"The happiest place on earth" may be in Anaheim, but for about 60 people and their caregivers, it’s actually a few miles north, at First Presbyterian Church of Fullerton. That’s where the members of St. Jude Medical Center’s communication recovery groups meet every Monday to regain their power of speech and language lost due to illness or injury--and form special friendships with each other.
“It’s a magical place—it’s warm and loving and feels like a family,” says Denise Schwartz, a senior speech pathologist and therapist overseeing the groups with Jennifer Even. Even, also a senior speech pathologist, adds, “Many of our members call it their Disneyland.”
That’s because the goal is to give group members the chance to be active and pursue their interests, and not be defined by the conditions that caused the speech and language loss. In many cases, that loss is due to aphasia, where the speech problems are caused by damage to the brain, such as with stroke or brain injury, says Even. (The program also serves people with Parkinson’s.)
“Imagine not being able to communicate—it’s one of the worst things ever,” says Schwartz. “Here, people come into a warm, supportive environment and build more confidence from there. That continues to overflow into their home, family and community as well. And because we have a group for caregivers, too, family members learn how to become communication partners. They work through the aphasia in a positive way.”
The program—which started in 1994—currently has more than 15 groups, organized around common interests such as technology, current events, art, singing and journaling; there are also groups for men, women and young adults.
The program is open to anyone, says Even, with a nominal fee to make it as accessible as possible. Once the paperwork is filled out, which includes physician approval, the prospective member is screened to select the most appropriate group for their needs and interests. Even and Schwartz say they try to accommodate different languages and cultures when required.
“The first time people come to group they can be timid and afraid,” says Even. “But then they see others who are experiencing similar things and you can see the weight being lifted and immediate bonds being formed.”
The groups meet weekly for two hours. Sessions are led by volunteers, mainly undergrads studying speech therapy at nearby Cal State Fullerton. They plan lessons with guidance and feedback from Even and Schwartz, who rotate in and out of the groups as needed. While those groups meet, loved ones gather in their own group led by the Orange County Caregiver Research Center.
The sessions offer plenty of opportunities for group members to communicate with each other. The levels of communication recovery can vary within each group—some include people who are all at the same level, while other groups have longtime members who serve as role models and mentors to newer participants. “The whole goal is to improve social interaction and experience,” Schwartz says.
Socializing continues with activities outside of normal meetings. There have been outings to places such as Mission San Juan Capistrano; restaurants are also popular, as members can practice the skills learned during group sessions in real-world settings. And for the past three years, the program has held communication camps in the summer, focused on areas such as cooking or art.
“There are sacred encounters every single time we are here,” says Schwartz. “I don’t think there’s a Monday where I haven’t had tears in my eyes because something incredible happened."
Learn more about the communication recovery groups and St. Jude Medical Center's other speech therapy services.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.