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There’s the will, so they find a way

It has been one year since Frank Austin cofounded the Expressive Café in Elmira with speech therapist Michele Anderson. As he prepared for its anniversary celebration November 14, Austin, a stroke victim who suffers from aphasia, said he saw the organization as an opportunity to help other stroke survivors reintegrate in the community.

Looking back over recent months, he has seen his 25 registered members make great strides.

Frank Austin suffered a stroke in 2008, and has struggled with aphasia ever since. His Expressive Café gives fellow survivors an opportunity to take speech therapy and socialize.[Will Sloan / The Observer]
Frank Austin suffered a stroke in 2008, and has struggled with aphasia ever since. His Expressive Café gives fellow survivors an opportunity to take speech therapy and socialize. [Will Sloan / The Observer]
“One gentleman approached me who said, ‘Frank… this is the first time in two years that I’ve heard my wife’s voice,’” said Austin. “I’ve seen one person recently … he’s gotten confidence on his stroke and aphasia, he’s put more effort to his therapy – he walked out of a wheelchair for the first time less than a month ago.

“Other people over the past year, you’re seeing them get better with their speech, getting more confidence. … The proof is seeing them.”

It was 2008 when Frank Austin suffered a stroke, and while he quickly regained mobility, he still faces lingering difficulties. Aphasia, which is typically caused by a stroke, concussion, or other head trauma, affects the brain’s ability to express and process language. While Austin’s disorder may pass unnoticed in casual conversation, he’s far from cured.

“I’m getting stronger – nowhere any close to where I’d like to be, let’s put it that way,” he said. “I’m a little more confident on trying to write more, and not relying on voice recognition, because I can’t write. Numbers are toast – I’m told I will elude them for the rest of my life, but you never know, something may click.”

Key to his recovery has been keeping himself engaged and active.

“When I go for a walk, I recite the alphabet aloud. I’m having a good day if I’ve done it by the eleventh time. It’s not that I don’t know what it is, but the brain was compromised in such a way that I can’t formulate it with words.

“I’m always researching, reading out loud, and I have a seven-year-old … I don’t know who uses the batteries more, him or me!”

He also lives his life by certain routines. “The routine is developing our group, trying to research, maybe doing emails, and interacting with other people. The more I can converse with people, the better for me.”

The Expressive Café was launched September 2012 to provide an environment for stroke survivors to converse and socialize with the help of a speech therapist and volunteers. It’s easy to become isolated after suffering a debilitating neurological attack; in the way that groups like the Expressive Café can provide a venue for communication – one of the most basic elements of the human experience – they can become a lifeline.

“Most [stroke survivors] are at home,” said Austin. “They have their stroke, aphasia, they’re not doing anything, and…” He mimes clicking the TV remote.

“Now they’re getting out. It’s about a quality of life, not just existing. It’s hard even for me, and if it’s hard for me, imagine for someone who may not be as determined as I am to push themselves.

“They come here, they get some tools, we talk together, and what they do from there is what they do during the week.”

In the future, Austin hopes to expand the scope of the group to incorporate partnerships in Kitchener-Waterloo. For the recovering stroke victims, he believes that organizations like the Expressive Café can be life-changing.

“I see it in their eyes, let’s put it that way. And for me, it’s been therapy. It still is.”

The Expressive Café meets Thursday, 9:30-11:30 a.m., at the Woolwich Memorial Centre. To register, contact expressive.cafe@rogers.com, or call 519-729-5221 on Monday to Friday between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

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