Headway member Wilbert 'Wil' Young at Banks Street Service Station, where he does vocational training.
When it comes to brain injury recovery, neuroplasticity is one of the most critical processes and gives hope to people living with these injuries. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to reorganize itself throughout life, producing new connections and pathways, which means if a part of the brain becomes damaged, other parts of the brain can compensate for the injury and restore function.
One of the keys to neuroplasticity is stimulation.Headway participant, Wilbert ‘Wil’ Young, shows us what neuroplasticity and stimulation is all about.
Wil served as a mechanic in the US Army and National Guard from 1994 until 2019 until he acquired a traumatic brain injury of unknown origins. For months, Wil received treatment in a California rehabilitation hospital and was unable to communicate who he was or where he was from. Eventually he recovered enough to identify himself and was reunited with his family in New Orleans.
Despite his homecoming and reuniting with his mom, Wil was still largely uncommunicative with limited motor function. His parents found out about Bastion’s Headway program and Wil joined it in 2020. Wil began attending the group sessions and one-on-one therapy with Headway’s occupational therapist, Rachel Schwenk.
“He’s made significant strides and improvements in his brain injury recovery,” says Rachel. “He was practically nonverbal when he first arrived and now is communicative, friendly and enjoys the camaraderie of the Headway group.”
During one OT session in his Broadmoor neighborhood, Wil and Rachel combined exercise and photography, which was part of the disposable camera workshop led by photographer/artist Fanny Garcia, who is also a veteran.
Wil stands next to his award-winning photograph.
Wil’s photograph of an abandoned bus was displayed in an exhibit at the New Orleans Photo Alliance, and later won first prize in the color photography at the local Veterans Affairs’ arts festival. And just a few weeks ago after displaying the photo in another exhibit, Phelps/Dunbar purchased the photograph and it’s now permanently hanging in its law offices.
“That was fun. I liked that,” says Wil. “I feel like an artist.”
Wil is also regaining his automotive mechanic skills from his days in the service. As part of Headway’s vocational skills training, Wil and Rachel have been spending time at the Banks Street Service Station, and he has been working with owner Tommie Thurmond and the other mechanics on brake repair and other jobs.
Wil says that the experience has been kindling old memories, stimulating him to remember things he used to know, and he’s thankful that the Headway program continues helping him in his recovery.
“It’s great. It actually helps you harness your abilities and brings out the best in you.”
Bastion Groundbreaking in 2016
Ten years is a long time, and since its founding in 2012, Bastion Community of Resilience has accomplished quite a bit, but we’re not resting on our laurels. Bastion is working on the next ten years to ensure all local veterans transitioning out of military service have the tools they need to succeed in civilian life.
Dylan Tête, an Iraq War Veteran with a master’s degree in public health, first arrived in New Orleans in 2005 after leaving Iraq and the US Army. Married and a new father, he struggled with the transition to civilian life and Dylan realized that many veterans, especially those with traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and other conditions, were also struggling when they came home.
“There was a gap in the continuum of care for warriors who need lifelong rehabilitative care,” Dylan says. “Outpatient care after hospitalization wasn’t enough.” (something he observed upon his visits to Walter Reed, the Center for the Intrepid, and the VA’s polytrauma hub in Virginia).
What warriors and families needed the most was a supportive community of neighbors that could cure persistent loneliness and optimize social reintegration. So Dylan traveled to Hope Meadows in Illinois to learn more about their specialized neighborhood of care that used “intentional neighboring” as a primary intervention for foster youth and adoptive families. Dylan worked with Brenda Eheart, the founder of Hope Meadows, to adapt their model for a military population.
Bastion was born.
Bastion under construction 2016-17
Bastion broke ground on its first phase--38 apartments and a community center on a 5-acre campus located in New Orleans in 2016 and by 2018, it added 20 additional apartments for a total of 58. Primarily focused on veterans and families transitioning from military service to civilian life, Bastion is a thriving community, where residents benefit from the experience of helping others, promoting wellbeing and life satisfaction. The Bastion approach restores families, reduces stress at home, and expands social networks to strengthen resilience.
Celebrating full occupancy of Phase One
Dylan has more plans for Bastion.
“No veteran in the New Orleans area who is transitioning out of military service should fall through the cracks, and no one should struggle alone,” Dylan says.
