Looking at the nondescript office space of University Place’s Brain Energy Support Team, it’s hard to know what the nonprofit organization does. It’s even hard to tell when it’s open. The traditional fluorescent lighting is off; natural light and the glow of dim incandescent bulbs fill the rooms.
This is the environment BEST founder Penny Condoll and executive director Gloria Kraegel have created to welcome clients, mostly survivors of traumatic brain injury, who don’t do well under harsh lights.
The office on Bridgeport Way is staffed minimally — Kraegel is the only paid employee — but its impact on the state’s traumatic brain injury community is invaluable, said Bruce Santy, co-chairman of the state’s Traumatic Brain Injury Council.
“They put boots on the ground out there and create a social network of support for TBI survivors and their families,” Santy said. “That is so important.”
Through a contract with the state, BEST establishes support groups around Washington for brain injury survivors, their families and caregivers.
The nonprofit has created close to 70 such groups and set up a network for facilitators to receive continuing education. It has five groups in Tacoma alone.
“When you’ve suffered a traumatic brain injury you were one way, your life was one way, and in a matter of a finger snap or a light switch going off or on, your life is different and you don’t know why,” said Suzann Hollar, a TBI survivor.
Hollar leads a support group in Olympia and works closely with Kraegel and Condoll.
“By going to a group you discover that you’re not alone, that there are other people out there,” Hollar said. “Your family doesn’t understand. They keep thinking ‘We’re going to give you a pill and you’re going to get better.’”
Awareness of TBI has grown in recent years. Santy attributes that to the return of service members from Iraq and Afghanistan with head injuries or post traumatic stress disorder. Reports of athletes with long-term effects from concussions, especially in the National Football League, have also helped, he said.
It’s estimated at least 30,000 people in Washington experience TBI each year, according to the state brain injury council. Conservative estimates show 135,000 people in the state live with a long-term disability as a result of brain injury, the council reports.
But there’s still a lack of resources for survivors.
What sets BEST apart is that it was “built for and by individuals with brain injuries and their caregivers,” said Kraegel.
Condoll suffered a brain injury in 2003 that left her unable to return to her job as a social worker. She founded BEST in 2007. It received nonprofit status in 2010, and she opened office space in University Place last September. The agency expanded last month, opening a learning center next door.
Steilacoom resident Paul Bishop is not sure where he would be without BEST. A stroke left him with a brain injury two years ago. Doctors gave him a dismal prognosis, saying he’d never live on his own. Feeling lost and in survival mode, Bishop connected with BEST. He now lives on his own and volunteers as the organization’s outreach coordinator.
“If I was to think about going to work at a regular job, I wouldn’t be able to go in every day because I have bad days,” Bishop said. “I can’t keep up on a fast-pace job where your brain has to work really hard.”
Bishop leads a program in which BEST clients sew bags and fill them with essentials for brain injury survivors when they leave the hospital. Inside are toiletries, pamphlets and information about services in the community.
Such services are essential to survivors’ success, Santy said.
“Medical support doesn’t treat the whole person,” he said. “It doesn’t build the kind of support that a traumatic brain injury survivor and their family need to move forward and improve their quality of life.”
That’s why the state Legislature approved the Tommy Manning Act in 2007, which led to the establishment of the Traumatic Brain Injury Council a year later. The council identifies gaps in services for Washington TBI survivors and finds solutions.
One way the council does that is by partnering with BEST, Santy said.
“They’ve done a remarkable job of providing support to the TBI community,” he said. “ I think it’s because of their passion and their commitment. I think they’ve done some pretty amazing things and built collaborative teams across the state.”
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