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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

True survivors: Ann Peek's strong will keeps brain injury group together

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Ann Peek and her daughter, Vonda Grey, get some afternoon exercise on Shelbyville Recreation Center's indoor track.
(T-G Photo by Mitchell Petty)
Each Tuesday, Ann Peek and her daughter, Vonda Grey get together with their friends at the Shelbyville Recreation Center.

They're a close knit of friends; several of them have been meeting there for as many as 10 years.

They've celebrated births and marriages within the group. They've also mourned death together.

They're part social club and part support group. You see, the friends that gather each Tuesday at the Rec Center are clients of Peek's -- even her daughter Vonda.

True survivors

Peek's clients are all survivors of traumatic brain injuries, and travel from all over south central Tennessee each week to socialize and take part in her therapeutic recreational program.

Part of the reason that her clients travel from places like Columbia, Manchester, Tullahoma and Murfreesboro is that Peek has fought to keep it going, and is nearly solely responsible for its continuation after all these years.

This dedication and determination led to Peek receiving the honor of Volunteer of the Year from the Brain Injury Association of Tennessee.

Peek has been influencing lives in Bedford County for more than 40 years. She was a first grade teacher for 30 years at Shelbyville Mills School, Central Elementary (now Eakin Elementary) and Cascade School.

Close motivation

Fifteen years ago, as Peek was eyeing retirement, she received life-changing news. Vonda had sustained a traumatic brain injury.

Due to advances in medical technology, many people with traumatic brain injuries would not have survived these injuries. As a result, these individuals struggle to overcome and live with physical, cognitive and/or emotional difficulties.

When jokester Jackie Reed finishes working out his funny bone during the morning session, he heads to the fitness center.
(T-G Photo by Mitchell Petty)
Brain injuries can happen for many reasons, and each is distinctly different. Closed brain injuries happen when the head hits another surface, such as a windshield, and widespread damage occurs due to swelling of the brain.

A penetrating, or open, brain injury occurs when an object, such as a bullet, goes through the skull and into the brain, causing injury to a specific area of the brain. Finally, any time oxygen supply is cut off to the brain, such as with a heart attack, near-drowning or infection, a brain injury may also occur.

"When Vonda had her injury, she was living in Austin, Texas," Peek said. "She had a master's degree, a good job and had been married for 16 months when she got ill."


After retiring, Peek attended a conference where a speaker talked about recreational therapy and how beneficial it had been for his clients. She wasn't aware of any groups in the area, and asked Brent Lokey of the Epilepsy Foundation of Middle and West Tennessee where she and Vonda could find a therapy session.

"One of the first questions Ann asked was, 'Is there a place where people like Vonda can get together and socialize?'" Lokey said. "When you get a group of people together with the same disability, they feel comfortable being themselves and participating in activities."

So Lokey applied for a grant, and Peek wrote a letter explaining what it was needed for. Within a couple of months they had the money, and hired a fresh-faced college graduate.

"She stayed for a month and quit," Peek said. "It didn't pay well, so if it wasn't a passion and you didn't understand people with brain injuries, it would be a hard job. Then it dawned on me -- I believe God just takes over sometimes."

New start

Peek asked Lokey if she could take over.

"She didn't know that she was eligible for the job," said Lokey.

"He said, 'Well, you have a degree in recreation,'" said Peek. "And I said, 'I've got one. Had it since 1968, and I've never used it."

A game of Pictionary is always fun for the cognitive thinking morning session. From left are Bobby Masterson, John Russell, Les McGehee, Ann Peek, Bonnie Wendelken, Phil Wendelken and Sonia Johnson.
(T-G Photo by Mitchell Petty)
It sure ended up handy. For the next nine years, Peek, Vonda, and the rest of the group grew closer and closer. Tuesday was the favorite day of many in the group -- until abruptly-cut funding threatened.

Threat overcome

"Due to budget concerns, the cancelled our grant in June 2011," Lokey said. "It was a pretty sad occasion; we were like a big family. When we lost the grant, Ann asked if she could donate her services."

Peek and Lokey worked together to help the support group survive. The folks at the Shelbyville Recreation Center agreed to give the clients full access to the facilities for a reduced rate, and the United Way of Bedford County donated $2,500.

"I know $2,500 doesn't sound like much, but it's been able to help Ann keep our group open," said Lokey.

Efforts lauded

About a month ago, Peek was honored for her efforts as the Brain Injury Association of Tennessee took notice of her hard work.

"Brent went on stage, and I thought, 'Brent's getting the Professional of the Year Award? He didn't say a word to me,'" Peek recalls. "Then he started to speak, and I caught on. He was describing everything I'd done over the past year."

"Ann's the best colleague that I've ever had," Lokey said. "I've always felt comfortable giving her free rein to take the program where she wants to go with it."

Peek was awarded a plaque commemorating her service, but her real reward is watching her clients progress, enjoy themselves and be thankful for what they have.

Sonia Johnson and her daughter Wednesday are from Tullahoma. Wednesday, who was on spring break, joined her mom for therapeutic recreation.
(T-G Photo by Mitchell Petty)
Shared support

"When they come to this group, they're among friends," said Peek. "That's been worth it all to me. That was my goal."

"They understand each other, so they are a tremendous support group for each other," Peek added. "If someone comes in and has had a problem, they rally around each other in a special way."

The main thing that Peek wants to communicate to people is that her clients are not dull. As a matter of fact, they're quite smart. They sustained their injuries as adults, so they've been through school, had good jobs and made a good living.

"They're very high functioning," Peek explains. "They carry on conversations just like anyone else, and they love to joke."

And joke they do. That's probably the first thing you'd notice if you were to peek in on a Tuesday meeting. There's always a table full of smiling faces and a room resounding with hearty laughter. It's the kind of laughter that only comes from a group of people with the comfortability of years of friendly fellowship.

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It's too bad people like myself were not aware of this group. I as well as a young boy in Shelbyville have a rare brain disease that causes strokes, Traumatic Brain Injuries. This lovely disease "Moyamoya" causes strokes in young children and adults in their 3rd and 4th decade of life. The TG printed a article about the boy but there's never been any follow up on his condition.

What time are the meetings?

-- Posted by Disgusted on Wed, Apr 4, 2012, at 11:05 AM

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