- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 8, 2006

RICHMOND — Tom Stumm sat proudly at the front desk, fielding phone calls with his service dog, Tony, at his feet.

In the next room, Alphonso Hicks labored over a questionnaire, evaluating the work options available to him. Behind him, another member of the Mill House opened the snack bar, while those in other rooms tackled clerical and cleaning jobs.

It was a Monday afternoon, and like most places of business in the Richmond area, the Mill House buzzed with activity.

Work is what makes Mill House members akin to everyone else. The fact that they have survived traumatic brain injuries makes them akin to one another.

In technical terms, the Mill House, in Henrico County, is a vocational rehabilitation program for Richmond-area residents with brain injuries. It’s structured on a “clubhouse” model, which means that program members do the work to make it successful.

In emotional terms, the Mill House has become home to a family of about 40 members who have faced struggles that few others can understand.

“The people, they relate to me,” said Jermaine Williams, 22. “In my life, I’ve had a lot of heartache. I lost friends after my brain injury.”

At the age of 13, Mr. Williams was hit by a car as he walked down the road. He was hospitalized for six months, used a wheelchair for three months and spent years in outpatient therapy. A young man with an easy smile, Mr. Williams joined the Mill House in March 2004. In November, he landed a job at a Colonial Heights restaurant.

To get where they are today, Mr. Williams and other Mill House members have had to learn how to walk and talk again, as teens and adults. They have learned tricks to help improve their short-term memories, and they have lost spouses and friends who couldn’t adjust to their new needs.

“Survivors have a multitude of cognitive difficulties, behavioral difficulties and some physical difficulties as well,” said Jason Young, executive director of the Mill House. “The medical community helps them recover physically, but cognitive and emotional recovery is not what they do.”

That’s what the Mill House does.

At the Mill House, all the members have to work, and work together. Twice each day, they volunteer to complete tasks that range from emptying the dishwasher to typing notes from the daily meeting to writing articles for the monthly newsletter. Mill House members also clean the kitchen and the bathroom, set up and put away the tables and chairs used for lunch, and help prepare a communal meal three days a week.

Before the Mill House opened in 1999, Richmond had no dedicated resources for survivors of traumatic brain injury, Mr. Young said. Survivors could participate in programs for the disabled, but those programs do not provide rehabilitation specifically for people with brain injuries.

“I have friends here. We work hard together,” said Alphonso Hicks, whose 1995 car wreck put him in a three-month coma and left him temporarily unable to walk. “I’m blessed to be here.”

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