Our Stories

Our Stories

Please read through our client stories, commentary from our Board Members, and updates from our partners.

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Laurie and Erica.

Seeing Is Believing

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After a vehicle collision in 2002, Erica Gonzalez was in the hospital for three months, most of which she can’t remember.  Her traumatic brain injury (TBI) was to the back…

Jennifer Bernard and friend

A Special Space for Fun & Music

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Play a new instrument, Listen to music you have never heard, Learn how to read music, and Create a musical composition—all in an hour of fun. After just 5 hours…

Cindy Wright

Never Leave a Man Behind

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  Eight years ago my husband, Derrick, got his brains blown out in Baghdad, Iraq.  Trained as an Army Ranger, he went from being a fit, focused, and capable protector…

Tamika

The Ghost in My Brain: When You Can’t Trust What Your Brain Tells You

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I’ve never had to write about myself.  I find it much easier to tell the story of others – being real and compassionate is easy with others. You see the…

Laurie and Erica.

Seeing Is Believing

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Tamika

Tamika Smith

After a vehicle collision in 2002, Erica Gonzalez was in the hospital for three months, most of which she can’t remember.  Her traumatic brain injury (TBI) was to the back of her head and resulted in immediate physical and visual changes with the onset of multiple strokes.

It was hard, the physical therapy to help her walk—the left side of her body was paralyzed and she needed to wear a knee brace called an Ankle Foot Orthotic (AFO).  This on top of the loss of most of her vision was especially difficult.  “I struggled a long time with coming to terms and accepting my visual impairment.”  Erica and her family sought out doctors to help regain her vision, only to find that these impairments would be permanent.

“I’m not good at being blind, but I get by,” Erica says.  Since she can’t be fully blind, Erica is caught between two worlds —the seeing world and the blind world.  It also means that she has to rely on her minimal vision to walk and move forward in her life. For example, in the blind world, someone is able to rely heavily on their other senses, such as touch, sound, etc.  Living in between worlds means that reading books or mastering Braille may both be challenges.  It also means she might not have access to some of the technology and/or support systems usually present.

Erica says she’s come to accept her physical and visual impairments, and, of course she’s been living with them for thirteen years since the accident.  Unfortunately, her mobility has deteriorated since her first rehabilitative sessions, resulting in her need for a wheeled-walker, which she handles like a pro-driver!  However, she is now able to use a Bio Ness knee brace which stimulates the part of the muscle that lifts her foot, so instead of dragging her leg, the Bio Ness helps lift the leg for a better step and also allows Erica to wear almost any shoe (such as sandals – something wonderful in this Texas heat).  “No flip flops though, darn it!” she laughs.

Erica does need more time to get places and extra help at home through the support of her family (like so many others who have a TBI).  She also receives services from Meals on Wheels and has been on a housing waiting list since 2009 with the Department of Aging and Disability Services (DADS).  She is also involved with the National Federation for the Blind (NFB) and Small Victories to name a few support groups.

When we met for our interview, I picked Erica up at her home and we went to a nearby Starbucks – she wanted an opportunity to get out of the house for a while and chat over coffee.  It was such a wonderful experience.  Erica is a little shy and soft-spoken, but so open and positive about life and where she is headed for the future.  Through Small Victories, Erica received a scholarship for drawing lessons.  “I love drawing because it’s pretty!” she expresses with a big smile and laughter.  She begins showing me all her amazing art.  I truly can’t believe how remarkable each piece is —wow seeing is believing!

Laurie Mann, Erica’s drawing teacher has guided Erica to use art “chalk” (if you will), which are called Pastels.  The colors are bright, vivid, and so happy and expressive.  “Laurie was able to find a tool I could see with my visual impairment.  While I can’t draw fine details, such as a face, I was able to use ‘puffy paint,’

which is textured paint I can touch and feel and then mimic in my drawing.”

Laurie and Erica.

Laurie and Erica.

It was impressive to see how Erica saw an internet picture that she wanted to draw in her art class, and used her pastels to reach the perfect effect (Picture 1).  They are so similar she might one day—as she continues her drawing experience—take on a career as one of the artists that copy masterpieces for people’s homes and galleries.

It shows how limited our understanding of our senses are today.  Some people might never have imagined a visually impaired and partially paralyzed person could take on the intimidating challenge of drawing, painting, and sketching. Erica makes it look so easy!

