Non-profit navigates brain injury recovery, advocates for prevention

James Madison University received 22,057 applications for the Fall of 2016.  The Virginia Department of Health states a higher statistic—28,000 Virginians each year experience a brain injury.

These 28,000 learn to battle and cope with complications as they attempt to regain stability in thinking, working, and maintaining social relationships.  Often, misconceptions or lack of resources present barriers to treatment.  So, in comes Crossroads, a non-profit affiliate of the Institution for Health and Human Services at JMU that provides case management and education when brain injuries occur.

“Crossroads to Brain Injury Recovery, Inc. is the result of years of grassroots mobilization led by a local person who was a caregiver for her son who sustained a brain injury,” said Executive Director Tamara Wagester.

Services span across Virginia’s sixth planning district, covering localities in Rockingham, Highland, Bath, Augusta, and Rockbridge.  A satellite to the office at JMU operates in Fishersville and provides rehabilitation and workforce aid.

Cost-effectiveness is a core value of the non-profit.  By not requiring fees for service, Crossroads ensures that help is always available to those who could benefit.

“We are committed to serving those with the greatest needs and the least resources,” said Wagester.

Case managers help clients navigate their way through recovery systems after suffering an injury.  Services may aim to get individuals back into the classroom or the workplace, provide household care, or assist with finances and medical paperwork.

“Crossroads’ services are designed to meet the needs of the individuals we serve to maximize the person’s independence in the community,” said Wagester.  “By increasing independence and involvement in life activities, the overall cost to the community will be decreased as individuals will become more productive and less dependent on government or community support.”

Aside from case management at the micro level, Crossroads takes a macro level approach to brain injury prevention.  In the past, the non-profit has spoken at colleges, public schools, community organizations, and health fairs.

“Education equals prevention,” said Wagester.

Educational programs differentiate between traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and non-traumatic brain injuries, explain the signs and symptoms of injuries, and correct misconceptions.

According to Wagester, one common misconception is that brain injuries have a brief recovery period and temporary effects.

“Every brain injury is different and every recovery process is different,” said Wagester. “Only time will tell what the level of recovery will be. It is more likely that life will have a ‘new normal.’”

Another belief to correct is that a concussion does not count as a TBI.

“A concussion is a jolt to the head and it can change the way your brain normally works,” said Wagester.  “Getting diagnosed as early as possible and then seeking treatment or rehab, if necessary, is crucial.”

Throughout practice, Crossroads emphasizes five core values: respect, collaboration, integrity, innovation, and cost-effectiveness.

“Brain injuries can happen to anybody, of any age, from any walk of life, of any religion or race,” said Wagester.  “We are committed to being honest, accountable and professional in our relationships and communications.”


Vine & Fig connects environmentalism to humanity, creates green safe haven

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What do building a self-heated shower, temporarily housing refugees, supporting international engineering projects, and raising chickens have in common?  They are all underway at a little blue house in Downtown Harrisonburg, Vine & Fig.

A partner of Our Community Place and member of the national New Community Project, Vine & Fig exists to “build a more just and peaceful world where all can live in integrity,” according to   The organization takes a systems approach to create a “beloved community” in the style of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The backyard of the Vine & Fig headquarters is what my middle-aged conservative father would call “granola.”  A large mural featuring the verse “And everyone ‘neath their vine and fig tree shall live in peace and unafraid” looks over a plot of land filled with gardens, chickens, cats, a composter, and repurposed bicycles.  Surrounding the main property are homes used as offices and temporary housing, one of which is energy independent.

However “granola” the property may appear, granola is nourishing, and Vine & Fig nourishes communities far beyond its own premises.

“We’re not trying to be an enclosed thing, we’re trying to build out a whole neighborhood,” said  Tom Benevento in a 2016 interview for Harrisonblog.

New Community Project has a gardening program that takes aim at the unhealthy diets often thrust upon low-income families.  By helping neighborhoods and elementary schools  secure land and cultivate vegetables, volunteers ensure that nutritious crops become available to all socioeconomic groups.  Not only does having a garden improve diet, it reduces grocery bills and demand for big agriculture that degrades ecosystems.

