Thriving during pandemic: Opportunity Project enhances programs for individuals with traumatic brain injury

In March 2020, New Jersey businesses, schools and other institutions were forced to adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nearly all struggled. Some shuttered. A few, including the nonprofit Opportunity Project in Millburn, thrived.

Founded in 1993 by two families whose sons had suffered brain injuries, the Opportunity Project provides support, training and community services to individuals dealing with the impact of life-altering traumatic brain injuries and acquired brain injuries such as strokes, brain tumors and aneurysms. The clients learn vocational skills and receive occupational therapy in a clubhouse setting where they work collaboratively to build confidence and independence.

Since its launch, the Opportunity Project has worked with 630 survivors of brain injuries and their families. During a typical six- to eight-hour day, members of the clubhouse work together while receiving counseling, therapy and training that reinforces life skills such as fitness, cooking, family relations and computer science, among others.

That was before COVID-19 redefined “typical” for everyone, not just those struggling with brain injuries.

“We were concerned that the pandemic would isolate our members and prevent us all from delivering on our promises or even interacting in meaningful ways,” Opportunity Project Executive Director Rebecca Gallanter said.

Gallanter and her team transitioned to a virtual format, enabling Opportunity Project clients to continue participating remotely, something no one could have imagined pre-pandemic.

Members of the Opportunity Project outside the Clubhouse. (Opportunity Project)

The Opportunity Project sought and was awarded a grant from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority for staff salaries and overhead costs that enabled the organization to continue running programs at a distance. Information technology-nimble clubhouse members and staff taught one another how to use the new digital resources. Everyone, and everything, was back up and running in short order, Gallanter said.

“In the course of helping one another adapt to new ways of socializing and participating in programs, clients gained and maintained technological skills like phone and video conferencing,” she said. “They also became more adept in using social media platforms, which benefits them on so many levels.”

Mike Lacerda joined Opportunity Project about four years ago after suffering a brain aneurysm.

Lacerda said loved ones and caregivers mean well, but often have difficulty allowing a person with a brain injury to be independent, to be able to “make mistakes and learn from them,” he said. He said he appreciates that he’s “not treated as a child” at the Opportunity Project.

Lacerda, who served as president of the OP Member Committee during 2020, said Opportunity Project helps him and other members mentor each other, co-lead therapy groups and engage with the community.

Gallanter said the Opportunity Project plans to resume on-site activities later this month, though she acknowledges that operations have fundamentally changed.

“The pandemic showed us that we can seamlessly integrate virtual programming with in-person services,” she said. “That means we — and our members — are no longer constrained by distance from the clubhouse, or whether a ride is available on a particular day.”

Lacerda, who recently moved to Toms River from Kearny, is an example of this. Technology upgrades made during the pandemic have enabled him to participate remotely.

How can you help?

As a nonprofit, the Opportunity Project depends heavily on donations to meet its operating budget of about $1.8 million.

Visit the Opportunity Project’s website here to learn how you and your business can support the organization through a donation or during its annual golf outing, to be held Sept. 20.

“Attending group and one-on-one therapy sessions improves my productivity and wellness, especially important during this past year of isolation,” he said.

The hybrid model and a larger membership will also boost opportunities for socializing as well as enabling members to cultivate new ways to interact with their peers and others. Plans to invite individuals with brain injury to join no matter where in the world they live are under way.

Ruth Bash, vice president and chief culture officer at Children’s Specialized Hospital — an RWJBarnabas Health facility that partners with the Opportunity Project, said the pandemic has forever changed the organization. But in a good way.

“The pandemic provided us with opportunities we might never have identified otherwise,” she said. “During a time when many organizations faced insurmountable challenges, the Opportunity Project and its members flourished.”

Marc Berson, chairman of the RWJBarnabas Health board of directors and a co-founder of the Opportunity Project, agreed.

“OP’s members, survivors of brain injury and staff didn’t just meet a challenge throughout the Clubhouse closure, they transformed an obstacle into an opportunity for individual growth and new programmatic achievement,” he said. “That’s something to celebrate.”