Watching Mike Clancey lead Tuesday’s weekly jam session at Trey’s House, it’s easy to forget that he’s doing anything other than rocking out, but Trey’s House, just south of Chris Madrid’s on Blanco, offers holistic healing for traumatic brain injury sufferers. His band comprises both full-time musicians and club members, leading them to amble along like a multi-headed giant (that occasionally trips itself up). Clancey and his cohort Linda Mountain slay classics like “I Will Survive” and “Pink Cadillac” for about 50 dancers, ages 6 to 60. It’s a strange mob to the uninformed. Older TBI recoverers, many assisted by walkers, canes, or wheelchairs, shake their asses while younger members hold their own with the volunteers, or friends and family who just came to hang out. Trey’s House is a social sanctuary for victims of TBI, and frequently the place is filled with the euphoria typical of a Pentecostal church service. It’s no wonder the place is gathering attendants faster than funding.
“It’s love. I can feel love in here,” says founder Margaret Griffith. She named Trey’s House after her son, who has survived brain tumors and multiple craniotomies. She calls her nonprofit “A Welcome Back Community.”
In the medical world, traumatic brain injury has often received questionable treatment. Varied causes, which range from brain tumors to sports accidents, previously led doctors to treat TBIs as events with definitive ends. However, if part of the brain is permanently damaged, certain faculties and tissue are lost, causing aphasia, blurred or double vision, growth-hormone deficiencies, and sexual dysfunction, among many other conditions. A TBI victim can lose any ability regulated by the brain, including a talent or character trait, for life.
“Brain injuries lead to radical shifts in personality, both before and after injury and in recovery,” said Griffith, who also had to get reacquainted with her husband in the wake of his brain injuries. “You don’t get the opportunity to see this until you’ve lived it. You can’t call it losing a loved one, because they’ve been replaced.”
The myriad, unpredictable symptoms, when coupled with misdirected rehabilitation programs, can make futures bleak for TBI recoverers, many of whom are veterans.
“They’re dumped into programs that they don’t fit in,” Griffith said. “They’re treated like pariahs.”
Enter Trey’s House, which incorporates a “club house” method of social reintegration. If you’ve ever set foot in a community or youth activities center, you know what to expect: board games, books, comfy chairs, a TV, and daily special events. The difference is that Trey’s House members have survived cranial gunshot wounds or wrapping their car around a tree.
“Our whole focus is making it as normal a place as anyone would want to go. We have the pool table, Foosball, the music,” she said. “We don’t have alcohol, `because` alcohol is responsible for `many` of the brain injuries out there. We have everything else.”
She’s not kidding. On my first visit, I was greeted at the door by an unpainted, 7-foot-tall, papier–mâché giraffe, attached to a senior walker. Two weeks later, the giraffe blossomed with more color than a Fiesta float and the walker was gone. It’s this aggressive feeling of ironic, well-intentioned weirdness that drives Trey’s House. TBI recoverers, who often feel like disabled outcasts, come to feel normal again in a relaxed, nonjudgmental environment and, as a result, they bloom.
“We laugh at the wrong things and cry at the right times,” Griffith said.
The strangest aspect of the Trey’s House method is that it’s only been applied to TBI recoverers in the last 10 years, even though its science seems as elementary as understanding why exercise is good. At its core, Trey’s is merely applying what Griffith calls “natural social reintegration.” TBI recoverers are encouraged to socialize, enjoy the music, dance if they want, and join the band if they’re brave enough.
Dr. Ed Hammer is a professor at the Pediatrics School of Medicine at the Texas Tech Health Sciences Center in Amarillo who specializes in the treatment of people with neurological disorders, including TBI and cerebral palsy. He believes strongly in the work Trey’s House is doing. The regular creative activity the facility provides will not rebuild missing brain tissue, but it will help remaining tissue learn to compensate for the loss — a phenomenon known as “neuroplasticity.” TBI recoverers who have lost the ability to play an instrument or ride a bike could teach other parts of their brain to do those things.
“It prepares you to go back into the workforce,” Hammer added. This detail is especially important because many TBI recoverers are homeless. “`Griffith` teaches them that they can come here and learn to be around other people again and be understood. And it’s a person with a head injury helping another person with a head injury, helping you be more adjusted in your life.”
Griffith and her volunteers don’t claim to be doctors. They are not affiliated with any hospital or medical office. Most members join in response to a newspaper ad or their social worker’s recommendation. Some just wander in off the street. Griffith asks every member how his or her brain injury occurred and what symptoms to watch for, because she needs to know what to tell medical technicians in the event of an emergency. Beyond that, anyone with TBI can join and anyone can volunteer. And anyone can join the jam.
“We are poorly funded,” Griffith said. “`So` our members bring in something because they all want to be contributors. Everything in there was donated. We only own a few pieces of `musical` equipment.”
And each Tuesday, Clancey and his bandmates donate their talents, taking requests and playing loose versions of Cash, Springsteen, Cline, and (a whole lot of) Elvis for Trey’s House members and volunteers. Clancey keeps a few core band members onstage at all times, allowing guests to join or even take over. The ensemble changes from week to week. Some days he plays a straight set; others he takes one request after another.
“A lot of the songs are chosen by members and volunteers who look through my lyric books and see if there’s something they want me to sing,” Clancey said. “It’s kind of like a human karaoke, without the screen and with live musicians instead. I try to make it a party for these people.”
Of note is Clancey’s rendition of “In The Ghetto,” which he sings with Trey’s House Office Manager Jack Stone every week. There’s something about the way they engage the King’s portrait of poverty’s cycle. They sidestep its pain and directness with grinning faces and unwavering optimism. If the audience is thinking about how Presley got it right — how empty pockets beget shitty opportunities and horizontal social mobility — they’re not showing it. They checked those negative feelings at the door. •
Weekly Jam Session