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Guest Columnist Author: Jim Gibbons, president and CEO of Goodwill Industries International Last Updated: Sep 7, 2017 - 10:06:33 PM

Acquired Brain Injury Patient, Teacher Shares Strategies for Daily Living

By Jim Gibbons, president and CEO of Goodwill Industries International
Oct 10, 2012 - 3:38:44 PM

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( - When Joanna McVicker was a little girl, she loved exploring the outdoors, especially spending time with horses. But at the age of four, she was kicked in the head by a horse, resulting in an acquired brain injury (ABI) that has ever since affected Joanna’s cognitive functioning.

Patients are not born with ABIs; rather, an accident or stroke can cause them later in life, forcing patients to relearn many of the skills they knew how to do for years. According to the Brain Injury Association of America, there are more than 900,000 incidences each year of new ABIs in the United States.

As Joanna dealt with the repercussions of her injury, she still received top grades in high school and went on to college. She then worked at various child care jobs but was let go because she was told her slower response time was a danger to the children.

“I did not have an understanding of my disability,” Joanna said, “which often resulted in the employer letting me go. Or I would make mistakes out of fear, which led to me being just an average employee with no hopes of progressing with the company.”

In August 2010, Joanna was referred to Goodwill Industries of Monocacy Valley to enroll in its ABI program. She learned a combination of vocational and cognitive skills from an instructor who also had a brain injury.

When Patie Elsberry, the instructor, was about 7 years old, she fell off a bunk bed which left her in a six-day coma. It wasn’t until 13 years ago that she was officially tested for what she now knows is a traumatic brain injury, a type of ABI, since such tests were not available 50 years ago when she was injured.

“People with brain injuries — we’re always recovering and we’re always growing,” Patie says. “We are an important part of the community. There isn’t anything we can’t do. Don’t judge us until you get to know us.”

In her classes at the Goodwill® ABI program, Patie teaches memory strategies, some of which Joanna has incorporated into her daily routine. One is called the orange rope strategy. When she needs to step away from a task, Patie leaves a short piece of orange rope where she left off, so when she returns she can get right back into the swing of things. Joanna, who has found this strategy helpful, says she also utilizes post-it notes with numbers and color-coded stickers to prioritize her tasks at work.

Patie also suggests using a kitchen timer to improve time management skills and help people stay focused on the tasks at hand before moving on. She also says it’s extremely important to use colors with individuals who have brain injuries because it helps draw their eyes, stay organized, and help prioritize and manage their time. For example, she might put blue stickers on papers, folders and drawers related to family, and red or orange on immediately important items such as bills that are due.

In addition to being a part of the ABI program at Goodwill, Joanna worked with Tom Buttner, a Goodwill business developer who works with local businesses to determine their staffing needs and facilitates opportunities for Goodwill-trained job candidates. Tom conducted mock interviews with Joanna to help her prepare for a job interview. He and Joanna also met with a variety of different employers to see if her skills fit with their needs. Goodwill already had a relationship with the Frederick Visitors Center in Frederick, MD, when the tourism office created a fulfillment assistant position. Tom recommended Joanna. She interviewed for the position and now works for the tourism office.

“If I was going to give advice to another organization that was looking at a special program like the brain injury training program, my recommendation would be to keep an open mind and to not have a preconceived notion of a trainee’s capabilities,” said Robyn Hildebrand, the Frederick Goodwill center’s manager.

Goodwill Industries International recently named Joanna as its 2012 Kenneth Shaw Graduate of the Year for her unwavering work ethic and desire to make a difference in others’ lives. The Graduate of the Year Award is given each year and recognizes an outstanding person for completing a Goodwill Industries® program and becoming competitively employed by a non-Goodwill employer in the community. Her long-term career goal is to help people with disabilities, as her mentor has done for her. “For the first time, I feel empowered in my life,” Joanna said.

Meanwhile, Patie continues to help other people who have brain injuries adjust to working life. “If you’re a survivor of a brain injury, there is screening,” she said, while explaining what she wants other supervisors to know about working with these individuals. “It is a journey with a bunch of speed bumps, but if you reach out, there is some help and support.”

For more information about ABIs, you can find information from Goodwill Industries of Monocacy Valley’s acquired brain injury program, the National Institutes of Health or the Brain Injury Association of America.

Jim Gibbons is the president and CEO of Goodwill Industries International, an internationally recognized leading social enterprise of independent, community-based agencies in the United States and Canada as well as 14 affiliate members in 13 other
countries. Founded in Boston in 1902, Goodwill Industries® first put people to work by hiring them to repair and sell donated goods. Today, Goodwill® trains people for careers in fields such as financial services, computer programming, manufacturing and emerging industries, including technology and health care. The organization does that by selling donated goods in stores and online at and using the revenues to fund
job training programs, employment placement services and other community-based programs, such as financial education and youth mentoring, that benefit 4.2 million people in 2011. Goodwill also builds revenue and creates jobs by working with businesses and government to provide a wide range of commercial services including packing and assembly, food service preparation, document imaging and shredding, grounds keeping and administrative support. The organization earns 98 percent of its
revenues through its various business lines, and channels 82 percent of its revenues directly into its services.


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