By KATHLEEN SHAW
Daily News-Record 8/20/20
Jumping hurdles from the health and education systems is an endless mental and emotional exercise for Amanda Morris as she works to provide care for her 13- year- old son, James, who sustained an acquired brain injury from hypoxia. In the era of COVID-19, most support systems and resources have disappeared, but Morris said one organization has backed her and her family since day one.
Brain Injury Connections of the Shenandoah Valley has provided online outlets and maintained contact with vulnerable clients throughout the pandemic and began to offer in- person meetings this week.
“They’ve been one of our strongest support groups through it because a lot of our other services have ended,” Morris said. “The pediatric support group that we’ve attended so far have been really helpful to see other families going through what we’re going through and not feel so alone.”
Executive Director Cindy Noftsinger said support group offerings have increased eightfold during the past few months, from in- person events once a month pre- pandemic to twice a week online connections.
Tuesdays are informal social hangout periods and Thursdays are more structured, therapeutic events. Opportunities for clients during the pandemic have ranged from therapeutic doodling to journaling and even a virtual field trip on Cinco de Mayo, featuring Latino music and images.
Outreach coordinator Emily Wishon organizes the support groups. Joining the organization in January and leading her first group meeting in February just before COVID- 19 meant tackling a steep, unknown learning curve, but Wishon said that after shutting down in March, online opportunities were available come April. While able to connect with clients and families over the phone, Wishon said it was important to provide outlets of socialization while everyone lived in isolation.
“We wanted our clients to have something to look forward to and living with a brain injury alone can be an isolating experience, and we wanted to make sure our clients knew we were there for them, even if we were unable to see them in person,” Wishon said.
Whether drawing or listening to music, Wishon said Brain Injury Connections worked to provide all the tools necessary for online activities by planning easy participation programs and mailing out necessary supplies. Morris said the group’s frequent check- ins have helped alleviate stress from the family, and the organization has supported her throughout various undertakings, big and small.
Two months ago, Morris submitted a proposal to Del. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, to change the Virginia Department of Education’s definition of brain injury to include acquired brain injuries through the help of Brain Injury Connections. Morris said the current definition excludes her son, so he is typically lumped together in classes for students with developmental disabilities.
“They’ve been a big support in helping advocate and educate the schools on his needs and why he may need different services than a student with just autism might,” Morris said. “They’ve always been there for whatever his need is.”
Noftsinger said Brain Injury Connections currently has seven pediatric clients and families on its caseload, and each family’s experience is unique, but there is a collective, shared struggle in juggling caregiving while several support systems have scaled back resources.
“We all know in human services how important trusted relationships are, and Zoom provides that connection, but it’s not the same as face to face options,” she said. “We all need, for our mental health’s sake, to be with one another again.”
Brain Injury Connections plans two pediatric support meetings each year, and the previously scheduled event in April was canceled due to COVID-19 restrictions. The makeup meeting took place Wednesday evening and was an informal, lighthearted gathering at Hillandale Park set to soft acoustic music provided by local musician Matthew Mozingo, with meals provided by Honey Baked Ham.
Today at 10 a.m., adult clients will meet at the park again for chair yoga, led by Cynthia Norris of The Nest Yoga and Fitness Studio.
Several community members have volunteered their skills for online lessons, such as Norris, who led three online yoga classes for clients. Woshin said the flexibility and support of outside volunteers means the world to clients as well as the organization.
“Our clients feel that, too. They know there is good out there and not everything is so dark and dreary. There’s still a lot of things to look forward to,” Woshin said.
Planning the nitty-gritty details of when, where and how the group meets can make all the difference in accessibility, according to Noftsinger.
“Working with brain-injured individuals, one thing we have to consider is the time of day we connect with them. … Many of them, with their injuries, are not early morning risers. It takes them a little while to get up and moving, so folks with brain injuries can be sensitive to high temperature and heat outdoors,” Noftsinger said. Wishon said online meetings continue to be the more accessible option for several individuals, granted they have access to the internet.
“It’s not always easy to get in touch with folks that are busy or clients that are living with a brain injury and not only gauging their interest but if they have the appropriate technology,” she said. “Our attendance online was already better than some of our in-person support groups because it’s more accessible, and no one needs to worry about transportation.”
Noftsinger said that as long as the weather and Gov. Ralph Northam’s directives allow, Brain Injury Connections will continue providing one weekly connection opportunity each week, and one Thursday each month will offer an in- person gathering, recorded and livestreamed for anyone unable to attend.