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Football Bridges Differences

A 25-year-old volunteered his time to discuss the NFL season with a person suffering from "locked in" syndrome.

Football was the only thing the two individuals had in common when they met, at the beginning of the NFL season. Now, they are friends.

“I couldn’t imagine stopping right now,” said William Fox, a 25-year-old man from California, who in May earned his master's degree in public policy from American University in Washington, D.C. Fox’s girlfriend moved to Washington from California, and began looking for volunteer work for herself. In her search, she ran across a message posted by Brain Injury Services (BIS) located in Springfield. BIS was looking for someone to visit a patient at Cameron Glen nursing home in Reston, and discuss football with her. Her name is Annette Wright, and she was a big football fan before she suffered a stroke seven years ago. Due to the stroke, Wright is not able to move or express herself, except for moving her toes, up for “yes” and down for “no.” However, Wright comprehends everything that happens around her. This is known as “locked-in” syndrome.

"THE 'LOCKED-IN' SYNDROME really needs to be brought to people's attention," said Lynne Engberg, Wright's sister. She visits Wright daily at Cameron Glen. She signed Wright up for the volunteer service, and after a year spent on the waiting list, she was informed that a volunteer would visit with Wright to keep her company and talk football with her. She added Wright being a huge football fan, knows a lot about the game.

IBS’s volunteer program, person-centered volunteering, matches volunteers with patients suffering from brain injuries for six-month commitments. Each commitment is further focused on a specific goal, in this case to educate Wright about the NFL season. Each Sunday, for the most part, Fox would make the trip from Washington to Reston, and go through the "Washington Post" sports section with Wright. He would tell her the key match-ups for the games, the strategies, and the key players to play in them. Then he would stay and watch the first quarter or half with her, before leaving for the day, and repeating the process the following Sunday. “At first I did this for her family,” said Fox, “but now I do it for her.”

FOX SAID HE was apprehensive about the visits at first, as he thought he would be annoying Wright. He was not sure that she wanted someone to come in and read the paper to her, and she had no way of telling him to stop. Since the two had nothing in common but their passion for football, he never thought they would become friends. He said she was an older woman, whose favorite place is a farm in Missouri, a Democrat, and someone who had a serious job at the Government Accounting Office before the stroke. Meanwhile, he is a 25-year-old “kid,” from California, a Republican, and someone who has had trouble finding steady employment since earning his master's degree. “But football opened up the doors,” said Fox, and now he considers himself a good friend of Wright's, and feels bad when he cannot make it to see her on some Sundays. During the visits, Fox and Wright discuss more than just the football games. They talk about other news, and now that the football season is over, it is likely that the two will set a new goal for another six-month commitment.

MICHELLE THYEN, the volunteer coordinator for the program said Wright loves seeing Fox. Thyen and Engberg posted the volunteering opportunity on http://volunteermatch.org, where Fox’s girlfriend found it. In order to become a volunteer for BIS, said Thyen, a criminal background check is conducted, and a one-on-one, 45-minute, crash course on general information about brain injury is taken with her. She said all survivors of brain injuries are entitled to free services by BIS, whose mission is to provide comprehensive case management for survivors of brain injury in Northern Virginia. To learn more about BIS, visit http://braininjurysvcs.org.

As far as lessons from the visits Fox had with Wright, he said he learned that his troubles are not that great, when compared to other people. Finding employment proved to be tough for him, which he said was somewhat depressing given that he has a master's degree, but realized his situation was not so bad after seeing what Fox had to overcome. “Her spirit is so great,” he said. For their last official visit, Fox came to Cameron Glen about an hour and a half prior to the Super Bowl kickoff. He brought with him balloons representing the colors of the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots, and, as usual, read the Sports section to her.

When asked if she enjoyed the Super Bowl, Wright raised her toes, "yes," despite the fact the Eagles, one of her three favorite teams, lost the game 24-21.

With Valentine's Day approaching, Engberg asked Wright if she would like to send a Valentine's Day card to Fox. In recent months, Wright's hand started moving slightly. Since the improvement, Engberg started to put a marker between Wright's fingers, and she draws designs on a white board. Engberg asked Wright to write "hi" on a Valentine's Day card to Fox, and she did so. It is the first word she has written since suffering a stroke seven years ago.