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Powell River Brain Injury Society director passing on the torch

Debbie Dee transformed society into welcoming space with dynamic programs for clients

Suffering any sort of damage to the brain can be life-altering in many ways. Whether it's an acquired brain injury (ABI) or traumatic brain injury (TBI) caused by sports injuries, motor vehicle accidents or falls, consequences can ripple out to every aspect of an individual's life, their family, and to society at large.

For more than 20 years Debbie Dee has been at the helm of Powell River Brain Injury Society (PRBIS) as executive director, but is passing the torch to Leanne Kerntopf as of March 28.

In the 1990s, public health nurse Penny Mebs started a local monthly support group for those living with a brain injury, their family and friends. Her own personal experience with her son, who had an acquired head injury from a vehicle accident, drove Mebs to find out as much information as she could. At that time there was no one who could tell them what to expect, what recovery looked like, and if there was treatment available.

Mebs became an acquired brain injury expert and represented the region at provincial and national conferences. When the group was able to acquire funding to become a society in 2003, Dee stepped in as its first program manager.

According to Brain Injury Canada, men and women who had sustained a TBI were about 2.5 times more likely to be incarcerated than men and women who had not sustained a TBI. Research from Simon Fraser University and University of British Columbia in 2022 found a connection between acquired brain injury, addictions and poor decision-making, that can lead to negative life consequences, such as becoming unhoused.

Since 2003, Dee grew the society from a once a month support group to a vibrant space with support programs, cognitive enhancement, peer support and prevention programs that have helped hundreds of members turn their lives around. The motto of the society is: Life beyond acquired brain injury.

“We had absolutely everything donated: a file cabinet, a desk, an old computer; I think that's all we had to begin with,” said Dee. "But we just kept growing, our programs were wildly successful, and we had more clients and referrals as we got more visibility in the community." 

Dee brought her degree in music therapy along with her studies in clinical psychology to the table as a program manager, plus her own direct experience with a family member who had a brain injury.

"We absolutely incorporated music, breathing techniques, fitness and a swimming program," said Dee. "At one time we hired an ex-British Special Forces navy seal who did a walking group and a fitness group with us."

A long and large table has been a core piece of furniture in the office and drop-in centre for different kinds of programming, such as art and writing groups.

"When we first started, nobody knew what brain injury was; they didn't know what we do here," said Dee. “We had a school program for example, where we would bring clients and staff, and we would all stand in front of a group of students and ask them, ‘which one of us has a brain injury?’”

Dee said most people can't tell, and that there is a general misconception in society about brain injuries, and oftentimes the injury isn't noticeable. She feels bittersweet about retiring and will miss her clients, but is thankful Kerntopf is taking the reins.

"Five years ago, I started here, and it didn't really take too long until I was working alongside Debbie," said Kerntopf. "She was mentoring me and, of course, she knew she was going to be retiring, so I started kind of doing a little more of her end of things and learning about grant writing, reporting and all that goes along with the job."

Kerntopf's family lives in the qathet region and that's part of why she moved back, after living away for some years. She emphasized that she is happy to have a job she loves, and that all the clients are familiar with her, so it won't be a complete shock when Dee is no longer around as much.

"I've learned a lot in the past 20 years," said Dee. "A group of people who would never have been together in any other circumstance, but who are thrown together because of brain injury, end up becoming family. This is probably the best part, this population [brain injured] is the most accepting group of people I've ever met."

As for retirement plans, Dee said she likes to keep busy and has a few projects on the go, including sponsoring a family from Cuba and taking on a bit more work with her sister Savanna Dee, who is the manager at Powell River Action Centre Food Bank.

Powell River Brain Injury Society is hosting a Latin night fundraiser for client programming on March 23 at Carlson Community Club. For information, email [email protected] or call 604.485.6065.

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