Bastion will lead the effort in this goal by becoming a backbone organization in Southeast Louisiana and linking other veteran organizations together to create collective impact. Bastion will also promote health and wellbeing in the Gentilly neighborhood through its third phase: a wellness center that will serve military families in the metro area as well as the general public.
“I want Gentilly to be a thriving place for young families and our elders who have contributed so much to this neighborhood, and I think that can happen,” Dylan says, referring to the wellness center.
Since its founding 10 years ago, Bastion has been about helping people and communities become healthier. It’s a model that should be replicated throughout the country with Bastion communities in every major American city. And that’s exactly what the organization is working toward in the next ten years.
Help Bastion celebrate its 10-year anniversary on Veterans Day, November 11 with the “Veterans Experience Project” from 10am-6pm at Gallier Hall.
Heidi and Darius
Isolation and the loneliness that accompanies it can be difficult for anyone, and is especially hard on veterans. At Bastion, we use the power of community to help solve issues and that can be a powerful cure for isolation and loneliness. Consider our newest resident, Darius Sampey.
Sampey enlisted in the Army when he was 17, and had to wait until he turned 18 before reporting to basic training. While he was in boot camp, however, he suffered a tragic incident and became profoundly deaf, ending his military career in less than 60 days.
“I had at least 45 years of service planned,” Sampey says.
He knew he would have to change his plans, so Sampey got cochlear implants and enrolled at Tulane University. While there, he volunteered in the university’s Rotaract club, which is part of a global nonprofit focused on young people providing service to their communities.
“That’s when I first became familiar with Bastion even before it was built,” Sampey says.
Sampey graduated from Tulane in 2016 with a double major in international relations and history. Completing college had been difficult, however, because he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, which is an inflammatory disease of the intestines. In a great deal of pain and rapidly losing weight, Sampey finished his senior year from a hospital bed.
To manage the Crohn’s, Sampey, who is on full disability, takes medications, which cause a great deal of fatigue and make it difficult to socialize. He felt isolated in his apartment--he did get a service dog, Heidi, who has been his constant companion for six years--when a friend mentioned Bastion to him.
“It’s not easy making friends these days, and I was looking for a new place,” Sampey says.
It’s been a little more than a month since Sampey moved in. He’s participated in some of the Headway events, including a field trip to the immersive Van Gogh exhibit at the New Orleans Museum of Art. He’s made a close friend, Jason Causey, who also lives here, and Sampey mentions those everyday things that living in a close knit community can mean.
“Here [at Bastion] everything is more open, literally,” Sampey says. “Somedays the vets will hang out at the picnic tables, hanging with our dogs. It feels pretty good.”
“We all need it and deserve it. Not just people who have traumas. We’re all living in a pandemic in a violent world.” Lovella Calica, Bastion social worker
It might seem like an obvious statement, but considering the public stigma that still surrounds mental health, which can be even harsher for veterans, it’s worth repeating loudly and often. A recent Wounded Warrior Project survey found that 80 percent of wounded, ill, and injured veterans registered with WWP reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Likewise, many of Bastion’s veterans live with or have experienced PTSD, and/or other mental health conditions including depression, anxiety and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).
So how does Bastion address these issues? Allison Tebbe, director of Bastion’s Headway Program, refers to the approach as “community as intervention.” As Tebbe explains, it refers to the powerful effect of having a close knit community like Bastion’s.
“When people feel there are others supporting them and in turn, they’re providing support, their mental health improves,” Tebbe says. “It’s those neighbor-to-neighbor conversations and things like sharing a meal.”
Headway, which is a community integration program for veterans living with TBI and other neurological conditions, is a great example of this. Participants engage in occupational therapy, art and music therapy, community outings, adaptive recreational activities, and more. Building these vocational, practical, and mental health skills is mostly done in a group setting with other veterans who understand what the other person is going through. Tebbe says that teaching mental health skills are a way for veterans to build an arsenal of tools and coping strategies.
“When they’re experiencing acute depression or anxiety, or are feeling triggered, they can pull something out of the toolkit,” Tebbe says. “If that doesn’t work, try another skill you’ve learned. It can be a long process, but we’ve seen it pay off over and over again with these veterans.”
