The Roots of the Cleveland Stroke Club
by Geri Pitts
October 21, 2015
You might have thought that it all began in 1974, but I know for a fact that the idea was forming in the Late Great Bill Pitts’ head at least in 1967 when I first met him. He used to tell me at the end of a day, “I had a group therapy session today and Annie told me that a great conversation was going on in the observation room while we were working on speech.” Annie was the wife of a stroke survivor. Bill would go on to tell me that he felt badly that people were paying for group speech therapy when what they really were there for was the socializing, sharing and problem solving with each other.
Bill encouraged people to meet socially, outside of therapy. Then he came up with the idea of starting a “Stroke Club.”
The first meeting of the Cleveland Stroke Club was held in June 1974 at Highland View Hospital (a rehab hospital), which was off of Harvard Avenue, between Green and Richmond Roads (across from Tri-C). Cathy Ellsworth was elected the first president of the club at that meeting. Cathi and I are the only current members who go back to the beginning. But others joined us in the
1980’s: Lucy Conde, Dottie Emmerson, Charles DeForest, Mary Carney and Shirley Mlinarcek are still members now.
Entertainment featured Bill’s sister, Elizabeth Jambor, who sang and did a Carol Burnette scrub woman skit. She was a blast.
Meetings were held there monthly until Bill suggested that they find another location, away from the hospital setting. He wanted to emphasize that people in hospitals were sick and this group was far from sick. They also wanted to remain independent and away from the whims of bureaucracy. So the search began for a place to hold meetings for 50 members. A member of the stroke club suggested the Euclid Avenue Christian Church (which later became Disciples Christian Church). In late 1974 we started having meetings at the church; we celebrated our first Holiday there. The church answered all our needs and continues to this day. We are grateful to them.
As the years went on, Bill decided that a dinner meeting would attract more members and he was right again! One of the volunteers agreed to be the cook. Bill was to pick up the food at that person’s house and bring it to the church to serve. When Bill picked up the food he was so shocked to see what the cook’s kitchen looked like. To put it mildly, it wasn’t very clean, according to Bill. Bill decided to do the cooking himself, despite the fact that he didn’t do much cooking at home. He personally (with my help) prepared meals for 50 people every month for 20 years.
The years have gone by and things have changed. Bill’s position of chief cook and bottle washer came to an end when Rita Perna, whose brother, Joe, had a stroke, graciously relieved Bill of those duties. Rita has been our Excellent Chef since the 1990s. We are so very grateful for her delicious meals each month and they are served with a smile, too.
Again, Bill noticed some members’ needs were not being addressed. New stroke survivors and their caregivers needed something else: something to help them get through those early months. Thus, the “Caregivers’ Meeting” was started where caregivers could meet in a group with other caregivers and talk and listen to how others cope with situations, get encouragement and sound off, if needed. Meetings were originally held at a nursing home at Chagrin and Northfield Roads. This meeting is held now at Kindred Hospital, who has welcomed our group for many, many years. We are thankful for Kindred Hospital’s welcoming us, providing us with great meals and their flexibility in allowing us to be creative with their space.
Bill ended his position as Director when Dottie Norton graciously took over the position, which she held for 20 years! I took over the directorship in 2014 and I have a team of volunteers who make me look good.
A little history about our picnic. At first picnics were held at the church but members said this didn’t feel like a picnic, so a couple of our members suggested Joan of Arc Church in Chagrin Falls as an alternative. Despite having games outside and barbequing outside, it was pretty much the same as our regular church. That lasted a few years until Shirley Mlinarcek (Shirley is our only Richmond Heights member) suggested going to our present location, the Richmond Heights Community Park. Again this must have happened in the 1980’s. Somewhere in someone’s attic are the minutes from years past that would give us exact dates.
Another bit of history is about our holiday dinner in December. David Vaughn and his Seasonal Brass Band played for us since 1989. I know the year because last December he said it was his 25th year with us. Most of you know that David died some months ago and we miss him. His band, so faithful to his wishes, will again be with us this year. And the spirit of David will remain with us.
Another bit of history is about our anniversary dinner. It was originally held in October until this year when we changed it to August. People had told us that they didn’t attend our dinner because they didn’t like to drive at night. Moving it to August gave us 2 hours more of daylight. I think this was a benefit to many. At first we went to a restaurant in Euclid at Lakeshore Blvd. and E. 222. I have forgotten the name of the restaurant. Then there was a restaurant on Wilson Mills and 271. After that we moved our anniversary dinner to a Holiday Inn at routes 271 and 84. About 6 years ago, we moved to our present location, Double Tree by Hilton, off of Chagrin.
Bill died in March 2014 at the age of 94! He has been missed but thought of daily as we benefit from his intuition and hard work in developing the Cleveland Stroke Club. We just celebrated our 41st anniversary and, may be the oldest stroke club in the United States that is apart from hospital/institutional support.
What has been the reason our Club is so successful? Ask any of the members: it’s the people; it’s the volunteers who make sure that people know we care. More and more people are surviving strokes and living with the consequences of stroke for many years. Sometimes old friends fall away and previous support systems wither. When new members come to their first meetings they find others who know exactly what they are going through and can offer suggestions on how to cope. Their expectations change. While survivors will probably not be the person they were before, they find a new level of achievement and satisfaction. They observe others that have more difficulties than they do and are able to encourage them to grow. They find others that have less difficulties and are encouraged themselves to grow. According to Bill, they find their new homeostasis, a new equilibrium.
We expect the Cleveland Stroke Club to continue for at least another 40 years because of the closeness that our members achieve and the value we have in each other.
Copyright 2007 Cleveland Stroke Club
All Rights Reserved.