In addition to community-based programming, Nigel Cooper serves as Program Coordinator for one of nine residences MHA operates as part of its New Way division in the Greater Springfield area for individuals with acquired brain injury.

The division, which also includes a day component, serves those whose brain injury is severe and acquired after birth as the result of a trauma or medical condition. Impairments can range from the physical to the cognitive to the behavioral.

“Our residents were not born with their disabilities,” Nigel said. “Some are college graduates, some have had jobs, some have wives, husbands, children. Something happened in their lives, could be an accident, they could have had a stroke, something that causes the brain not to function as well as it did.”

The specialized care an acquired brain injury patient might need often results in a nursing home placement, something Nigel calls “unfortunate” as “some are 30 years old, 50 years old and find themselves living their life out there.”

“A week or month or days before they were going through their everyday life in their community,” Nigel said.

This is when New Way under division Vice President, Sara Kyser can help those interested and referred by the state after assessment by a skilled nursing facility transition from that facility into one of its neighborhood residences.

“We interview the individuals and find a good fit for them in one of our homes,” Nigel said. “Basically, we are transitioning them back to life. They may not have the same life as they had before but we try to make it as close to that as possible.”

Nigel’s can-do determination and respect for New Way residents mirror how staff engage with them and the programming provided that includes both rehabilitation and outreach.

Services are aimed at helping residents integrate back into their community life, be it through work or volunteer opportunities, or participation in The Resource Center, a New Way programs that is also open to those with a disabling medical condition.

“Yes, we provide care, but what I like to say is that we provide support,” he said. “The difference being that whatever our residents can do, we approach them to keep on doing that – that is where we meet them, that is where we start our work with them.”

“We don’t want people to get discouraged because they need support,” Nigel said. “There can be depression and a lot of anxiety. So, if someone can cook, we encourage that, if someone can wash their clothes, we encourage that, if someone can bathe themselves, we encourage that.”

The goal he said is “to build an independent life for them as far as we can with their injuries.” This, he said, in the case of one resident in his 30s whose memory was greatly impacted by a drug overdose, meant getting the support need to be matched with a job, finding his own way over time to and from certain destinations and eventually moving from a four-bed New Way residence into a less supervised two-bed one.

“We helped move him out of a nursing home and recreated a life that would work for him and his injury,” Nigel said.

For another resident it has meant regaining the ability to feed themselves, and working toward being able to stand and walk again with less assistance.

“We push 150% to get the residents in all our homes into the communities they live in,” Nigel said. “Reuniting them with family members, keeping them involved in activities outside the residences.”

He added that “we are not into just housing people.”

“We want to get people out and into society to do whatever they want to do,” Nigel said. “We are not just ‘housers’ of our residents.”

Key to success, he said, is the trust that develops between staff and residents.

“The job is about making relationships and being motivators, getting people to invest back in themselves,” Nigel said. “Helping them to understand their situation happened, but it is not the end of the world. There is life, there are resources, there is a way you will now live that is different from before but you will eventually get to a point where you can enjoy your life.”

He added, “I tell staff all the time that the house will get clean, the floors will get swept.”

“What we need to build is relationships through consistency and being there,” Nigel said. “We are the people the residents see every day and depend on and trust for support. Once a relationship is built, residents will go to appointments with you, allow you to do personal care and take suggestions. They understand you are in this with them.”

Richard Johnson, who works under Nigel as a Site Manager, echoed his comments.

“We are all about making the residents feel comfortable,” said Richard whose job includes coordinating volunteer opportunities for residents such as cooking and serving meals for the homeless or preparing and distributing COVID hygiene packages for seniors.

He also arranges for residents to attend events like Springfield College’s recent “Be the Change” presentation that was held to promote community service. Staff and residents attend events together but without any indication of their association.

Johnson said such outreach is about the residents continuing to “build relationships” on their own terms and improving their integration skills.

“One of the residents who attended the Springfield College event told me that it was the most comfortable he has felt in years in terms of being out in the community and talking to people,” Johnson said. “Everything was free and he just liked being able to go up to a vendor, get nachos and a drink. That engagement on his own was important to him in building a sense of normal for himself.”

Johnson said he builds relationships with the residents through “really hard, honest conversations through which I learn how to navigate and pick up on what they like and what they want to do.”

He said transitioning into more active community engagement is not always easy for residents with their disabilities but he enjoys helping them make that transition and working with Nigel to find related opportunities.

Nigel added that it is this “giving someone a chance to have possibilities and control in their life again” that gives him job satisfaction.

“A lot has been taken away from our residents,” Nigel said. “The life they were used to living is no longer. They are not living with their families. They can’t just go out to the store or into the kitchen to make what they want to eat or jump on an airplane and travel. What makes me feel good is to see some sort of normalcy return to their lives and for them to get to a certain level where they have control.”

About MHA:

What We Do
MHA (Mental Health Association) helps people live their best life. We provide access to therapies for emotional health and wellness; services for substance use recovery, developmental disabilities and acquired brain injury; services for housing and residential programming, and more. With respect, integrity and compassion, MHA provides each individual served with person-driven programming to foster independence, community engagement, wellness and recovery.

Why We Matter
The youth, adults, seniors and families we serve want the same things in life as anyone: to have friends, work, go to school, have meaningful relationships, express themselves (and be heard), and be accepted in their community for who they are. With our help and resources from a caring community, people can live their potential, in their community, every day.

How We Think
Starting in the 1960s, MHA’s groundbreaking efforts and advocacy helped to transition people away from institutional living to a life in our community. This became a model for the deinstitutionalization movement. Today, our leadership continues to advance awareness of mental health conditions and needs at local, regional and national levels. We drive compassionate care for those challenged by mental health, developmental disabilities, substance use, homelessness, acquired brain injury and more.