Inside the Gateway Clubhouse, a storefront on Garner Station Boulevard, I met eight brave people navigating life with severe brain injuries – a daily gathering of friends bent on living past random misfortune.
It’s rare that I meet such a relentlessly upbeat group, so it’s hard to describe this surprise on the Raleigh-Garner border. So I’ll just introduce everybody in the order they shook my hand.
First came Josh Griffin, 34, who got a dried pinto bean lodged in his throat as a 1-year-old boy, collapsing a lung and triggering cardiac arrest. He shook my hand and laughed that we share the same name.
Then came Roger Dawley, 53, who told me he landed on his head when a car struck his bicycle crossing New Bern Avenue. Two years later, he told me, he got hit by the same car on the same street. Different driver.
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Third, I met Tony Hoffmann, 38, who showed me where to get a cup of coffee. Afterward, he explained that he got thrown from the back of a pickup during his freshman year of high school. He flew 50 yards in that crash. “Half a football field,” Hoffmann said. “I had to learn everything all over again, like I was a baby.”
Next came Cindy, Milton, Heather, Tommy and Allyssa. Between them, they’ve survived car accidents, a brain tumor and an umbilical cord wrapped around a neck.
But at the clubhouse, which meets Monday through Thursday, they help each other steer through the world that hurt them, sharing setbacks, triumphs and company.
“They call me the daddy of the group because I’m old,” said Milton Cox, 61, who lived through a crash in 1990. “Before that, I worked for two or three of the big construction companies in Raleigh. Ended my career. I used to sing gospel music. Had my own gospel music bus and everything. My dad was a pastor. I’ve got a solo coming up at church. I hope it’s ‘Midnight Cry.’”
I got invited to the brain injury clubhouse by Sandi Bouchard at Community Workforce Solutions, a Raleigh nonprofit with a variety of programs to support the disabled, especially helping them into jobs.
From there I met Jessica Conard, program manager for the Gateway Clubhouse, who explained that funding comes from the state. This became abundantly clear an hour later, when I watched Hoffmann call nine different state legislators from the clubhouse phone, one at a time, pleading with them to support a traumatic brain injury Medicaid waiver.
“Thirty years is long enough to go without proper funding for our citizens living with a T.B.I.,” he told a variety of state answering machines Thursday. “We appreciate your support. Have a great day. Oh, yeah, and if you have any questions, you can call me back. This is Tony again.”
I asked Hoffmann if he’d gotten any calls back. He shook his head.
“I have a loud mouth,” he confessed. “I’m very outspoken. I like to get things done. When I speak up, I expect results.”
About 70 percent of the clubhouse members have jobs and another 20 percent are looking, Conard told me. Some live in group homes, some with family and some on their own. They man the clubhouse themselves, answering its phones and emails, tending the garden out back, typing up the notes from the morning meeting. Recreation comes at 2 p.m., and the day I visited, it consisted of Gabby the therapy dog.
Members interview staff seeking jobs in the clubhouse, including Conard, and 100 percent of the members report feeling more independent because they attend. On Monday, Griffin told me, he works for Meals on Wheels.
Without the clubhouse, Conard said, “Most of the time, they’ve been sitting at home incredibly bored.”
To spend a few hours at the clubhouse is to understand that the heart stays intact when the mind gets severely injured. I invite any legislator who has ever used the term “culture of dependency” and Medicaid in the same sentence to stop by. They’re running short on coffee, but Hoffmann will still pour any visitor a cup.