Bastion’s social worker, Lovella Calica, also works to dispel the stigma by making group efforts more commonplace and natural. While Calica does offer traditional one-on-one counseling, she also leads a number of group sessions in mind/body skills such as TRE (Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises), writing workshops and exercise sessions.
“It’s really important for people to realize that there are many ways to feel good and it doesn’t always mean one-on-one therapy,” Calica says. “It can be yoga, TRE and many other group activities.”
When she invites a resident to participate, she makes it clear that it’s something everyone can and should do.
“I’ll say, ‘I’m working on my mental health through exercise and meditation, do you want to join me’?” Calica says.
Tebbe points out that the social isolation that many Americans now experience and is a major risk factor for suicide, is relatively new. For thousands and thousands and years, people were in greater contact, made stronger connections, and benefited from it. It really was about the power of community.
“We’re trying to recreate that model at Bastion,” Tebbe says. “It’s true community care.”
Bastion Social Worker Lovella Calica
In some ways, you could say Bastion’s social worker, Lovella Calica, had been preparing to work with our veterans and residents for more than a decade before landing at Bastion.
Calica arrived in New Orleans in the Summer of 2020 to oversee Bastion’s virtual wellness center, but she had begun working with veterans in 2004. In 2008, she founded Warrior Writers, a national writing program specifically for vets and their families.
“It’s about using art to facilitate healing, documentation, community building and expression,” Calica, who is also a writer, photographer and multimedia artist, says.
Healing and community building are two of the cornerstones of the Bastion mission, and Calica fit in immediately with the residents and staff. Before coming to Bastion, she enrolled in a master’s program in social work, which she completed in 2021, becoming Bastion’s onsite social worker. She says that her job entails a wide range of responsibilities, and is, as she puts, “different everyday, which I love.”
That makes sense considering that healing and community building can take many forms. On any given day, Calica could be doing a variety of meaningful actions including:
For Calica, all of the efforts represent what Bastion is all about, using community as an intervention tool and the value of connectivity. She says that Bastion residents are open to trying something new, and their conversations show Calica that as community member and staffer, her endeavors are valued and appreciated.
“In this work, changes aren’t always visible, but to hear about their changes and improvements is very valuable and rewarding to me,” Calica says.
Lately I've come to the conclusion that regardless of the situation, or crisis, or whatever is happening in the world, we are going to hold up our little corner of it. For the past five years that's exactly what we've been doing since we moved in our first resident at Bastion-- holding up our community, healing together, and building peace.
When I think of those we have lost along the way, I immediately think of what I could have done to save them, to keep them out of harm's way. But then I am also reminded that so many things lie beyond our control. What is in our purview, however, is our willingness to trust each other, or rebuild trust when it is broken... even if it means taking the first step.
In the spirit of those we have lost on the battlefield and at home, I am going to use my trust to restore peace and safety in my personal relationships, with my neighbors, with everyone I encounter in my work. It is mine to use and I will use it to take the first step, no matter what may come next.
All my heart,
Since Bastion’s founding, the Bob Woodruff Foundation has been an invaluable partner and supporter. Like many of our residents, Bob and Lee Woodruff know firsthand the challenges that many of our veterans face.
Bob was an ABC News reporter covering the Iraq War when his armored vehicle was hit with a roadside bomb. He sustained a nearly fatal traumatic brain injury (TBI). During his recovery at the Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Md., Lee met many families of veterans who were experiencing the impact of TBI and other hidden injuries including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression.
It was a long road to recovery, but the couple took their experience as the impetus for starting the Bob Woodruff Foundation. Today, the foundation strives to “find, fund, shape and accelerate equitable solutions that help our impacted veterans, service members, their families, and their caregivers thrive.”
Executive Director Dylan Tête is very direct about the foundation’s contributions to Bastion.
“We wouldn’t be here without the Bob Woodruff Foundation,” says Dylan. “Their initial seed funding allowed me to quit my job and work full time on the project. Later they gave us the funding to pilot Headway, our signature brain injury program, and during the pandemic, they funded our telehealth program that provided services to more than 200 people across four countries in six months. Finally, the foundation awarded another grant to pilot our food program to address food insecurity among veterans.”
