"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
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
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.
Check out the video below about the groups.