The counties of southwestern Virginia are defined by the Blue Ridge Mountains. Located in the heart of Appalachia, these peaks and valleys form geographic and cultural touchstones, providing livelihoods with their vast coal deposits, while at the same time, isolating residents from the rest of the Commonwealth.
This isolation is particularly acute for the 18,000 individuals struggling to recover from brain injury in the area. Southwestern Virginia covers a daunting 11,000 square miles. Comprehensive rehabilitation services are few and far between, particularly those offering neurocognitive and neurobehavioral therapies. Access to day programs is limited by transportation, cost and availability.
Motivated by this need, the Brain Injury Services of Southwestern Virginia (BISSWVA) developed a “high tech, high touch” solution.
Enter the Community Living Connection—or CLiC—an innovative Internet-based program that provides services and fosters relationships among brain injury survivors. Two three-hour sessions per week offer highly interactive social and rehabilitative networking moderated by a group facilitator. Participants develop prevocational skills; they practice life skills; and they share their experiences with people who are meeting similar challenges.
BISSWVA launched CLiC in 2009 as a 12-month pilot project with 10 participants, five engaged consistently. BISSWVA worked with nearby Virginia Tech and Radford universities to design the technical aspects and provide ongoing assistance. Participants were given a computer if they didn’t have one, along with a microphone and software.
“The program is structured to allow the group to make decisions about what they’ll talk about and what they’ll do,” explained Helen Butler, BISSWVA’s Executive Director. During the pilot phase, participants created three newsletters, writing articles and organizing content. They also formed a book club and read a memoir about brain injury. The author was contacted, and she logged on for their discussion.
Program evaluations, including neuropsychology tests conducted every three months by Radford University, offered hopeful signs. “The CLiC Program has vastly improved my quality of life,” wrote one participant. “I’m thinking more quickly,” wrote another. “I can tell the difference. I can stay more focused.”
“We concluded that we need to push forward and disseminate this to a bigger group,” said Butler. With a $5,000 grant from The MENTOR Network Charitable Foundation, BISSWVA managed to leverage an additional $172,000 in support to expand into a three-year rollout for the most remote areas of Southwest Virginia. In addition to The Foundation, partners include the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Collis-Warner Foundation, the Verizon Foundation, and several private donors. The next phase of the program will include an assessment of possible replication in other geographies.
“This is a community of fellow brain injury survivors,” offered Butler. “It is hard to find peers, but CLiC gives them people to count on.”