GENE DALTON/THE ROANOKE TIMES
Kristin Beindorf, service coordinator for Brain Injury Services of SWVA, shows Joshua Guthrie how to do chores independently.
PULASKI - He longed for an independent
life and his own apartment like other rambunctious teenagers, but
that seemed to be an impossible dream.
Joshua Guthrie's boyish tree-climbing
mistake left him with a brain injury six years ago. While the 18-year-old
graduated with honors from Pulaski High School last year, he couldn't
manage his schedule. He didn't know how to cook much more than a
microwave dinner. And he constantly relied on his grandmother to
clean his laundry and drive him around.
He was a wheelchair-bound teenager
trapped in a child's world.
But his life is changing. For a
few weeks, he has lived alone in an apartment. Once a week, a service
coordinator from the new Roanoke organization Brain Injury Services
of SWVA comes to his Pulaski apartment to help him learn independence.
Guthrie's family and others like
them owe much of their changed lives to a little boy named Jason
who died four years ago.
Greg and Fran Rooker formed the
Jason Foundation after their son died of a brain injury. They planted
the seeds that would sprout into new brain injury services for the
Roanoke and New River valleys. The foundation, an outlet to share
information and raise money, developed Brain Injury Services of
SWVA as separate organization. Through the new agency, brain injury
clients get one-on-one services that previously weren't available
in Southwest Virginia.
The foundation has also helped reignite
an education program at George Washington University that trains
students to understand brain injuries. There is no other program
like it in the country.
It all started in June 1996.
Jason Rooker was playing outside while his parents worked in the
yard at their home near Claytor Lake. The boy tied a rope to the
branch of a tree. Then he either fell or jumped from a 5-foot-tall
fence. The rope was choking him, and he would have died within minutes
if his parents had not found him quickly and administered cardiopulmonary
He lived for 15 months, but the
brain injury made him much like a newborn who needed to be fed and
The Rookers spent months searching
for information to help their child. They discovered that most people
knew little about brain injuries. Even doctors don't have access
to all the information and resources available.
They formed the Jason Foundation
shortly after his death. Through the foundation, the Rookers dispensed
brain injury information to people and raised money to help victims.
"Greg and I have said he [Jason]
must be up there laughing at how hard we're working down here,"
Fran Rooker said from her office in Radford. "Sometimes I have
very hard days and I wish that none of this had happened. On the
other hand, if it had never happened, there would be a lot of people
in Southwest Virginia that wouldn't have the services they need."
Neurologist David Thurman of the
National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion
said his organization estimates that traumatic brain injuries leave
more than 80,000 people with long-term or permanent disability.
Recent data suggests that at least one-third of the people hospitalized
with traumatic brain injury may have long-term consequences. Effects
can include memory problems and difficulty making decisions.
The Jason Foundation addressed those
needs. As the foundation grew, the Rookers decided they weren't
doing enough. They were helping people find resources, but they
weren't directly working with them. They started pulling information
together to create a new agency that could work one-on-one with
brain-injured clients. Brain Injury Services of SWVA was formed.
The Jason Foundation has stepped
back from some of its direct involvement with clients. Now the organization's
focus is on getting better legislation to help brain injury patients
and to continue educating others about brain injuries.
"This is a public health care
issue. This is the first time the Southwest has had a voice to ask
for funding," Rooker said. "We're just here in Southwest
Virginia and hoping the work we do reaches further than that."
Limited resources and people were
available at the state level to reach out to brain injury patients.
Often, patients don't know where they should go to get the services
Andrea Lewis, director of program
services for Brain Injury Services of SWVA, said many brain injury
clients don't qualify for help from Community Services. Instead,
they are on their own after they get out of the hospital, searching
for services that could make their lives easier. That's where Brain
Injury Services of SWVA steps into the picture.
Since July, service coordinators
have evaluated and paired clients with other organizations that
can help them. The assistance can be anything from home modifications
and behavioral training to recreation and leisure. The only other
similar program is in Fairfax.
Brain injury patients must be at
least 16 years old and need assistance in two or more areas of their
Service coordinators also work directly
with patients. Kristin Beindorf visits Joshua Guthrie once a week.
She helps him set goals and teaches him basic chores such as cooking.
He recently moved out on his own for the first time.
"It's like no rules and stuff,"
Guthrie joked after he had been living in his own apartment for
two weeks. "I like making decisions and stuff. I'm grown up
Now he's taking his first class
at New River Community College and planning for a career as a social
"It's been hard, and I'm happy
he's come as far as he has," said Guthrie's grandmother, Pat
Guthrie. "Part of this wouldn't have been possible without
Brain Injury Services."
Service coordinators also work with
clients' families. They give them personal support and help them
connect with families in similar situations.
Because of the help they are getting
from Brain Injury Services, Joshua Guthrie's grandmother is able
to focus more on her life rather than spend all of her time looking
"I really don't know what I
would have done without these people," she said. "I was
making it; I made it for four years, but I don't feel so alone anymore."
Brain Injury Services' fees are
based on income. There is no charge for patients on supplemental
income or Medicaid. Applicants can refer themselves to the organization
or they can go through another agency. By the end of the year, service
coordinators expect to work with at least 50 people.
The New River Valley Health Foundation
and the Carilion Health Fund kicked in funding to help Brain Injury
Services get started. The organization has enough money to continue
working with patients until June. After that, it will depend on
more grants or state funding.
Brain Injury Services of SWVA can
be reached at 344-1200.
The Southwest Virginia Invitational
Golf Challenge will be held Oct. 20-21. Proceeds will go to Brain
Injury Services of SWVA and the Roanoke chapter of the Brain Injury
Association of Virginia. For information, contact the Brain Injury
Association of Virginia at 343-5339.