It was supposed to be a routine trip to the gas station for 18-year-old Justin Walker.
He headed out, filled up his car and was driving back to his relatives’ home in North Carolina — where he was living at the time — when he was involved in a violent wreck that saw his car flip over several times.
In the six months since the mid-May crash, Mr. Walker’s life has been anything but routine. The Riverhead native has been confined to a wheelchair, unable to speak. His prospects at recovering from the accident were so grim, doctors told his family he could be in a vegetative state the rest of his life if he remained on ventilators.
But Mr. Walker had an ace up his sleeve. (Literally. He has a tattoo on his right wrist of playing cards.)
Exactly 81 days later, Mr. Walker awoke from his coma, first wiggling a toe, and now, moving half his body. While the traumatic brain injuries suffered in the crash have taken the aspiring rap artist’s ability to speak, and even the ability to swallow, he can communicate via sign language and write on a board with his right hand.
He’s also got the support of the community.
On Friday night, over 250 members of the community attended a fundraiser to benefit Justin Walker’s Foundation of Hope, Inc., an organization that was created to aid Mr. Walker and his family. The event was held in a hall at St. John the Baptist Church in Wading River.
The group’s founders are also seeking to help others facing similar setbacks.
“It started as a foundation to help with the medical bills and help Jeanette (Mr. Walker’s mother) as well,” said Kristy Fink, Mr. Walker’s aunt. “But on the flip side of it, there are other families in the same position.
“We want to make it that big, big enough to help other people.”
Mr. Walker’s mother, a single mother of two other kids, since took leave from her job at the Suffolk County clerk’s office to stand by her oldest child. While physical recovery remains a large hurdle, Ms. Fink said that having the teenager’s mother at his side has helped him, more than anything else, come back from the brink of death.
“Without her by his side, he wouldn’t be where he is now,” she told the crowd on Friday.
Mr. Walker is living at the Avalon Gardens Rehabilitation and Health Care Center in Smithtown. Ms. Fink said finding a space for him on Long Island was a challenge. His family is hoping to place him at Brendan House, a home for those who’ve suffered traumatic brain injuries that’s in the process of being constructed on Sound Avenue in Riverhead.
Finding a place for the young man is not an uncommon challenge, said Erin Weaver, director of family services for the Brain Injury Association of New York State.
Ms. Weaver said that up until the 1970s or 1980s, technology wasn’t often available to keep victims of severe brain injuries alive.
While the technology has become available, services are still catching up to provide care for victims. And the care is in high demand. According to the Centers for Disease Control, on average, 1.7 million traumatic brain injuries occur each year in the U.S.
Locally, construction of The Brendan House on Sound Avenue is one manifestation of responding to that demand for care.
Allyson Scerri, founder of the nonprofit responsible for bringing the project to life – Medford-based New Beginnings – said “could fill six of those houses,” had she the means.
While money for more such projects as Brendan House isn’t quite within reach, support for the cause Friday night was evident in the donated gift baskets, which were up for lottery, and other items that helped raise money.
Just under 100 items were raffled, from wine baskets to synthetic oil to defensive driving courses. Breads and pies, paintings, T-shirts, even bracelets made by Mr. Walker’s younger brother were on sale, all to benefit Justin Walker’s Foundation of Hope. The event raised about $7,000, and Mr. Walker’s grandparents, Ruth and Douglas Harris, raised another $1,700 for the event. With the proceeds, the foundation will be donating $2,500 to New Beginnings to benefit Brendan House construction.
Trisha Burton, who organized a similar fundraiser for Michael Hubbard – another Riverhead teenager who, over two years ago, fell victim to a traumatic brain injury – helped put the event together.
She was hoping for about $10,000 in donations.
“We all gotta help one another,” said Nancy Reyer, Mr. Hubbard’s mother, who was also in attendance.
Mr. Walker’s grandmother, Kathi Gentile, said she’s been teaching him sign language — a skill nobody in the family knew before these past few months.
Among the words and phrases she’s teaching her grandson, are the two she says are the most important for his recovery: “I believe,” and “Hope.'”