Small Victories has been able to support Erica in her quest for self-sustainment through creativity and the love of beautiful things.  Of course for Erica, “having others see my paintings and share their awe and enthusiasm feels wonderful.”  As a self-professed perfectionist, Erica is most happy, “when I have a finished painting.”  She enjoys the process of drawing, however, knowing that final piece is completed is the real drive behind her determination to work hard and achieve something beautiful, or as Erica likes to say “pretty.”

Picture 1

Picture 1

Even though Erica can escape in her love of art, there are days that are more difficult.  Yesterday she fell and was at home alone.  Of course that pesky cell phone was on the table not in her pocket as usual.  She waited for hours until Meals for Wheels arrived and called her mother to come help.  Each day can be fragile when you have a TBI, especially combined with other physical or intellectual injuries—it’s easy to understand that someone with these injuries never knows if it will be a good day or a bad day.

It is astounding to see how quickly Erica bounced back and was ready to meet the following day.  Erica said, “it’s great to have something to keep [you] busy and focused.  Each day is better when you are not sitting around just thinking about yourself.”  Her drawing is just one of the ways she finds joy and the ability to be active and interact with other people.  “I have a feeling of accomplishment when people see and like my art and provide positive feedback,“ Erica states.

Before Erica’s crippling TBI and accident, she was a senior in high school; finishing her last couple of classes during her recovery.  In 2009 she had the tools from her stint with the Chris Cole Rehabilitation Center (CCRC) to return to school. “Well, I was sort of bored, so I went back to school in 2009 and graduated in 2014 with an Associate’s degree in hospitality specializing in meeting and event planning,” stated Erica.  Now through volunteering with the NFB and Small Victories, she hopes to begin helping organize events and work with social media—something that’s right in line with her career choice.

Picture 2

Picture 2

Combining her love of art and her degree, with the support of foundations like Small Victories and NFB, she’s been able to create a new life and is reaching toward her New Normal.  “I’m not there yet [her new normal], but I’m positive about the future. I can now see myself living on my own, in my own place!” says Erica.   And, the rest of us see her finding her place between the vision world and blind world where she’s found her “new normal world”—a place just for her to thrive with lots of pretty things, and family and friends to keep her busy and focused on the future.

Erica has a lot of spirit and commitment toward gaining her dream.  Like her artwork—her small dog, a Chihuahua, her volunteering, and her drawing are just a few of the stepping stones to seeing her future in vivid color.  Seeing is believing — so check out her vivid art work in this article or on the Small Victories Foundation Facebook page.   Erica loves to hear from others about her work, so your encouragement is welcome!

SVF is pleased to feature the very talented writer Tamika Smith. Tamika is a former Vice President of Communications/Marketing and a current TBI survivor and piano student searching for her new “normal” post-therapy.

Jennifer Bernard and friend

A Special Space for Fun & Music

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Tamika

Tamika Smith

Play a new instrument, Listen to music you have never heard, Learn how to read music, and Create a musical composition—all in an hour of fun.

After just 5 hours of lessons with Jennifer Bernard, you can create a song, play with 4 different instruments, learn ten new music genres, understand how to read music and improvise your own melody—or better yet build your own “Music ‘Prozac’ CD” for those times you want to feel happy, relax, or express yourself.

“Jennifer makes learning easy and fun. I was hesitant, not knowing what I might be getting myself into.   ‘Music exploration?’ Really what is that?  I wasn’t sure I could really learn something new with my impaired Executive Functions (such as impaired new learning, memory, and difficulty finding and saying words, as well as remembering instructions).  Jennifer was so eager to teach and passionate about music, my first lesson wasn’t intimidating, rather exciting.  With clear tasks for homework to keep me engaged without feeling overwhelmed and Jennifer’s positive encouragement, I looked forward to our one hour a week lessons—knowing I’d learn something interesting and have a positive time. Rehabilitation was sometimes hard and frustrating, but knowing I had a music lesson with Jennifer, made it easier to get up and get motivated, even when I felt pain,” said Tamika Smith, Jennifer’s first Small Victories’ student.

Jennifer Bernard and friend

Jennifer Bernard and friend

Jennifer plays one of the hardest instruments to learn, the oboe, which she has been playing for 23 years, since she was eleven years old.  Jennifer says she “really [enjoys] working with adults, expanding their musical horizons, and showing people that they can have fun with music and use it to relieve stress. Music brings me a lot of joy.”