On a recent sunny afternoon, Bastion hosted the Woodruffs, their son Mac and Bob Woodruff Foundation Chief Program Officer Meg Harrell. Here are a few photos from that memorable visit.
Retirement didn’t slow down Bastion resident Sylvia Magee. Magee, a proud mother of two Air Force veterans, had worked as a cook in the Jefferson and Orleans parish school systems for 38 years before retiring in 2018, but that didn’t mean giving up her love of cooking for people. And that made her a perfect match for Bastion’s resident-driven food plan.
“I never stopped,” Magee says. “Before the program, I was feeding the sick and the homeless under the bridge. When they told me about the program, I thought ‘that’s right up my alley.’”
Bastion’s food program, sponsored by the Bob Woodruff Foundation, kicked off this past June, working off the proverb If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. If you teach him how to fish, he eats for a lifetime. One in four veterans have experienced food insecurity, which is the lack of access to healthy and nutritious food, and Bastion’s program provides residents with access to healthy fresh produce and other items and teaches them how to cook with it.
“From the beginning we wanted something sustainable for the residents,” explains Bastion Program Manager Renard Dominique. “We have a food pantry onsite, which is regularly filled with produce from Culture Aid NOLA; we have a chicken coop on the grounds and we’re planting fruit trees. It’s one thing, however, to make this food accessible, and it’s another to show folks how they can make delicious meals with it. That’s where the Bastion chefs come in.
Every other Friday, Magee and her fellow Bastion chef, Shantrise Sykes, a veteran resident and a former cook for the Louisiana National Guard, prepare dinner for the community. The dinners offer New Orleans cuisine like catfish, red beans and rice, fresh salads and other lesser known nutritious dishes like acorn squash casserole, and cooked with less sodium, half the fat and still high in taste. As residents stop by the Purple Heart Room for meal pickup, they can often also get the recipes.
Prior to the recent spike in Covid cases, the chefs were also teaching cooking classes,and Magee hopes to return to that once the pandemic numbers are more manageable. With help from other Bastion residents, the chefs have prepared a number of community-wide holiday dinners, and Magee says that they will be doing something special for Valentines Day.
“We’ll be cooking for the parents that day, so they don’t have to worry about making dinner,” says Magee. “And the kids will be giving out goodie bags to their parents, because you have to have something sweet on Valentine’s Day.”
The Crescent City Classic is back and we want YOU to join Team Bastion! With your previous support we have raised $150,000 from this prestigious race to benefit our veterans and families for which I am extremely grateful.
Together, we can continue to provide:
Our Bastion community is expanding throughout the metro area with special programs that address brain health and food insecurity, but we need your help! As a member of Team Bastion you can raise $200 or more through the Run For It Charity Registration.
Here's how to register:
If you encounter any problems with registration, we can help! Click here for assistance.
As a member of Team Bastion you will receive a custom t-shirt and free pass to the finish line extravaganza for libations and high-fives with the rest of the team. Don't miss out, sign up today!
Bastion's Wilbert Young and Artist/Photographer Fanny Garcia. Photo courtesy of Fanny Garcia
The cameras may be disposable, but the images captured are snapshot treasures of life in New Orleans. A group of Bastion residents and Headway members recently participated in a photo project, which became part of an exhibit at a New Orleans gallery.
Fanny Garcia, who is an artist/photographer based in Oakland, California and had previously worked with Headway members, presented a disposable camera workshop to Bastion veterans via Zoom earlier this year. Garcia thought the disposable cameras would work well because of the simple point and shoot instructions and their being lightweight, allowing the user to focus exclusively on what they’re shooting. Garcia is a US Army veteran and feels that helps her connect with Bastion community members.
“It helps build trust and comfortability,” Garcia says. “It’s really special.”
After the workshop, participants went into their neighborhoods and communities to shoot photos. The results were impressive, and through her connections with New Orleans Photo Alliance, Garcia had the photos showcased in the “Disposable Camera Project” which ran at the alliance’s gallery for the first two weeks of April. At the exhibit opening, many of our vets including Wilbert Young, Jeannie Morin, Dennis Delhom, Benjamin LeBoeuf and Marvin Belisle, were proudly standing by their framed work and answering questions.
Garcia hopes to return to Bastion soon to teach another photo workshop on light painting.