Trey's House's unique low-budget outpost for brain-injured residents pursues its own recovery
Published: June 6, 2012
In 2000, Jose Guillen, Jr. decided that his father had hit him for the last time. Since the age of 7, the Uvalde-born Guillen — one of nine children — worked alongside his family as a migrant laborer, despite the loss of about 90 percent of his vision to a childhood brain tumor that also robbed him of an ability to read or write. He picked green beans, onions, and sugar beets alongside his abusive father in Appleton, Minn., each year. Minor infractions, like not mowing the lawn or cleaning the garage properly, could be met with a belt to the face.
In high school, he was pulled out of class with a black eye and bloody nose and handed over to Child Protective Services, which then returned him to his family after briefly considering placing him in a home for the developmentally disabled. "They touched my stomach and said, 'You look healthy!" said the stout and relatively cheerful Guillen in a recent phone interview. His father, however, demanded to know why he had been in touch with CPS before beating him again, he said.
Guillen said his traumatic brain injury, or TBI for short — in his case, tumor-inspired brain damage and consequent loss of function — made him an outcast in his family and required daily growth hormone shots to counter the effect of childhood radiation therapy that had damaged his thyroid and stunted his growth. Being both blind and having prohibitively expensive medical needs burdened the entire family and drew his father's ire.
In 2000, Guillen left his parents' San Antonio home to begin a new life. He was done giving his father his paychecks only to be banished to a casita behind the house, living under the ominous threat of verbal and physical debasement. His new life would be fraught with no fewer challenges, but he would at least find a purpose that compensated for the chaotic years of his youth.
As a civilian, Guillen found that assistance for TBI — considered perhaps the signature wound of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — difficult to locate. The bulk of local support is found at the South Texas Veterans Health Care System, a polytrauma center serving approximately 100,000 service members a year. Because he is not a veteran, Guillen sought help instead at a local Unicorn Center on a caseworker's recommendation, but was discouraged by what he deemed a lack of compassion and real assistance (Unicorn serves the developmentally disabled, not TBI survivors). "They tell you to shut up, be quiet, color, and do math," he said.
His life changed for the better when he met Trey Griffith in 2007. Griffith, like Guillen, is a civilian TBI survivor, having endured brain tumors and several craniotomies that hindered his speech, communication, and short-term memory functions. In 2002, doctors told Trey's mother, Margaret "Maggie" Griffith, that her son would likely require adult day care service for life. But by 2007, Trey had regained most of his cognitive and speech functions simply by visiting with friends, playing music and games, and generally trying to feel "normal" again, she said. The no-nonsense and fundamentally cheap therapy engineered by his mother and friends (it can be given to someone who has been denied disability and/or Medicaid benefits) became the model for Trey's House, which opened in 2008 with Griffith as director. Trey's is a TBI-focused nonprofit whose mission is to improve the life of anyone who has endured or sustained a TBI. It offers services not unlike a community or youth activity center — board games, live music (particularly in the form of open jam sessions), "anything goes" art nights, potluck dinners, and drum circles: all intended to re-introduce TBI survivors to being social. "Sometimes, seeing that we're not alone is the best therapy for the head and heart," states the group's website.
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