When he experienced a stroke at age 57, Alan Knapp's life changed overnight.
The fit and active retired aerospace engineer lost the use of his right arm as well as the ability to speak easily and form sentences.
It's ironic because he was always so eloquent, said his wife, Jill Knapp, of her husband, who had served as a Russian-language linguist for the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War era and holds a degree in architecture from UC Berkeley.
After the stroke, she said, "We just kind of set our lives on 'restart' and the ground rules changed."
Now, 16 years later, Knapp is able to drive himself to his daily activities and recently hung a screen door at the couple's house in Los Altos. But he still works every day to progress against continuing major challenges with speech and movement.
"He's got a great attitude, and I think that's kind of carried us through," Jill Knapp said. "We married for the long haul -- it could just as easily have happened to me."
For the past 15 years, the couple has found both therapy and camaraderie with others in similar circumstances at REACH, a four-day-a-week program at Cubberley Community Center that serves people recovering from stroke and other traumatic brain injuries.
"At REACH, slowly I got better," Alan Knapp said -- slowly -- in an interview.
The Knapps and other REACH families are now lobbying the city of Palo Alto to continue to make low-cost space available for them. The program's lease is up this month as Foothill College -- with which REACH was affiliated until 2012 -- vacates Cubberley for a new satellite campus in Sunnyvale.
REACH has served more than 2,300 stroke survivors since it was launched in 1989 by a Foothill College instructor who herself had survived a stroke at a young age. The program operated through Foothill until 2012, when funding was cut and REACH became an independent nonprofit. Until now, Foothill has continued to offer the space at Cubberley for free.
"Coming to the REACH program allows (students) to be who they are now -- after the stroke," said Linda DiNucci, a surgical nurse-turned-speech therapist who has headed the program since 1994.
"So it's not the CEO and it's not the mailman or the homemaker. They're who they are now and dealing with the repercussions of the stroke, and this environment allows them to flourish."
The program is conceived as an "educational setting with a medical overlay," DiNucci said. In three classrooms with sliding, adjustable walls, students work in small groups with licensed physical therapists, speech therapists and occupational therapists. They work on a wide range of activities -- tossing beanbags, applying frosting to cupcakes, playing card games, working on stairs or parallel bars, watching their faces in the mirror as they pronounce words.
Participants are never called "patients" or "victims" -- only students, DiNucci said.
"Being a student means having some control over what you're going to do because, after a stroke, half the time everybody tells you what to do," she said. "When they come to REACH they get to make choices and that empowerment is key: 'Hey, I've had a stroke but I can still be me.'"
Students range in age from their 40s to their 90s, with most in their 60s and 70s, DiNucci said.
Palo Alto resident Jerry Martinson, a retired middle school teacher, began taking classes at REACH in 2012, a year after experiencing a stroke at the age of 77.
"The most important thing is the support that we have given to each other," he said in a recent interview.
"That's as important as anything else," Martinson's wife, Mary, added. "The fact that we're with a group of people that have similar limitations -- some more severe, some less severe. Everyone is so supportive of everyone else. We've developed some very good friendships, and everybody cheers everybody else on.
Students are often referred to REACH by their medical providers once the insurance coverage for one-to-one care has run out. Despite the conventional wisdom that "'If you haven't gotten it back within six months to a year of your stroke, that's as good as you're going to get,' that's simply not what we see at the REACH program," DiNucci said.
"Even if the progress is not as dramatic, or as much as you want it to be, it still continues," she said. "We've had people who came to the program with virtually no language and two years later they're saying words and they're saying sentences."
Jill Knapp said she and her husband recently spent an evening at the home of a friend they'd met at REACH. "This is somebody who met Alan after his stroke, which is a real boost to your ego to make friends after your stroke and to have that kind of level of tolerance and appreciation of what you've been through."
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