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Feature story: Road to recovery

Rotarians work with veterans in VA's rehab program

Helping veterans return to active duty, work, school or independent living in the community is the goal of the Polytrauma Transitional Rehabilitation Program at the Veterans Affairs Health Care facility in Palo Alto.

It's also the goal of Menlo Park Rotarians who volunteer at the program, which specializes in traumatic brain injury and comprehensive rehabilitation. The patients include veterans of recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Rotary's involvement with the VA program starts with former club president Mike McNitt, who calls himself the "free safety" or middle man. He finds out "whatever the program's needs are and gets up and talks about it (at Rotary meetings), whenever the time is right," he says.

He began volunteering his services six years ago after hearing a speaker from the VA at a Rotary meeting. "He really impressed me," he says.

Mr. McNitt first volunteered in the polytrauma unit's reading program. A highlight was working with a vet who couldn't read or write. "We were able to get a program that fit his needs," he recalls.

Since then, Mr. McNitt has organized financial planning, artwork and robotics programs for the veterans on a regular schedule.

"I'm available on an 'on call' basis," he says. "I come down and confer with Dr. Susan Ropacki and speech pathologist Marlene Specht (of the VA staff) about different ideas and needs."

Fellow Rotarian Mary Helen Armstrong began teaching art on Wednesday mornings at the VA four years ago. A graduate of the Parson's School of Design, she and her daughter formerly operated Hurlimann and Armstrong Studio in Menlo Park. She also volunteered as an art teacher at the Bronx Veterans' Hospital when she lived in New York City.

Ms. Armstrong's painting class at the VA typically has from one to seven students. Classes begin with basic drawing in pencil, than progress to color theory and art history. The students work in watercolor, charcoal and clay. There are field trips to the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford and the de Young Museum in San Francisco.

Veteran Mike Martin was enthusiastic about his first class with Ms. Armstrong when the Almanac visited recently. "We have a good time in here," he says. "I always wanted to do this."

He's also enthusiastic about his Friday robotics class with volunteer Chuck Untulis. "I love it," he says. "Chuck is awesome."

Mr. Untulis, who was recruited by Ms. Armstrong, has been teaching a simulated robotics class at the VA for a year and a half. Retired from Hewlett-Packard, he worked with high school and middle-school students before becoming involved with the VA.

Both the art and robotics classes are important to recovery, says Ms. Armstrong "They (the patients) are making new connections, using parts of the brain they haven't used before," she says.

"It makes me feel good that they're enjoying and learning," says Mr. Untulis, as he demonstrates moving a Lego-built miniature "tank" back and forth. "You tell it (the tank) what to do on the computer and it does exactly as it's told."

Art supplies and the robots ($300 each), as well as a new pingpong table for the unit, have been donated by the Menlo Park Rotary Club.

Commenting on the Rotarians involvement with the polytrauma unit, Mr. McNitt says: "These people are facing life-changing situations. We realize we are not professional counselors; we don't pretend to be. We have no motive, except to help them and they know it."

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