Music Exploration is a time to explore different instruments, types of music, and new ways to express your emotions through the creation of music.  “Jennifer is so prepared to help and work at your own pace, in the areas you find most interesting.  I can’t wait to start playing piano and learning piano improvisation – all because she turned me onto music and encouraged me to keep trying and learning!” offered Tamika.

A professional oboist and teacher, Jennifer loves helping people realize they have a part in music regardless of their experience.  Besides playing the oboe at 11, she also explored piano and singing in the choir.  “I heard that the oboe and the French horn were the two hardest instruments to play, and since my sister was already playing the French horn, I, of course, chose the oboe!”

That desire to achieve excellence and have fun with music —combined with her fascination with how the brain learns, makes her a perfect fit with Small Victories.  One of Jennifer’s students is the daughter of Small Victories founders Derrick and Cindy Wright.  “I’ve worked with Hannah for six years.  We’ve had many conversations about music, learning and the brain – because of that connection and my interest in the psychology of learning, I began working with Small Victories.”

While discussing her music career, Jennifer describes her path to success.  “There was definitely a turning point when I moved to Austin for graduate school.  While working on my masters in music, I began picking up gigs around Texas and by the time I graduated, I had enough gigs to make a living doing what I’m most passionate about.”  It’s fascinating to teach music to adults – whether a formal class or through private lessons, according to Jennifer.  She currently has 15 oboe students and one music exploration and piano student.  It’s a wonder she has room to actually play music, but Jennifer is at the top of her game.  She is a member of the Victoria Symphony, Corpus Christi Symphony, Round Rock Symphony, and Laredo Philharmonic, and is a substitute musician for the Austin Symphony, Austin Opera, and Mid-Texas Symphony.  She comments, “it’s amazing to have a bunch of different puzzle pieces that create a whole picture.”

That statement sums-up the essence of Jennifer as a musician and teacher.  She’s buzzing with excitement and the joy of music; she’s dedicated and strives to excel; and mostly, she’s just a joy to be around as she brings all these different ideas together into a picture perfect musical piece.

Jennifer has a sincere interest in working with Small Victories students and hearing their stories, learning about their psychological struggles, and being a part of their creative successes.  “I see myself in my students.  I have left a session with a Small Victories student thinking I should take my own advice – not just learn a new piece of music but enjoy the journey; stop and smell the flowers along with way; be more compassionate with myself since making mistakes is a part of the learning process.” One student was off to the races, practicing daily, learning one new piano song after another – but Jennifer noticed how hard her student was on herself.  Together she and her student creatively thought of a new ways of learning – learning for fun and their own enjoyment versus rushing to get a piece of music completed to “perfection.”

“It is important to realize that I, as the teacher, am processing the whole experience with my student. I’m reminded of when I started learning music when I was a young girl, it was the anticipation to learn, the fun of hearing and doing something new and special. There is so much joy in music for me and I wanted people to experience that fun and joyful exploration,” said Jennifer.  In a typical music classroom, there is a hierarchy about learning –that desire for innate ‘talent’.  Whereas, Jennifer believes having fun with music builds a better learning environment and connection between the teacher and student.”

Jennifer came up with the idea of Play, Listen, Learn, Create as a way of organizing a big “pile of music mess!”  She asked herself how she would be able to teach all these disparate things, but still have structure that felt fun and comfortable.  As one student mentioned, “it was a wonderful way to try a lot of new musical ideas/concepts, and still feel like I was enjoying the process.  No lesson was the same, and I got a little bit of a lot of different musical experiences.”

Jennifer is drawn to the idea of showing people there is a place in music that they can own for themselves.  She said one of her most valuable personal challenges is to create a safe place where people can be joyful about something.  To achieve this, “I need a large dose of compassion for myself and others.  This compassion builds a space where mistakes are okay and you aren’t judged.  We need to learn from our mistakes without shame – connecting with compassion over our shared humanity.”

Small Victories is about finding your creative self, and sharing a safe space, being surrounded by compassionate people, and finding your new normal – these concepts are the cornerstone of Jennifer Bernard’s teaching and musical philosophies.  So make time to play something new, learn something interesting, listen to beautiful music, and create a new path for your own creativity by exploring music with Jennifer Bernard and Small Victories.

SVF is pleased to feature the very talented writer Tamika Smith. Tamika is a former Vice President of Communications/Marketing and a current TBI survivor and piano student searching for her new “normal” post-therapy.