Karen Springen is a Chicago-area freelance writer and faculty member at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.
Finding Strength After Trauma
REALTOR® Kim Strub helps make life better for people with brain injuries and their families.
August 28, 2019
In 1975, Lise Schurig, then a 14-year-old high school freshman, was walking home from a babysitting job. Four teens from her school in Mill Valley, Calif., pulled over in their car and offered her a ride. Minutes after Lise got in, the 17-year-old driver lost control on the winding road and struck a tree. Lise was ejected from the car, hit her head on the pavement, and temporarily stopped breathing.
Fortunately, no one was killed. But after months in intensive care, Lise had to relearn how to speak, eat, and walk. Several years after the accident, Lise’s mom, Karen Schurig, who was raising three kids on her own, formed two informal support groups—one for survivors of brain injuries and one for their family members. That effort to reduce isolation and help others led to the opening in 1985 of the Schurig Center for Brain Injury Recovery, a nonprofit post-acute therapeutic center.
Kim Strub, a high school classmate of Lise, thought about the family's pain over the years and admired Karen’s determination to provide help for her family and others in the community. “Her mother was not going to let her just languish,” says Strub. “People still get calls like that every day, and their life is changed. Where do you go for help?”
So a decade ago, Strub joined the center's board. Now she chairs it.
Lise’s accident taught Strub as a young person how fragile life is. “Teens feel invincible, so it was perhaps the first time some of us thought about our physical vulnerability and the potential for loss,” she says.
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Helping Survivors, Caregivers
Each year, the Schurig Center serves 350 clients at its peaceful, sage-green facility on the College of Marin campus in Larkspur, Calif. About a third of of those helped are caregivers; the rest are survivors—including Lise, now 58, who spends every Monday through Thursday at the center, painting and sculpting in art therapy classes, gardening, doing adaptive yoga, and writing poems and essays. Lise uses a walker and speaks slowly. She can remember things well from before the accident but her short-term memory is poor. She lives in a nearby apartment with 24-hour care.
“She’s integrated into a community because of the center,” says her sister, Paige Schurig Singleton. “One of my mom’s geniuses is that she felt that for people to be happy, they needed to feel productive.” Survivors paint and sell artwork, go on field trips, attend support groups, and work with master gardeners to tend the flowers on site.
About 34 percent of clients had concussions, while about 37 percent had traumatic brain injuries (often from car accidents and falls); the rest had strokes and brain injuries from other causes such as lack of oxygen. “Now as a mom you look back and think, ‘That could have happened to my kid,’” says Strub. “It could be me.”
The center fills a significant void in the follow-up care for survivors and caregivers. “You’re usually given rehab for six weeks at the hospital and then expected to take care of yourself,” says Strub. About 70 percent of their clients are low-income. They offer services on a sliding scale, or even for free, depending on ability to pay.
After traumas, friends can drop away. “People who have faced a similar problem get great strength from coming together,” says Strub. “This creates a new community and sense of spirit and camaraderie. We help people grieve for what they’ve lost but accept their new lives and reshape their dreams. People need hope and encouragement to get through.”
In 2009, Strub volunteered to help with marketing to increase awareness about traumatic brain injury but, after Karen Schurig died from cancer and the board chair resigned, Strub offered to chair the board. “I have the skills from real estate to promote people and places,” she says. For example, she renegotiated the 10-year lease with the College of Marin, where the center is based. “I’m always trying to figure out what we need and who’s the best person or organization to help us,” she says. “Knowing I am helping her [Lise] and others gives me a sense of purpose.”
"People who have faced a similar problem get great strength from coming together. ”—Kim Strub
Strub has used these strengths to recruit new board members. “One of the things I’ve learned from real estate is if you don’t ask, the answer is always no,” says Strub. “The worst thing that happens [when you do ask] is they might say no.”
Her secret: a true sense of gratitude. “I felt like the Queen of England the way she introduced me to the group,” says speech pathologist Beth Whalen, a volunteer advisory board member. “She was so gracious and grateful for everything I could bring.”
During Strub's decade on the board, the center has tripled to 350 the number of people it serves on site (not counting the thousands served through online services, referrals, and presentations), and the annual budget has also tripled to more than $700,000. All told, Strub has raised nearly $1 million for the center.
‘I Can Walk, I Can Speak’
Her work at the nonprofit gives Strub perspective. “When I’m upset about a real estate deal, I remind myself that I can walk, I can speak, I can remember who I am," she says. She feels renewed commitment every time she speaks with people at the center. “I am grateful that I have the chance to make such a positive difference in people’s lives,” she adds.
The center offers speech, behavioral, cognitive, and occupational therapy, along with psycho-social, nonmedical help, “to pick up where the health care system has stopped treatment,” says the center's executive director Patricia Gill.
Strub and the center also led an effort with Marin County educators, hospitals, and public health officials to set standard protocols for coaches and medical personnel to improve how concussions are handled in schools. (See ConcussionSmartMarin.org.) “With kids, if you have a secondary concussion when you’ve had a first concussion, it can have a cascading effect and cause terrible brain damage,” Strub says.
It’s another way Strub has increased the reach and impact of this nonprofit. “I’m not a doctor. I’m not a scientist,” says Strub. “Just being involved and making sure people care about each other seems to work. It’s about building community.”