Local non-profit a Guardian of those in need

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[wpaudio url=”http://www.mycitizensnews.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/guardian-package.mp3″ text=”Keeping it local”]

NAUGATUCK — A local non-profit agency is expanding its services and, thanks to a recent $1,300 grant from the Naugatuck Savings Bank, has taken under its wing Marcus Melchionno, the Naugatuck High School student and former basketball player who sustained a traumatic brain injury in a car crash almost two years ago.

Guardian Ad Litem Services, a Church Street social services organization which combines legal and medical professional insight to provide case coordination and management, took Melchionno’s case in March.

“I am pleased that we, a Naugatuck-based non-profit, can utilize dollars from a Naugatuck bank to help improve the life of a Naugatuck resident,” said Mike Mackniak, the organization’s founder.

Though Guardian has traditionally dealt chiefly with those suffering severe and persistent mental illness, it has since expanded to offer its unique services to clients, like Melchionno, who have incurred a severe traumatic brain injury.

The organization works closely with local probate courts to manage those who have been “conserved”—or deemed incapable of handling everyday tasks. Guardian strives to “keep everybody who should be in the loop on a client’s care—whether it be the legal, medical, or psychiatric fields—in the loop,” said Ken Sawicki, an administrator and former case worker at Guardian.

Its case managers help clients complete often challenging administrative tasks related to securing state and federal aid and advocate on clients’ behalf by bridging the divide between mental health, medical, legal and penal professionals.

“We will coordinate the teams that work for a client, either the local mental health authority, housing providers, medical providers, jail diversion personnel, etc. and make sure that first of all we can talk to them and they start talking, if they’re not already, to each other,” Sawicki said. “Our goal is to enhance communication between disparate entities, so that they can work together to enhance the treatment of the client and make it more cohesive, more goal-directed and more successful.”

The organization, which is funded by the probate court administration and the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, decided to add traumatic brain injury (or TBI) clients to its case burden because, Sawicki said, “Mike [Mackniak] is constantly thinking of different ways we can make our services widespread. He’s constantly thinking of different populations. … TBI is sort of a different ball of wax. So he decided to actually take the bull by the horns and see if there was any desire or need for this.”

Guardian taps into a wide, diverse network of community resources and refers to professional know-how about state aid to “keep the client in the middle and driving his or her own treatment planning, based on what the desire and what goals they have, what dreams,” Sawicki said.

For Melchionno, that has meant help filling out the state ABI/TBI (acquired brain injury/traumatic brain injury) waiver, which is the primary recourse for TBI clients who require state aid. The waiting list for ABI/TBI benefits, Sawicki said, is a long one; so in the meantime, Guardian has worked to “get [Melchionno’s] entitlements in order and some of the community resources corralled so he can see which ones he might want to use,” Sawicki said. It also referred him to a wheelchair basketball league in New Britain.

Tina Melchionno, Marcus’ mother, said he was unable to join as of yet—though as soon as school’s out, she said, he’s hoping to get involved—because he’s generally too tired after long days attending Naugatuck High School and undergoing exhausting therapy to attend, let alone participate in, night games. But she’s thankful Guardian has been able to offer a helping hand.

“It’s hard. Especially when you’re not familiar with the system,” she said. “It’s a constant phone battle, believe me, it really, really is. If you don’t know who to contact, if you don’t know who to call, you don’t know what to do. … You really get lost. There are certain things you do in life, for your kids’ schools, paperwork and all that, but when it comes to the state, it goes beyond that. And it’s like, ‘Wait a minute, I need to do this because the only way my son is going to get help is if I do it’. … I would not be able to do it myself without cracking. I really, really believe that God sent [Guardian] to me. Period. I couldn’t do it without them.”

And indeed, Tina Melchionno sees the circumstances of their meeting as something of a miracle. She said immediately after the probate court recommended she seek Guardian’s services, she walked from Town Hall to its office at 175 Church Street to check it out. Then something strange happened.

“So we ended up going down there, and we walked in,” she said, “and all of a sudden they threw this message at us, you know, ‘We just got this grant, and we’re going to use it on your son.’ It was unbelievable that something like this would come true.”

She said Marcus is doing well and has come a long way from being in a coma and on the edge of paralysis, if not death. Though still unable to walk unassisted, he has, with the help of a walker and physical therapists, taken the first steps toward recovery.

Sawicki said Marcus has maintained an uncanny sense of humor, despite the hardship of his injury.

“Of course it’s tough to convince someone of that age that it’s a process, you know, one thing at a time,” he said. “But from what I can gather, he’s hopeful and grateful to have anther voice and another set of eyes and ears in his corner to get the services he needs and wants.”

Tina Melchionno confirmed Sawicki’s suspicion, saying, “[Guardian has] the people that fight for you. They’re advocates; they’re guardians for the disabled. … They’re not saying, ‘Well, I can promise you something.’ They’re saying, ‘We can help.’ They have connections; they know people; they’ve done this before. They say ‘I’m going to grease the wheels and jingle the bells and make it well-known that I’m here.’”

Guardian Ad Litem Services can be reached by phone at (203) 723-4332.