Paul Richards would never call himself a hero.
But others might. And Richards, director of Hanson House, a resource for people who have suffered traumatic brain injuries, now has the official title, like it or not.
Richards was recently named a "Hometown Hero" by State Rep. Mike Dovilla.
"These are the people that are often most deserving," Dovilla has said of the award he created. "They think they are just going about their job each day, but they are having an important impact on people around them too."
Richards worked as a mechanical engineer before earning a master’s degree in psychology.
“We were making good cars, but I realized it’s people who make the world work,” Richards said.
Now he spends his days working with TBI patients, helping them adjust to their new lives and the new challenges they face in the world.
“It is a peer-to-peer therapeutic model, rather than professional-to-patient," he said. "Once a person has gone thorough this dreadful experience, he often has to wrestle with anger, depression and a loss of function, but the person who’s farther down the road mentors them, and gives them hope that’s based on reality."
Through social, recreational and work-oriented programs on everything from personal finance training to golf, TBI survivors learn to cope and become self-sufficient again.
They also give back to others, which is both therapeutic and fulfilling to the patients. Last summer, a group of Hanson House members made lunches for a local day camp.
“You could see it as helping with dexterity, but to them, it is empowering to help others,” said Richards.
A longtime member of the Strongsville Rotary, Richards spends his free time helping people, too. He's involved in a number of Rotary projects, and assisted in organizing the club's signature event, the golf outing, which raises $40,000 for local charities.
Richards and his committee pored over 45 applications before choosing 12 charities to award funds, including Ronald McDonald House, The Berea Children’s Home and the Strongsville Education Foundation.
He speaks with great passion about the work the charities do and says he's lucky he can be part of it.
“These organizations affect many lives; most people never get to hear about them, but I have that privilege,” he said. “I’ve worked in other parts of the country, and I can tell you that there are so many wonderful people in greater Cleveland. It’s a real privilege to be part of that community and to be in a position to help the many great charities in our city.”
His next goal: Work with young veterans who suffered brain injuries in combat.
There are already people who fought in Vietnam at Hanson House, and Richards envisions them assisting a new generation of combat veterans.
For them -- and all brain injury survivors -- Richards has a simple, yet powerful promise: “When they meet others who have faced the same thing, and have made a positive change instead of letting the bitterness and loss swallow them up, pretty soon they get a vision of what they can do, they get the fire back in their soul, and that’s what turns the corner.”