Vine & Fig also operates its own low-emission farm, which is primarily run by the homeless or unemployed.  Muddy Bike Urban Farm gets its name from the growers’ promise to run a zero-emissions operation; crops are harvested and transported via bicycle trailer.  Muddy Bike has a table at the Harrisonburg Farmers Market each Saturday.  This gives growers an opportunity to connect with others and encourage low-emission farming.

“We’re trying to figure out ways that we can divest from destructive systems that we have in our culture and build things that people can say “yes” to,” said Benevento.  “We can be a positive influence in the natural world and in our communities.”

Another way NCP hopes to reduce CO2 emissions while simultaneously creating community is with the creation of a bike path in the north end of Harrisonburg.  The path will make transportation accessible for low-income citizens who may lack a car or adequate budget for gas.  According to NCP’s website, about 10-20% of Harrisonburg’s residents will be served by the path.

In fact, bicycle transportation is a long-standing movement of Vine & Fig.  Our Community Place runs a free shop where people can come together to make repairs or donate and refurbish old bikes.  Services are always pay-as-you-will.

Offering low-cost services is only one of the many ways NCP welcomes everyone into its projects.  The River Rock House, a property along the gardens of Vine & Fig, houses those who have fallen on hard times, whether that be addiction, eviction, or escape from a war zone.

“It’s a supportive home, a safe place they can be, and a place where they can be surrounded by authentic relationships,” said Benevento.  “Because real healing comes from real relationships.”

New Community Place supplements its service with science.  Partnerships with students at JMU, EMU, and public school STEM programs allow for boundless experimentation and innovation.  Environmental engineering has brought inventions from a self-heated outdoor shower to an industrial-sized salad spinner that turns lettuce grown on the premises into a product that can be delivered to local restaurants.  Vine & Fig offers summer internships and practicums for students looking to become more involved.

Overall, Vine & Fig serves as an example of using the systems approach to social work to reach the goal of lifting populations that are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.

“We need to listen to those voices that aren’t being heard in our world,” said Benevento.  “We’re hearing them say we need to live differently in the United States.  We need to change policies.  We need to change our affluence and our lifestyles… this is a response to the voices of people in struggle and oppression around the world.”







Gus Bus puts early education preparedness on wheels

“Indeed, it is widely reckoned that, in modern societies, ‘literacy skills are fundamental to informed decision-making, personal empowerment, active and passive participation in local and global social community’” -UNESCO (Stromquist, 2005, p. 12).

Preparing for Kindergarten brings a flurry of activity, from gathering new pencils to learning the way home from the bus stop.   But when the first day comes around, some children are underprepared in a less visible way: basic literacy skills.

In 2004, a group of elementary education professionals led by Pat Kennedy recognized the need for early literacy development in Harrisonburg-Rockingham and Page County.  50% of kindergartners, coming from homes which lacked books or spoke languages other than English, began their education without a foundation of the language their lessons would be taught in.  This could potentially set half of the area’s student population behind their English-speaking, literate peers for years to come.  Kennedy and the educators decided to address the problem without ever sending families to a library- they would instead mobilize and bring a library to them.

 The Reading Road Show, dubbed the Gus Bus, makes early learning convenient for families with young children by traveling to neighborhoods with the highest need as far as Stanley in Page County.  Students served by the bus frequently receive free/reduced lunch and speak English as a second language.
“Children are able to check out books and read with volunteers on the bus,” said Program Coordinator Jolynne Bartley.  “Neighborhood enrichment reinforces the importance of reading and aims to foster a lifelong love of learning.”

Other programs under the Reading Road Show include free tutoring and STEAM-focused after school care at Spotswood and Stone Spring Elementary Schools.

“STEAM allows children the opportunity to problem solve, be creative, work together, and foster academic language using a hands-on approach,” said Bartley.

