Effective Monday, the popular wildlife education program in Farmington will be known as Wildlife Rockstars.
FARMINGTON — They may not strut around the stage like Mick Jagger or belt out screaming high notes like Steven Tyler, but the young adults involved with the Wildlife Defenders program at Bridges for Brain Injury Inc. in Farmington epitomize the term as much — if not more — than the lead singers for the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith.
And that is why the program has undergone a name change.
Effective Monday, the popular wildlife education program will be known as Wildlife Rockstars. The name change, as well as a new logo, is part of a rebranding developed by Dixon Schwabl, an advertising, public relations and digital media agency in Victor. The agency donated its time and talents for the project.
“We are grateful to Dixon Schwabl,” said John Truini, director of day and wildlife education programs. “The new name and other features of the rebranding speak to the mission of our agency. It will highlight our program members’ individuality and emphasize their position as role models and ‘rockstars’ in our community.”
Wildlife Rockstars, sponsored by and in partnership with Mobile Music, has not only impacted the lives of young adults with traumatic brain injuries but thousands of others, whose understanding of wildlife and the environment has been enhanced thanks to rockstars such as Jon O’Bryan.
Before coming to Bridges for Brain Injury three years ago, O’Bryan barely made eye contact.
The traumatic brain injury he suffered during a robbery and assault left him reclusive, shutting out the world with the aid of his hoodie and headphones.
“I didn’t care about anything,” recalled the Canandaigua resident. “I didn’t associate with anyone and pushed myself away from my mom and family.”
His mother, Teresa, said her son “moped around the house and never talked much.”
Early on, not much changed for Jon at Bridges for Brain Injury, even though his mother worked at the agency.
“I was scared at first,” said Jon, who repeatedly told his mother he wanted to go home. But Teresa insisted that her son give it a chance.
And he did. He got involved in Wildlife Rockstars, first as a presenter and then as an animal handler.
Nowadays, Jon “talks up a storm,” said Teresa. “He has done really well and made a lot of progress, thanks to the wonderful support of John Truini, [executive director] Laurie [Donaldson], and others. They made a world of difference.”
While the work of the humans at Bridges for Brain Injury — who gave Jon what he calls “a second chance at life” — can’t be understated, neither can the agency’s contingent of native and exotic animals, birds and reptiles.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me to handle animals, to show affection and give it back,” said Jon, who works with small animals as well as alligators, kangaroos and porcupines.
Bridges for Brain Injury offers a host of programs geared toward rebuilding the skills (self-care, meal planning, household and money management, and many more) that people were once able to do independently before suffering a traumatic brain injury.
However, the program that has gained the most notoriety in “bridging the gap between just surviving and thriving,” said Truini, is Wildlife Rockstars.
“It is an integral part of our rehabilitation services and has become the premier wildlife education program in the Rochester area,” he said. “People suffering from low esteem and the loss of careers, family, friends and self-identity as a result of traumatic brain injuries are contributing to the community by delivering a quality wildlife education program to schoolchildren, veterans, nursing home residents and others. They also encourage environmental and wildlife conservation awareness. In doing so, they gain confidence and self-esteem.”
In addition, the Wildlife Rockstars share their personal stories and the importance of brain injury prevention.
Wildlife Education Specialist Lance Holm was a kickboxer and police officer before suffering a gunshot wound to the head that resulted in a dozen reconstruction surgeries and him learning to write and walk again.
“I was stripped of my armor and my weapons; I was hurt and broken,” he said. “I couldn’t sit and talk [to someone] without crying.”
Like O’Bryan, Holm graduated from Bridges for Brain Injury, returned as a volunteer and now serves on the staff. An accomplished public speaker, he leads most of the wildlife education programs.
“I wouldn’t be where I am without this place,” he said. “I believe [Wildlife Rockstars] is a calling for me.”
Ari Dunton’s personal story also makes an impact on her audiences. She did not leave her Canandaigua home for 18 months after suffering a traumatic brain injury.
“I was very quiet and reserved,” recalled Dunton, who saw her career end as a result of the car accident that caused her injury, “and that was not typical. I was a social butterfly.”
Thanks to Wildlife Rockstars, this butterfly is becoming social again. “It has given me the opportunity to get back out in the community,” she said.
While groups travel to the Bridges for Brain Injury Gloucester Way locale in Farmington to learn from the two- and four-legged personalities, the Wildlife Rockstars and their co-stars take their show on the road about 350 times annually. They deliver two programs every Saturday at the Rochester Museum and Science Center, and during the recent school recess conducted 34 programs in nine days, including 27 at the museum.
Michelle Albrecht, youth and family director of the Greater Canandaigua Family YMCA, came away impressed after the rockstars conducted a week-day camp at the YMCA.
“Each day, they focused on different animals from different areas of the world,” she said. “They also taught the kids about what they can do to help their community by recycling and reusing. I believe from my experience with this program that they are a valuable part of the community, and the work they do with their participants is helping those with injuries to live up to their full potential and feel like they are valuable assets to the community.”
“Our rockstars go from being bent and broken to full members of our community and responsible educators,” Truini said. “They are role models who are turning tragedy into triumph.”
After delivering their presentations in front of a class or group, it isn’t unusual for these educators to fulfill autograph requests. This has served to enhance the good feeling they have about themselves, Truini said.
“They feel like rockstars,” said Truini, “and they truly are.”