Brain Injury Services of SWVA offers them help to live independently
Agency turns tragedy into hope for people with brain injuries
The organization grew out of the Jason Foundation, which was begun by a couple soon after their son died.

The Roanoke Times September 2, 2001


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 resuscitation.

He lived for 15 months, but the brain injury made him much like a newborn who needed to be fed and clothed.

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 they need.

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 life.

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 and everything."

Now he's taking his first class at New River Community College and planning for a career as a social worker.

"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 after him.

"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.


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