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Friendships Based on Hope : Amerasians and Head-Injury Victims Shut Out From the Rest of Society by Limited Communications Skills Form Social Relationships Based on Mutual Assistance at a Costa Mesa Rehabilitation and Therapy Center


Imagine yourself suddenly, and perhaps violently, being thrown into a situation that robbed you of your most basic societal skills and needs: verbal communication, acceptance, self-respect, a feeling of community and of belonging.

Marcia Shiffman and Hoa Nguyen don't have to imagine.

Both, in their young lifetimes, have faced formidable barriers. Shiffman's arrived the day in 1985 when her car was struck by another car that had run a stoplight. When the former secretary emerged from a coma six weeks later, she was left with severe neurological damage and muscular and speech impairment.

Nguyen's impairments built more gradually. The daughter of a Vietnamese woman and an American serviceman, she grew up in a Vietnamese society often intolerant of her mixed heritage. When she immigrated to the United States three years ago, at age 21, with her mother and Amerasian half-brother, she spoke no English. Finding her father is considered impossible.

And now Shiffman and Nguyen, along with a group of other head-injury victims and Amerasian young people, have formed a unique social relationship, a pact of mutual help and learning that amounts almost to a kind of symbiosis.

The Amerasians, from the St. Anselm Immigrant and Refugee Community Center in Garden Grove, have been coming to the High Hopes center in Costa Mesa each Wednesday since the program began about two months ago. They have come to help their friends with debilitating head injuries through their therapy. In return, the Amerasians attend language-skills classes alongside their charges and learn the basics of English side by side.

The program is the brainchild of Michele Wilson, a speech pathologist and High Hopes volunteer. According to Peter Daniels, the coordinator of the Amerasian program at St. Anselm, Wilson approached him several weeks ago with the idea that Amerasian youngsters and head injury victims, working together, might take advantage of what Daniels called "a parallel learning situation."

It may be difficult at first to see the commonality, but it is actually stark: The mostly young adults who undergo rehabilitation and therapy at the nonprofit High Hopes center, and the young children of Vietnamese women and American men have all been denied something.

For Shiffman, 30, of Garden Grove, who has been treated at High Hopes for five years, it is the full use of her limbs and the normal processes of her brain that control language and cogent thought. For Nguyen, 24, who lives in Orange and who has worked as a VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) volunteer at the St. Anselm center for 1 1/2 years, it was not only a grasp of language, but also a sense of place in a new and strange country.

And both groups are attempting to grasp the language not as children, but as adults, which can make the process of linguistic learning even more demanding.

Shiffman and Nguyen help each other negotiate their way through the world. The two have, said Nguyen, become particular friends. Nguyen shepherds Shiffman through her physical and occupational therapy--helping her navigate around the room with her walker, talking and bracing her through exercises that help her raise herself out of a chair, giving her little hugs of encouragement--and Shiffman offers Nguyen the opportunity to improve her English and her communication and interpersonal skills in her adopted country.

It is perhaps because both groups have found themselves, in a sense, on the fringes of society that they have grown close--the clients because of their brain injuries, the Amerasians because of ostracism and uncertain futures both here and in Vietnam.

Molly Fitzgerald, a VISTA volunteer at St. Anselm who accompanies the young Amerasians to High Hopes, said that they "are very good with the people here, just like they're very good with kids. They're very caring, and maybe that's a result of what they missed growing up."

It shows. The young people are unfailingly patient with the often repetitive nature of the therapy and also appear to be equally patient and absorbed with their participation--alongside the head-injured group--in cognitive skills classes, where they learn the basics of English pronunciation, usage and inflection.

Wilson, who teaches the cognitive skills classes, said the young Amerasians "bring a new sense of life to the experience of the head-injured people. They're so conscientious and caring. They function as helpers and attendants, because you need one-on-one here, and when they're here things go a lot faster."

The Amerasian volunteers "started off pretty hesitant," said Mark Desmond, the director of High Hopes. "But then they started chipping in and really doing well. They picked things up really quick. They're kind of like guardian angels now." And, for part of the two hours every Wednesday, they're also classmates.

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