Church hosts lost words therapy group
By Lindsay Peyton
On the first and third Thursday of each month, Strawbridge UMC in Kingwood becomes a refuge for individuals with aphasia, a condition that limits speech and language after a stroke or brain damage. The church has hosted the group for the past three years, providing therapy and a social outlet at no charge.
Anyone with aphasia is welcome to attend, organizer and church lay leader Kevin Larson explained. Participants have varying capabilities. “Some can speak in full sentences,” he said. “Others can hardly say two words.”
Larson was inspired to start the group after his wife Ellen had a stroke in April 2016. After being in the hospital for about six weeks, she was transferred to a full-time care facility for three months.
“Then, they discharged her,” Larson said. “I didn’t know whether she’d be able to walk, talk or eat on her own.”
Then, he found Houston Aphasia Recovery Center (HARC), on the west side of the city near the Galleria. The organization offers therapeutic socialization to participants.
Before long, Larson began thinking about people in his own backyard who might benefit from a similar service. “There have to people in Kingwood who would benefit from this, who might not be able to get to the Galleria area to go to HARC,” he said. “Ellen can’t be the only one in the area who had a stroke. I knew there had to be a need in the community.”
Larson began brainstorming. He soon connected with another member at Strawbridge UMC, Rebecca Galey, speech language pathologist, who offered to volunteer her services.
“I knew nothing about how to start something like this,” Larson admitted. “I just jumped in.”
He was determined to give it a shot and started spreading the word. “We began advertising the group and made postcards to hand out,” he recalled. “I went to senior centers, hospitals, churches, everywhere I could think of, to tell them what we were doing.”
Strawbridge UMC offered a room and announced the aphasia group on its website. The church opened its doors for the first meeting was held in 2019.
Right away, to Larson’s pleasant surprise, people started showing up and have returned ever since. Now, the original six regulars has tripled.
The group meets twice a month. The Rev. Lindsay Smith, minister of music and fine arts at Strawbridge, starts each session with song. “Music sometimes makes it easier to speak,” Larson explained.
Smith assumed her post in January 2020. Larson is a choir member and approached her about helping with his aphasia group.
“I said, ‘Of course,’” Smith recalled. “I started my first month here. I didn’t have any experience with people with aphasia, but I know music is vital to everyone.”
The experience has been rewarding. “This ministry is meeting a real need,” she said. “It’s helping people. This was born out of a personal experience, finding a place where folks can share their burdens and work together to improve. It’s a really beautiful thing, and I’m blessed to be a part of it.”
There are also five speech pathologists who volunteer to lead programs. Each session has a different focus. Sometimes, participants play a word game. Other times, they talk about concerns they face, like safety in the home or navigating the holidays.
During the pandemic, the group switched its meetings from the church classroom to Zoom. Smith still starts each session with singing and shares words on her screen so everyone can follow along.
Since going online, she added, the group has actually grown. And what once served a local audience has extended its reach.
First one woman joined from Florida. “Then we got someone from LA, and then someone from London,” Larson said. “I don’t know how they heard about us, but they just showed up.”
Participants go around the virtual room and engage everyone in the conversation. While Larson hopes to return to face-to-face meetings when it is safe, he plans to offer a hybrid to allow virtual attendance. “We have people who come from all over Houston now,” he said. “It would be hard for them to get here.”
Having an opportunity to socialize can be a challenge for individuals with aphasia, Larson explained. “People can’t understand them, and they’re afraid to talk to others because they’re worried they won’t be understood,” he said. “I want to provide an outlet where they can talk to other people with aphasia. They don’t feel embarrassed to talk, because everyone is in the same place.”
For Larson, the meetings afford the opportunity to share what he has learned as his wife’s caregiver. “This is a ministry that I felt I could do,” he said.
The aphasia group also fits the church culture. The Rev. Dr. Todd Jordon, Senior Pastor, explained that there is also a group for Parkinson’s. In addition, Strawbridge recently became the only church in Texas certified as an autism center by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES).
Jordan said that the church trains members, volunteers, teachers at the day school and Sunday school leaders to work with children on the spectrum. “We have parents able to send their children with autism to Sunday school for the first time,” he said.
He explained that diversity includes race, gender and ability. “Diversity is critical for the Kingdom,” he said. “We’re not complete as a community, if we are shutting people out.”
Jordan added that the church’s mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world — regardless of ability or disability. “We’re the one institution in the world that ought to be and is expected to share the love of God,” he said. “This is just one way we can do it.”
Larson said that Strawbridge seeks ways to truly reach and help neighbors. “Our tagline is that we’re trying to be the best church for the community — not in the community, but for it,” he added.
And that’s something Larson believes all churches can do. “If you’re willing to give it the old college try, God will make it work,” he said. “That’s been my experience. I definitely feel like God is in control.”