Sunlight pours into the big, empty room, spilling across stacks of construction materials, buckets of paint and a floor that is half bare, half laid with hardwood floor panels.
Allyson Scerri stands in the doorway, looking over it all. “I can picture them having Christmas here with their families,” she says.
Her voice echoes in the empty space, and for a moment, it is possible to envision the traumatic brain injury survivors who will live here one day.
Where those boxes of paint rollers and tools are stacked, residents will open presents with their families and share a holiday meal. The silent, vacant room will be filled with conversation and laughter. After years of shuffling between nursing homes and spare bedrooms, these survivors will finally have a place to call their own.
But the Brendan House may not be finished in time for Christmas. An unexpected $40,000 water hookup cost has significantly delayed progress for the future Sound Avenue group home, which will be Long Island’s first for survivors of traumatic brain injury.
“If we had the money, we could open in a month,” Scerri explained. “It’s very frustrating.”
Scerri is the founder of New Beginnings, a brain injury rehabilitation center in Medford, which she opened in 2011 after her father suffered a brain injury in a motorcycle accident eight years ago. At the time, there was no other local rehabilitation facility of its kind for victims of traumatic brain injury. And for survivors who require more care and maintenance, there is no long-term care facility that can house them east of Queens.
But with the Brendan House, Scerri plans to fill that void as well. A two-story farmhouse on Sound Avenue was donated to New Beginnings in 2011, and Scerri knew immediately what they would use it for.
Though the project’s first year was bogged down with town permit applications, the following two years would see the house transformed from a dilapidated homestead into a sprawling safe-haven with huge wheelchair-accessible bathrooms, plentiful living space and spacious bedrooms. Named in memory of traumatic brain injury victim Brendan Knight Aykroyd, the Brendan House will soon house 12 survivors of traumatic brain injury.
One of those survivors is Riverhead resident Michael Hubbard, who was only 14 years old when a citronella firepot explosion in May 2011 left him with third-degree burns across 40 percent of his body. His injuries led to massive organ failure, which in turn led to cardiac arrest nine days after the injury. His brain was deprived of oxygen for 13 minutes, and when Michael emerged from his coma, he could no longer walk, stand or even speak.
Now 18, Michael has made strides in his recovery. He is aware of what’s going on around him. He guffaws with laughter when his mother, Nancy Reyer, jokes around with him, especially when she makes silly noises. He can stick out his tongue, fist bump and give a thumbs up. And he’s slowly beginning to regain his ability to speak.
“It’s going to get better,” Scerri said. “The brain takes such a long time to heal. You’re looking at five, 10 years. It took Rob 11 years to start talking again.”
Rob is the 37-year-old son of New Beginning’s vice president, Kate DiMeglio. He spent a year after his 21st birthday in a vegetative state after a car accident left him with severe brain trauma. But after 11 years of therapy, he began talking again, and he is now able to walk with assistance.
Rob will also be staying in the Brendan House. His room is on the first floor, with a sweeping view of the rolling acres of farmland outside.
“We’re hoping it will give them a feeling of independence,” Scerri said. “Because they’re aware. They know their friends don’t come around anymore. But they all spend time together at New Beginnings, and they all get along. They get so excited about living here. We could have a reality show – two of the people here fell in love.”
All of the home’s future residents are patients at New Beginnings. Each of its bedrooms has already been pegged for a survivor of traumatic brain injury (shortened to TBI by the dedicated community of relatives and caretakers). The rooms filled up quickly, Scerri explained. “We could fill five more houses,” she added with a sad laugh.
Some of the survivors are currently in nursing homes, like Michael Hubbard, who has been generously accommodated at Peconic Bay Medical Center’s skilled nursing facility as he and his mother await the Brendan House’s opening.
Others have been living with parents and other family members who have quit their jobs to care for their loved ones.
“The families get isolated and depressed as well,” Scerri said. “As you get older, it can be really hard changing your adult son’s diaper every day. You just have no life.”
She experienced this firsthand caring for her father in the wake of his motorcycle accident. “He came out of his coma a different person,” she said. “He was angry and violent. They wanted him to go in a nursing home and I said, ‘Nope, he’s coming home with me.’ So I took him home, and it was a nightmare.”
Her father died last November of heart failure, but that hasn’t halted Scerri’s crusade for better care and treatment for TBI survivors on Long Island. She hopes the Brendan House will provide the families of TBI victims with some peace of mind knowing that their loved ones are cared for on the long road to recovery.
“I’m going to make sure this is run as if my dad were here,” Scerri said. “I’m going to put my whole heart into it.”
But raising enough money to finish construction has significantly delayed progress.
The old farmhouse required hundreds of thousands of dollars of renovations in the beginning. A former home for unwed mothers, the building has been unoccupied for years and was falling apart when it was donated to New Beginnings.
“It was an eyesore,” Scerri said. “We had to have demolition come in and knock half of it down.”
Over the course of the next three years, numerous builders and local residents have volunteered their time on the weekends to transform the house into something inhabitable. Several local companies have offered their products and services at discount, like Riverhead Building Supply, Aboff Paints and Babe Roof. Local restaurants and delis have donated lunches for the volunteer crews on the weekends. In addition to the wealth of volunteers, fundraisers and private donations are the backbone of it all, funding the materials and the labor.
“Once the walls were up inside and they were painted, and we could see what the rooms were going to look like, we could really get a feel for how it will look,” Scerri said.
And after three years, Scerri thought it was almost finished – there was only about $8,000 needed to install the handicapped-accessible elevator, which is necessary in a two-story home with many of its residents in wheelchairs. There’s also the appliances for the two kitchens, but Scerri hopes to get them donated by a local business.
Then came the discovery that the old farmhouse wasn’t hooked up to the town’s water district.
“We have to go underneath the concrete to hook it up,” Scerri said. The town’s contractor estimates the cost at $40,000. “That’s worth several fundraisers at least,” she said.
New Beginning’s next big fundraiser, a roaring ’20s-themed annual gala at the East Wind, is scheduled for November 10. But Scerri is hoping the money can come in before then, whether in the form of a break from the contractor who won the town bid, or some larger private donations.
Meanwhile, Scerri and her husband, who is the project manager, will be at the farmhouse on Sound Avenue every weekend. There is still work to be done. The hardwood floors need to be laid – “which is very tedious,” Scerri said, “so we can use all the help we can get.”
Interested volunteers can contact Scerri at 631-245-0333.
Support local journalism.
Now more than ever, the survival of quality local journalism depends on your support. Our community faces unprecedented economic disruption, and the future of many small businesses are under threat, including our own. It takes time and resources to provide this service. We are a small family-owned operation, and we will do everything in our power to keep it going. But today more than ever before, we will depend on your support to continue. Support RiverheadLOCAL today. You rely on us to stay informed and we depend on you to make our work possible.