The Virginia Department of Education 21st Century Community Learning Center provides a grant that funds the Gus Bus.  Community partners including Second Home, the Boys and Girls Club, Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, and Massanutten Regional Library also support the Road Show.

As for staff, nearly all tutors are student volunteers who commit for a semester or more.

“Being a trusted and caring place for children to learn within the community is so important to our staff,” said Bartley. “JMU student volunteers play a pivotal role in the success of the Gus Bus.”

The program has now been on the road for 13 years and become a beloved part of local communities.  In 2016, First Lady Michelle Obama awarded the Reading Road Show one of 12 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards. Bartley hopes that as success continues, services begin to reach further.

“Ideally, we would like to have more Gus Bus mobile literacy vehicles that will allow the program to grow,” said Bartley.


Social Services Assistant Director strengthens families in Shenandoah County

Social Work faculty at JMU usually work in the field before they begin teaching and often stay active in the community when they become professors.  Instructor Beth Oliff serves as Assistant Director for the Shenandoah County Department of Social Services, an agency she has worked with since 1997.

Oliff attended Virginia Commonwealth University as an undergraduate and then began practicing in Shenandoah County .  While moving through roles in Adult Protective Services, foster care, Child Protective Services, and Prevention Supervision, she completed her MSW and LCSW degrees.  Now, Oliff works as Assistant Director for the agency.

“It’s the hardest, most rewarding work there is,” said Oliff.

As Assistant Director, Oliff writes grants, attends court meetings, collaborates with multidisciplinary professionals, and collects data among other administrative and interpersonal tasks.  Staff oversight is also a major part of her position.

“The most rewarding part of my job is seeing the agency staff working hard with and for the families of Shenandoah County,” said Oliff.  “When I see a family achieve their goals; when we can avoid traumatizing a child by removing them from their family; when I see a worker truly engaging.”

A position in social services can occasionally lead to burnout due to the demanding nature of the work.  Oliff lists authenticity, strong communication skills, engagement, commitment, and reliability as necessary qualities.  Social workers must also practice self-care and remain objective, she said.

“You have to believe in families and their ability to change,” said Oliff.

Social Services may have a stigma of removing children from their homes, but the social workers of Shenandoah County employ a strengths perspective.  Their work aims to solve problems within the family system and avoid separation.  First, Social Services turns to legal investigations, counseling services, psychiatric treatment, and school personnel in attempt to improve conditions within the home.

“We believe families can make positive changes and protect their children,” said Oliff.  “They are experts on their needs.  Every family and person has strengths.”

Oliff has found that teaching at JMU and working in the field compliment one another.

“I learn from my students and the material and bring it back,” she said.  “I’m constantly seeking out current and relevant material for my students and am able to share those with my staff.”



Alternative Weekend Breaks bring affordable service opportunities to students

As a college student, it becomes easy to fall into a cycle:  Busy days in class and at the library, that peaceful end-of-the week lull, a fun weekend spent with friends and catching up on sleep, and repeat.  While the college life provides plentiful social and academic opportunities, chances to give back through service can often fall to the wayside.

Thankfully, the Community Service Learning Office offers an affordable way to spend a weekend off campus and positively impact nearby communities.  The Alternative Weekend Break program’s mission is to  “prepare the JMU community to be educated and enlightened citizens committed to positive social change by providing reflective experiential opportunities with diverse community partners.”

While many students may have heard about Spring Break and January Break trips, distance and price can be barriers to weeklong programs.  Weekend options cost around $30 and run Friday-Sunday, making them more accessible and a good transition point into community service.

In order to provide effective and impactful service, the Alternative Break Program emphasizes eight key principles:

  1. Strong direct service
  2. Education
  3. Orientation
  4. Training
  5. Reflection
  6. Reorientation
  7. Diversity and social justice
  8. Alcohol and drug free environments
  9. Conscientious living

The first eight principles come from Break Away, a national nonprofit.  JMU added the ninth component, conscientious living, to ensure that students are fully immersed in low-impact lifestyles that resemble those of the community they are helping.

