Southwest Virginia Enterprise, September 6,1997


Sixteen months ago on June 13, 1996, 10-year-old Jason Rooker accidentally hanged himself with a toy lasso while playing in the front yard of his home at Claytor Lake. On Thursday, Sept. 4, he died in his bed.

The months between were filled with tears and heartache for him, his family and their friends. However, the months were also filled with hope, smiles, laughter and lessons.

Jason was the son of D. Gregory and Fran Rooker of Pulaski County. Rooker is the owner and president of Family Community Newspapers of Southwest Virginia which publishes The Smyth County News & Messenger, The Bland County Messenger, and The Southwest Virginia Enterprise.

The Rookers found their son's body Thursday when they went to wake him for breakfast around 7 a.m. The cause of death is not known, and there are no plans to perform an autopsy.

The June 1996 accident cut off oxygen to Jason's brain for approximately 10 minutes causing severe brain damage. According to a state police report filed at the time, he tied a rope to a tree branch, climbed a 5-foot fence post and then either jumped or fell. His parents used CPR to revive Jason soon after they found him hanging from the tree. He was rushed to Carilion Roanoke Community Hospital and remained there until he was listed in stable condition. He was then transferred to Kluge Children's Rehabilitation Center in Charlottesville where he began a steady struggle to recover use of his body. Family and friends celebrated Jason's 11th birthday at Kluge and stayed by his side for 10 months until he was brought home in April.

Jason's struggle was also a lesson in life for his father. "I always felt I could make my way, and as a newspaperman, and as an entrepreneur, I've done that," Rooker said. "But this experience has showed me I haven't got anything in my hands but just right now. And it's showed me how desperately important other people are and can be and have been to us."

Community support for Jason and his family began pouring in from around the region shortly after Jason's accident and remained strong until his death. During the first few months, the Rookers' strongest request was for prayer. They believe it was prayer that brought Jason back to consciousness and lessened his medical problems so that therapy could begin.

The physical support was at its strongest after Jason was brought home. The many offers of "Let me know if there is anything I can do" were finally put to the test and more than 70 volunteers began taking an active role in Jason's daily life.

To prepare for Jason's return home, his parents had traveled to Philadelphia to learn a technique called patterning which attempts to retrain injured parts of the brain. The patterning technique required five people - one on each of Jason's arms and legs and one at his head - to move his body in a simulation of crawling. The sessions were repeated three times a day each day, lasting an hour and a half per session.

Jason Rooker lets out a hearty laugh in the presence of Chuck Briendel, one of the many volunteers who worked with the brain-damaged 11 year old before his death


Volunteers were recruited by phone calls and word-of-mouth, through the family's church, and through flyers posted at libraries, schools and fitness centers. Charlie and Laraine Simpson were among the volunteers. Like many others they were taught the patterning technique by the Rookers and came to the house to work with Jason once or twice a week.

"It was all about everyone really having the same goal, I guess wanting to help," Laraine Simpson said. "And Fran and Greg, it's their child. And they did everything, everything possible to improve the situation. And it was coming, it really was; very slowly, but it was coming.

"It's very sad," she said. "I'm not sure how sad it is for Jason; I think God has his own way of taking care of things. But for us, it's hard."

When talking with any of the volunteers, there are stories about Jason's smile that lit up his face and eyes when he was kissed by a pretty girl or when his father told a funny story from Jason's early childhood. Thursday afternoon visitors at the home looked through pictures taken of volunteers playing and laughing with Jason. Smiles and laughter slowly replaced the tears as family and friends began swapping stories.

"He had a wonderful sense of humor and smile even after all this tragedy had happened to him," said Donna Buchanan, Jason's occupational therapist.

The Rookers plan to form The Jason Foundation to act as a clearinghouse for information on brain injuries. Despite all their connections, the parents had a tough time finding information on new techniques and research. Rooker wants the next person to have an easier time.

Memorial services for Jason will be held Sunday, Sept. 7, at 6 p.m. at the St. Jude Catholic Church in Radford, with Father Jim Grealish officiating. The family will receive friends from 4 to 6 p.m. at the church. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that contributions be made to the Building fund of St. Jude's Catholic Church or to The Jason Foundation c/o The Lazarus Foundation, P.O. Box 574, Bristol, Tennessee 37620.


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