SPRINGFIELD — For the people who depend on the Traumatic Brain Injury program, the possibility of losing its services could be as life-shattering as the accidents that put them there.
Without the classes and counseling Alternative Opportunities Inc. provides with state funding, many injury victims would be institutionalized — either in a group home, or worse, in jail — at a potentially greater cost to the state.
"There's no way this is going to save the state money in the long run," said Eileen Deaver, a head-injury service coordinator who works with the Department of Health and Senior Services.
More than $600,000 has to be cut from the state's Head Injury Services funding, a program that already has a 289-person waiting list. People in Springfield say they fear what will have to go locally to help absorb that cut.
People come to the TBI program to relearn the day-to-day living processes that were lost after an accident. There are classes on conversation, on vocational skills, GED courses and anger-management techniques.
And that's just the tip of the iceberg of the services TBI survivors say they need to be functioning — and contributing — members of society.
Many of the 70 people in the TBI program in Springfield say they fear they would lose the years and years of progress they've made learning how to function with head-injury symptoms such as short-term-memory loss.
Several TBI survivors say they fear a return to the dark and bizarre time immediately after an accident that took away the normalcy in their lives.
"A head injury makes you a stranger to yourself and everybody else," said Carol Ann Chilton. "Then you live with that stranger every day and you have to try to teach that stranger how to do things that you don't know how to do, and you don't know how to teach them. Somebody has to know how."
Chilton was in a car accident in 1997. She relishes now that she can remember the year, as opposed to several of her friends in the program who can't.
Susan Farris said her car accident was in 1993 or 1995.
"One of these days I'll know," she said with an audible sense of hope.
Dwight Evans doesn't remember his injuries — although he's told he has had around half a dozen. His last two head injuries were at home — his latest was when he tripped and hit his head on a coffee table.
Evans experienced what many with TBI say happens. He was diagnosed with a mental illness.
After finally getting the right diagnosis, Evans was sent home with little information about what to do next.
When a man showed up at his doorstep claiming to be his son, Evans didn't know any better.
His "son" sold more than $100,000 worth of Evans' personal items and equipment from his business.
Evans is now in bankruptcy proceedings, which he manages with help from a case worker through the TBI program.
Most of the individuals in the TBI program have a caseworker who comes to their home for 2 to 10 hours a week, depending on their needs.
"I couldn't do it by myself. I'd lose my home and everything else. No doubt about it," Evans said.
Tim Baczek has a caseworker who helps him shop for groceries and remember how to cook.
"I need someone to say, 'OK Tim, you burnt the green beans, let's open another can and try again,'" he said.
Baczek says he considers himself lucky. He has a supportive wife who's been patient throughout his whole ordeal.
Baczek was sideswiped by a driver who left him alone at the scene after his truck flipped end over end eight times. No one knows how long he remained injured in the car before someone drove by and saw him.
He woke up in the hospital and thought someone had wrecked his truck. He's slowly relearned day-to-day living with the help of the TBI program and his family.
His scenario is a rare one. Many in the program say they lost family and friends after their injuries.
"These are my friends," he said, pointing around the room to the 30 or so people sharing their stories. "Because the friends you have before your accident no longer want to be your friends because you're different."
For many, the staff at Alternative Opportunities have become their family and friends, and the survivors won't have anyone to turn to if that staff is gone.
"Everything about you as a person and an individual takes on a new meaning. We are not who we were. We will never be who we were," Farris said.
Even for those lucky enough to have an outside support system, they say it won't be the same.
"It's not something that family and friends can step in and take care of the gap. These people understand that we see things and learn differently," Chilton said.
She described her day-to-day life like looking for a book in the library. Most people would turn on a light and scan the whole room. She lives like she has to look at each individual book with a flashlight. Before she came to the TBI program at Alternative Opportunities, doctors had told her she would never get better from her accident and that she should just be committed to a group home, she said.
"The state would have been paying for my care since 1997," Chilton said.
But she insisted on improving, and is now continuing the classes she had been taking before her car accident toward the goal of becoming a reverend.
She graduated from the program Wednesday — her 65th birthday — complete with a cake and an engraved plaque with the words "Reverend Carol Ann Chilton."
The staff told her they had it made because they had confidence that she'd reach her goal of completing her education soon.
"They don't do things like this at a group home," Chilton said with tears in her eyes.
For the people still in the program, the idea of not having the same services is almost too much to handle.
"I am really worried about it, because I have made some tremendous strides," Baczek said.
He said he's relearning how to function in society, and it's not something that he absorbs overnight and moves on to the next task. He said it's a constant process of repetition and routine that could erode without help.
Without someone reminding them to pay bills, take medication or buy groceries, many of the TBI survivors said they could easily end up on the street without any resources, and because most victims of head injuries fall between the cracks of other assistance programs, they'd likely have no other way out.
"A lot of us wouldn't last six months," Evans said. "I might survive, but a lot of them wouldn't. Some of the younger guys wouldn't — no way — some of the older guys wouldn't either."