“We think about every decision we make on these trips and how they will impact the community we are serving,” said Health Sciences major and trip leader Mikayla Comer.

Students are allotted $6 daily for food, the equivalent of what is offered by SNAP.  Any use of technology is highly discouraged, and carbon footprint reduction is a main focus.  By adopting a vegetarian diet, avoiding disposable bottles and utensils, and minimizing electricity use, trip participants live consciously and sustainably while on an Alternative Break.

Breaks often come with a sense of adventure, but despite the beautiful locations that some  travel to, trip leaders highly discourage what they call “voluntourism.”

“Voluntourism is integrating service work with personal travel,” said Sociology major and trip leader Becca Oslin.  “People often pursue these experiences without any knowledge about the needs of that specific community.”

The motivation for service should be genuine, not just an afterthought of traveling, and volunteers should take responsibility to be informed about their worksites.

“People with good intentions could easily harm communities if they have no idea why they’re there or what they’re doing,” said Oslin.

2017 Weekend Breaks cover a diverse array of service opportunities that allow students with varying interests to find their niche.  Two breaks this semester have an environmental focus at state parks, while others help disabled communities.  Animal rescue and the reintegration of prisoners are also themes of Spring 2017 programs.

Interested students can sign up for breaks in the Community Service Learning office in the SSC.

Help and hope, one call away

“A call to Choices puts you in contact with help and hope.”

This promise, prominently displayed on every page of their website, offers support to survivors of domestic abuse, sexual assault, and rape.  Choices of Page County was formed in 1986 to provide aid to women and children looking for ways out of dangerous situations through advocacy, legal work, shelter, and counseling.

“Without our services, I believe the women and children will become victims, not survivors,” said Tina Knupp.

Knupp came to Choices as an intern from Blue Ridge Community College in 2003 and became part-time staff in 2004.  She now serves as the nonprofit’s Sexual Assault Victim Advocate, making her one of the few but dedicated full time staff members.  Average turnover rate at Choices is every 13 years, allowing workers to develop full expertise handling cases, engage in community advocacy, and establish collaborative relationships with their clients.

As an advocate for survivors, Knupp guides clients through the criminal justice process and, if they desire, the medical system.  She also serves as a crisis counselor.

“Having people trust me with their darkest secrets and deepest pain is most rewarding,” said Knupp.

But the work of Choices extends beyond direct crisis intervention.  A vital part of their mission is to provide education to the community in order to reduce the need for such interventions.

“The rural culture keeps these topics silent,” said Knupp.  “What happens in the family stays in the family.”

Knupp is certified through the Department of Criminal Justice to train allied professionals on sexual and domestic violence and law.  Outside of the professional world, Choices brings education about healthy relationships to Page County Public Schools.

“Citizens can alleviate the issues by recognizing that domestic violence and sexual violence exist in this community,” said Knupp.


Non-profit provides empowerment through literacy across the Valley

Once a month, I make the trek across East Campus and down a paved hill to Wal-Mart, where I stock up on necessities to keep in my dorm.  It’s an enjoyable time, reading all the different flavors of crackers and scents of shampoo I could buy.  If I fall ill, I make my way to the pharmacy aisle and analyze what vitamin or syrup could fix my ailing.

My shopping may pass quickly and easily, but for 12% of the adults in Harrisonburg-Rockingham County, making decisions about what food or medicine to buy can prove daunting.  3 in 25 can’t read the labels.

Over 30 years ago, Skyline Literacy Coalition was formed to address adult language proficiency issues in the Shenandoah Valley.  Beginning as a network of volunteers who offered individual English tutoring, Skyline has since grown to encompass multiple programs that cater to around 250 students annually.

Traditionally, the non-profit has provided aid to adults at or below a fifth grade reading level in their “Basic Literacy” course.

“The basic literacy, I think, is the most challenging thing that we do,” said Executive Director Elizabeth Girvan.  “It takes a lot of tenacity.”

