Center chooses to change lives

e4b72bc4-fd60-557c-a5a1-d4a7f3049ed9.preview-300February 10, 2007  *  The Citizen

AUBURN – A program that once helped save my life just became even more invaluable.

In May 2002, I was the victim of a mugging and assault in downtown Auburn, and I received a traumatic brain injury in the attack. I endured a seven-month hospital stay and at least two more years of intense rehabilitation.

To be blunt, I had to learn to live again.

My attacker, Natsu Carter, was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Meanwhile, the outpouring of support from the Auburn community was astounding, as I received literally thousands of sympathy cards and letters, and many people greeted me by name around the city.

During that difficult period, an agency called ElderChoice, which serves elderly patients and brain injury sufferers like me, was a remarkable help in teaching me how to live that new life.

On Friday, ElderChoice celebrated the grand opening of Choices for Change, its new Structured Day Program for traumatic brain injury sufferers, with facilities at 9 State St. in Auburn.

Among the amenities at the new office are a large central training area, an extensive media library with Internet access, and several counseling rooms.

“This is the first TBI (traumatic brain injury) Day Program in Cayuga County,” Peggy Skinkle, director of the new program (and my former service coordinator), said Friday.

Having had past difficulty finding transportation to programs in Syracuse or Rochester, she explained, the agency felt it could successfully establish its own.

My own experience with ElderChoice, while exceptional, was at times inconvenient because of the agency’s lack of a day facility. With the opening of Choices for Change, however, people in positions like mine have one less thing to worry about.

“The day program will be something that people can come to Monday through Friday to work with individuals, and to work on specific goals in a group setting,” Skinkle said during my personal guided tour of the facility.

One huge difficulty I had to overcome was washing dishes, an activity many people do without a second thought.

The facility’s new training area has two sinks, along with a stove, refrigerator and plenty of dishes. Next to the full kitchen is a washer and dryer, all supplied to aid in the training of TBI sufferers by the agency staff.

The media room is complete with shelves of books, a big-screen TV and a row of Internet-ready computers against one wall.

But hey, aren’t the computer desks a little high off the ground?

The desks are all handicapped-accessible, of course, Skinkle explained, allowing Web access to those who use wheelchairs.

At times during my own rehabilitation, I would burst into tears, frustrated with my difficulty in vacuuming the living room or something similar.

The Choices for Change office also had several “comfort” rooms and meeting areas furnished with cozy couches and pillows.

“These are places people can come to vent some anger, which I’m sure you know plenty about,” Skinkle said during my tour.

The program is open to any TBI sufferers in Cayuga County, not just ElderChoice consumers, Skinkle added.

My personal resurgence into the Auburn community has been a long and continuing process. Luckily I suffered no mental damage, so I’m slowly re-establishing a career as a freelance writer, including regular assignments from this newspaper.

Much as I have grown, so has ElderChoice.

“We want (Choices for Change) to be a place for people to come learn, vent some frustrations, and make some new friends,” Skinkle said.

It’s an agency to whom I owe a huge debt of gratitude.