by Doug Prince
The Long Road Home
The effects of brain injuries are often complicated and perplexing. Some individuals have obvious disabilities and may be confined to a wheelchair; others seem to be unscathed, yet cannot take care of themselves day to day. People around them are often confused and perhaps embarrassed by them. The result, and perhaps the biggest challenge and danger facing the head
injured, is isolation. "The way I put it is that a lot of us are sitting home smoking cigarettes and watching TV," Krempels says. "That may not be really fair, but it describes the problem."
o in February 2000, Krempels approached the directors of the 2001 Fund with a new idea. "I had become fascinated with this clubhouse idea--a place where people could meet and socialize in addition to obtaining services they might require. I asked the board to commit to it, and we hired Effie Malley, who really knows how to get things going." The result was a new community service program called Steppingstones, which opened for business at Portsmouth's Community Campus on Oct. 18.
On Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings, by the big stone fireplace in the atrium of the Community Campus, the members of Steppingstones circle for their community meeting. Seated, standing, a few in wheelchairs, they represent a variety of ages, backgrounds, circumstances. But their common bond--a brain injury caused by a fall, car crash, industrial accident, stroke, tumor, or even gunshot--makes for close connection, understanding and friendship. The camaraderie comes through in smiles and expressions, touches and the in-jokes they exchange, sometimes with words so halting or slurred that only a practiced ear can catch the meaning.
Leading the meeting is Carrie Fagner, executive director of the eight-month-old program, which already serves some 80 members. An animated young woman, she holds the group's attention with a blend of energy, enthusiasm and tenderness, leaning forward to speak, softly but clearly, as she describes the day's opportunities to "socialize, relearn old skills and acquire new ones, and contribute whatever they feel they can."
This meeting is the touchstone of the program. One by one the members speak their names (many head-injured people have a hard time remembering names) and state their preferences for the day's activities. On this particular morning, one member from the gardening group suggests that the members might plant flowers along the building's walkway. The travel group is taking an imaginary trip to Japan, meeting in the craft room to make fans, discuss Japanese culture and begin planning a Japanese meal. There is a report about a missing member's hospital stay, and a thank-you card goes around the circle for signatures. It will be sent to the person who organized a recent trip to a legislative hearing on funding for handicapped programs.
"This is a member-driven program," says Fagner, who came to Steppingstones after working at more traditional programs for people with disabilities. "Our members find their own level of participation, picking the activities they enjoy and find rewarding. There is something here for everyone."
Each day is structured so that members can come when they want and participate as long as they want. Activities are organized in one-hour blocks. The program is coordinated by Fagner and managed collaboratively by members, their personal-care attendants and students and faculty members from the occupational therapy department at the University of New Hampshire.
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