Tutors work to cater their lessons to individual needs.  Girvan described the story of a student who began basic literacy courses in her old age.  The grandmother wanted to gain enough confidence with writing to send letters to her grandchildren, who lived far away.  Skyline tutors worked with her one-on-one and focused on how to craft a meaningful letter.

Aside from literacy improvement for native English speakers, Skyline has developed new programs over the years including ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages), GED preparation, and citizenship test preparation.  These programs allow the non-profit to adapt to Harrisonburg’s role as a refugee resettlement location.

One in five families in Harrisonburg speak a language besides English at home.  ESOL classes are provided for speakers of languages ranging from Spanish to Kurdish and aim to increase opportunities for non-native speakers.

Once a working knowledge of English is acquired, legal permanent residents can attend preparation courses for their citizenship test.  Trained volunteers go over every aspect of the test in a 40-hour class, complete with a mock interview.

As most students come from low-income backgrounds, Skyline aims to keep prices low, if not free.  A large volunteer network makes this goal possible, with trained volunteers logging over 12,500 hours annually.  Skyline also receives government funding.

“About 40% of our funding comes from federal and state grants, which makes me a little nervous,” said Girvan, laughing.

Since 1987, Skyline has made significant progress toward its vision:  “A community where adults are empowered by literacy skills to be self-sufficient and to participate in the workforce, education and civic affairs.”

I made the windy journey to Wal-Mart last night, and as I carefully selected a responsible brand of dish soap, the sound of children yelling in Spanish echoing through the aisles reminded me how empowered I am to have the fluency needed to make those decisions.

Providing proficiency to others is empowering and enables learners to engage in self-determination more frequently, two major concepts of social work.  Skyline Literacy proves that literacy goes far beyond the supermarket; it can remove barriers to an entire personhood.


Home Instead Marketing Director provides insight to behind-the-scenes gerontology


Jeannette Suter developed in interest in working with older adults during her time as an undergraduate at James Madison University.  Suter graduated in 1999 with a B.S.W. and went on to achieve her Master’s in Public Administration in 2002.  After obtaining experience providing direct services to the elderly, a position for Marketing Director opened up at Home Instead.

Home Instead Senior Care is a national franchise that connects seniors to visiting caregivers so that they can remain in their own homes.  Caregivers help clients with tasks from running to the grocery store to hygiene and personal care.  Suter said that by remaining in their own homes, clients can maintain independence and close relationships with loved ones.

“Aging is challenging,” said Suter.  “There is no one answer to it.  There is no one solution.”

As Marketing Director, Suter has stepped back from hands-on work with clients to focus on macro level responsibilities.  Many of her daily tasks have to do with developing relationships with referral sources, which commonly come through word of mouth.  She also oversees print, radio, and television advertisements.

Home Instead highly encourages community outreach and engagement, much of it through Suter’s position.  She serves as the President of Elder Alliance and sits on the board of nonprofits such as the Daily Living Center.  To supplement partnerships with community organizations, Suter works to educate the public about issues faced by the aging population and how to address such problems ethically.

Occasionally, the industry of caregiving prevents challenges.  For example, due to the rapidly growing population of senior citizens, demand for care outweighs supply.  As a result, Home Instead is always seeking high-quality caregivers, as it already serves close to 200 clients across three counties.  Currently, three staff members work full-time just to schedule visits.  Suter expects demand to continue climbing.

“We’re caring for our most vulnerable population,” said Suter.  “We have to be dependable.”

Despite pressure to expand under industry guidelines, Suter has found working with Home Instead incredibly rewarding.  The franchise always does the best job it can, she says, and she enjoys marketing for a company of integrity.  Marketing gives her an opportunity to blend social work skills with business skills, creating pathways for community-based projects at the macro level.

In order to work with aging populations, said Suter, one must have genuine compassion and empathy for clients.  Flexibility also proves necessary.  Needs change frequently, and service providers must problem solve along with their clients.

“You must have respect for the people you’re working with,” said Suter.  “We have to be willing to evolve with our clients.”