How Elmhurst's Synapse House helps those recovering from brain injuries

Scott Bleile is a regular at Synapse House, but the truth is, his ultimate goal is not to need the place anymore.

Bleile, who suffers from short-term memory loss, has been a “member” of the Elmhurst-based organization for almost a year now, where he is working on ways to overcome his memory deficiency.

And Synapse House has been a great help as the 36-year-old from Belvidere works to develop those skills.

“I was probably worthless before,” Bleile says. “Now I can at least sit here and talk.”

Synapse House is a nonprofit agency operating out of a strip mall at 561 N. York St. It provides support for those suffering from brain injuries, using a clubhouse model where “members” are put to work as a way to help them recover, says founder and director Deborah Giesler.

“The idea of a clubhouse is that working is healing for people, so everything they're doing here is real work, and that real work is important to the organization to keep it going,” Giesler says. “It gives people a feeling of pride again that they're doing something that means something.”

For example, club members help operate a bakery, called Flour to Empower, that sells items ranging from chocolate-covered pretzels to zucchini pineapple bread. Working helps members — they're never called patients — learn and relearn basic life skills, such as baking and cooking and following directions. They also learn about time management, customer service and food service sanitation.

In addition, members can participate in a business unit by doing administrative work such as writing stories for the website, working on computers and doing research.

For members who struggle with language deficiency, Synapse House offers practice in reading, writing and speech.

The recovery process is individualized based on members' needs and goals. Bleile, for example, is learning to use a tablet as a possible way around his memory deficiency.

“No two brain injuries are ever the same because obviously everyone's brain is different,” Giesler says. “So that's the nice thing about this. They can really hone in on the things they want to work on.”

In December, Synapse House started providing employment services and has helped four members return to work, including one who is now working at Whole Foods.

“We focus on those things that we can improve and maximize that recovery,” Giesler says. “In the things that can't be improved, (we focus on) how can you adapt and compensate for that.

“Really, the most successful recovery is looking at all of those pieces and figuring out what you can do from there.”

Synapse House operates as a day facility with members usually coming twice a week and staying about five to six hours. There's flexibility, though, so some members come almost every day while others just a few times a month.

The Synapse team usually works with about 10 members at a time but is equipped to manage as many as 21. Fees vary with the degree of assistance, but they average from $25 to $75 a day.

Most members are referred by their outpatient programs, but others come through internet searches and word-of-mouth, Giesler says.

Changing landscape

Places such as Synapse House are filling a larger role in health care, because hospitals can't keep patients as long as they once did.

“The way insurance is nowadays, people are given less and less time in rehabilitation programs and hospital stays, so more people are coming to us right out of their rehabilitation and they still have significant impairments,” Giesler says. “Hospitals just can't provide everything they used to.”

Giesler, who worked as a hospital speech therapist, says Synapse House can assist members for as long as needed.

“People can come here, and if it takes them two weeks to learn how to type a letter, a thank you card, what does it matter? It's all about the process,” she says.

The success stories can seem small to outsiders but are huge inside the organization.

There was the woman who came to Synapse House unable even to say her name. Now she's up to three- or four-word sentences, and she recently asked her mom, “Do you want a cup of coffee?”

Other challenges

If you've never heard of Synapse House, you're not alone. Marketing is not its strong suit, Giesler admits.

For the three years its been open in Elmhurst, the group never had enough money even to put a sign on its building.

That changed in July, when the Elmhurst Junior Women's League donated $18,000.

Becky Kostelny, co-chairwoman for the League's ways and means committee, says the donation reflects the important work Synapse House is doing.

“I think everyone in our group has been affected or seen someone affected by brain injury or trauma,” Kostelny says.

Giesler says the sign already has attracted attention and she even has gotten calls from people passing by and wondering what they do.

It's important to get the word out.

“I think people take for granted all the things you can do, and then in a split second, those things are gone,” she says. “It's like putting together a puzzle again.”

A positive impact

Joanne Hennig is the work unit coordinator and admissions director. She has been with the organization since the beginning and says the best part is seeing members improve.

“They really dig into their own recovery and they want it and they ask how they can do whatever it is they're trying to do,” she says.

Shelly Simler, who has a background in speech therapy, has been a volunteer for about six months.

She says she enjoys working in the bakery and interacting with members.

“I just love their sense of humor,” Simler says. “And the fact they're able to take on so many different tasks that maybe somebody thought they could never do and they're proving them wrong.”

Giesler says her long-term goal is to make Synapse House stable enough to offer paid jobs to members.

“Our hope is that the bakery will take off and then we can actually start to hire individuals with brain injuries to be employees,” Giesler says. “Paid jobs to people. Not just a training opportunity but a real paid job and make this a sustaining bakery.”

For now, though, the team is focusing on providing a comforting and beneficial environment for people like Bleile.

“I like it all,” Bleile says. “Whatever they tell me to do, I get into it.”

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  Deborah Giesler, director of Synapse House in Elmhurst, helps member Christopher Zinski with research. The nonprofit provides support to those with brain injuries. Bev Horne/
  Deborah Giesler, director of Synapse House in Elmhurst, left, with Becky Kostelny of Elmhurst Junior Women's Club, right. The club raised $18,663 to buy a sign for Synapse House. Bev Horne/
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