a local PD symposium in Mississippi. Together, he and Gina launched a monthly support group, and one for caregivers.
Next, they applied and received a Parkinson’s Foundation community grant called “What’s Up, Doc?” The series of meetings aimed to bring together the newly diagnosed in the local PD community to inform, engage, and get them involved. “In our first meeting, a woman and her husband attended, she looked frightened to be there and frightened about PD, but by the end of it, she had a smile and told me ‘I’m happy,’” Gil said.
Gil is familiar with Parkinson’s Foundation resources because he has relied on them for more than a decade, through the various stages of Parkinson’s and caregiving. “Every week or two I hear from another Mississippian looking for help and hope,” Gil said. “I always suggest they call the Helpline and recommend they sign up for PD Health @ Home virtual events — these are game changers for people in rural areas, like Mississippi, where other resources are not available.”
Gil continued building the buttresses of a PD support system. Exercise was next. He found a local church that had built a boxing gym, provided coaches and volunteers that would ultimately host Rock Steady Boxing classes. Twice a week Gina and up to 30 people in the local PD community attend a boxing class.
Today, more than 60 people attend the local monthly support group meetings Gil and Gina set up. In their most recent meeting, Gil secured a movement disorders specialist from Dallas, TX, to speak with the group. To take it a level up, a volunteer donates to the support group, which Gil leverages into designing a healthy meal for every attendee. “Being an engineer organizer, I like to plan. Gina and I plan and prepare a healthy meal. We walk away from every meeting with a full stomach, full of knowledge and a happy face.”
Gil has succeeded in replicating a PD model that works for his wife. “We do things together. It’s all about not only taking care of her, but at the end of the day we help other people,” Gil said.
While Gil is dedicated to his PD community, he also makes moves on a national scale, helping guide the Parkinson’s Foundation through serving on its People with Parkinson’s Advisory Council and regionally on the Gulf Coast Chapter Advisory Board (President elect). He also helps guide the Rock Steady Boxing group. “It’s an honor to get involved — all of this involvement is dedicated to making life better for my wife,” he said.
Every April, Gil and his team submit a proclamation to make April Parkinson’s Awareness month and take a trip to meet with the governor to receive the signed document. “This year, we took a group of 30 people, and I knew I’d have a chance to speak with him, so I asked him, ‘do you know our state does not have a movement disorders specialist?’” Gil said. “He was surprised. I then told him my wife had to go out of state for deep brain stimulation surgery, but not everyone has the opportunity. My goal in letting him know we don’t have an MDS was so the next time he talks to a medical board or group of professionals, he could bring it up.”
In just four short years since their move, Gil and Gina have brought resources and events that bring people together, including helping launch Mississippi’s first-ever Moving Day, A Walk for Parkinson’s. But they have also found unlimited joy in grandparenting.
“My wife’s Parkinson’s is gradually progressing, and we love traveling, so a few years ago we began taking one grandchild at a time on a trip,” Gil said. Playing to their strengths as a retired teacher and engineer, they design each trip, complete with itineraries articulately built around history lessons, to cater to their grandchild’s individual interests. “We took our grandson to New York for a week. Our granddaughter to Paris. I know PD is depressing for a lot of people, but you have to look at everything going forward. Look at all the money we saved all our life, let’s go spend it. I’m sharing our story with them.”