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THE IMPORTANCE OF LIFELONG SUPPORT SOMETHING SIDE BY SIDE (AND MARKS LAW GROUP) TRULY UNDERSTAND
I n the medical world, saving a life can be difficult, but supporting someone whose life has been altered by an injury is a whole other story — particularly if that someone has suffered a traumatic brain injury. The lives of these people are irrevocably changed, and they may have to relearn how to eat, talk, or walk and suffer from any number of other side effects. All the relearning requires coaches who provide constant guidance and support over the course of years, and that’s where we at Side by Side Brain Injury Clubhouse come in. My name is Cindi Johnson, and I am the founding executive director of Side by Side. Along with my administrative duties, I advocate for policy changes, raise funds, respond to medical emergencies, and help with clinical operations day to day. I do all kinds of things, and I’m thankful for my hardworking, passionate team that’s willing to wear a lot of hats. In a not-for- profit organization like Side by Side, “fast, fluid and flexible” is standard operating procedure. I’ve worked in brain injury rehabilitation since the 1980s, but I became disenchanted with the pervasive imbalance of resources when comparing saving lives to supporting lives. Quality of life was not something many insurance companies wanted to fund, and, as a cognitive rehabilitation therapist, I knew how important this matter truly is. Then I heard about the clubhouse model. Clubhouses were designed in the 1940s by people suffering from mental illness as a way to keep them out of hospitals and provide them with a community and support network. I heard of someone using the clubhouse model for people with brain injuries, and it seemed to be a way to really rehabilitate them outside of hospitals. With the help of some mentors and colleagues, we procured the funds for our clubhouse through Shepherd Center and Emory Healthcare in Atlanta. As per the agreement, the seed money those two hospitals gave us would last 2–3 years, and, once the money ran out, they would evaluate the effectiveness of our program. Well, it’s 20 years later, and we have tripled in size, bought our own building, and served over 600 people with traumatic brain injuries, as well as survivors of strokes and other brain-damaging illnesses.
The people we serve are members, not patients, because they play an active role in every aspect of running their Side by Side Clubhouse. They answer the phones, take care of the grounds, make lunch, clean the building, and get jobs in the community. They have friends and support networks, and they become contributing members of society again. But this service is not covered by health insurance. We have to raise around $400,000 a year to cover scholarship costs — and that’s where Aaron comes in. Every year, Side by Side hosts a basketball tournament called Jawbones vs. Sawbones. We invite the public to watch lawyers and doctors play basketball against the Harlem Wizards. A lot of law firms will sponsor the fundraiser, and it generates about 25% of our scholarship money for the year. Marks Law Group is a new sponsor this year, and Aaron and his son personally volunteered to make the event a success. But that’s not the only way Aaron’s firm helps Side by Side. This month, we have an annual reunion for our members’ families. We expect 100–150 people in attendance, and Aaron offered to sponsor the whole event, paying for everybody’s meals. That kind of dedication to community service is rare, and without his help, we wouldn’t be able to pay for this event. As someone who has represented people whose lives are affected by traumatic brain injuries, he truly understands the necessity of lifelong support. There are 5.3 million people in the U.S. with traumatic brain injuries, not including veterans or stroke victims, and caring for them costs around $76 billion annually. My job brings me joy on a daily basis because I get to work with people who are grateful for the second chance they get at life. Our members’ dedication to their own care is largely what makes it successful,
but Side by Side is happy to give them the tools, and we’re thankful for everyone who supports us in our mission. If you’d like to join in the effort, visit SideBySideClubhouse.org for more information. –Cindi Johnson
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