George speaks with slow deliberation, drawing out words in a manner that recalls an audio player in need of fresh batteries. He worries that stepping into the bathroom for a moment would be enough distraction to erase his memory of our meeting. George, 51, has required assistance to help him lead a productive and fulfilling life since being hit by a car at age 13. Learning new skills requires his concentrated effort, but George easily assumed the mantle of protester when state budget cuts threatened the mental health programs critical to his livelihood.
George Birk doesn't remember seeing the car that hit him in 1971, when he was a carefree 13-year-old riding his bike delivering newspapers. He doesn't remember rolling over its hood, crashing through its windshield, breaking the steering wheel with his head, then somehow ending up on the pavement more than 100 feet away from the wreck. He doesn't remember anything from the month-and-a-half coma from which doctors and his parents never expected him to awake.
Coming out of the coma with serious brain damage and partial paralysis on his left side, George had to relearn life skills like a newborn baby. After a year-and-a-half of rehabilitation, he was able to feed himself, walk with assistance, and speak, though only at a rate of one word every 30-60 seconds. The brain damage left him with Swiss cheese memories, though he vividly recalls the shame and frustrations of trying to express himself to people who didn't understand his problem. "They would say, 'Come on George Just spit it out.' But I couldn't. The words would fall out of the damaged part of my brain before they made it to my mouth," he tells me with a smile.
George knows he is different and handily employs self-effacing humor about his brain damage. Maybe the method began as a defense mechanism, perhaps as a way to put at ease anyone uncomfortable because he talks and moves a little slowly. Or he could be a natural born jokester riffing off obvious absurdities in his life.
During our conversation at Dunkin' Donuts, George keeps ribbing one of the employees, giving directions on what he thinks the guy should be doing with the place. "See I do think every once in awhile," George play shouts, winking at me. "Just not very often because it might become habit-forming."
Realistically, forming habits can be a challenge for George. He relies on assistance from the Crossroads Clubhouse in Hopedale to make sure his bills get paid on time, and his forms for disability and Medicaid are up-to-date. The social service organization, which is devoted to assisting the mentally and physically disabled, helps him keep his small rent-subsidized apartment tidy and makes sure he has clean clothes. They secured a part-time job that suits his mental capabilities and doesn't strain his physical limitations. If he can't pull himself out of bed one morning, overcome by the arthritis that has given him excruciating pain head-to-toe since his accident, Crossroads will send a substitute worker on his behalf, so George's job won't be endangered by absences.
Three days a week George cleans the parking lot of the Cancer Care Center in nearby Milford, a job he has held for a year-and-a-half, with support of the Crossroads Clubhouse. When he is done working, most days George will go by the Clubhouse to see if the office staff there needs any help. Crossroads does not require those people it serves to volunteer time at the Clubhouse, though many do. As much as the Crossroads Clubhouse provides practical assistance, George mentions that his past fifteen years with the organization has also given him a sense of belonging, a feeling of community like he never thought possible, and companionship with people facing similar day-to-day struggles.