Episode 2: Philanthropist Tanya Gauthier, Healing Invisible Wounds

In our first episode, I talk with Tanya Gauther who founded a nonprofit for traumatic brain injury survivors, many of them veterans, called TBIncredible. We got personal and talked about her own traumatic brain injury, starting a nonprofit from scratch, and her vision on making the world a better place.

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Guest Info

Tanya Gauthier created TBIncredible in the middle of the global pandemic of 2020. In 2009, while in her junior year at West Point, Tanya survived a near-fatal car accident that left her with a traumatic brain injury. Instead of feeling sorry for herself, Tanya was determined to complete her education. In 2011, she earned her degree in psychology and environmental engineering from the United States Military Academy at West Point. Tanya’s mantra, ‘Keep Going!’ serves as her rallying cry when faced with adversity.

While 2020 has been a challenging year for nearly everyone, Tanya persevered and founded a nonprofit for fellow brain injury survivors. The organization, TBIncredible, provides free recreational therapy through therapeutic photography.

Through her love for photography, she found a wonderful way to share her passion with other TBI survivors to aid in their recovery. Always thinking of others more than herself, Tanya uses therapeutic photography to bring back happiness to those that need it the most.

Show Notes

Follow TBIncredible on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter and check out their website. To donate now, click here.


IMPHILANTHROPIC, LLC, owns the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of the You Are A Philanthropist podcast, with all rights reserved, including right of publicity.

JK: Hello and welcome everybody. This is episode number two. On today’s show, we welcome Tanya Gauthier and she’s going to share her story about starting a nonprofit from scratch. I want to welcome Tanya Gauthier, who is the founder of TBIncredible. TBIncredible creates free therapeutic photography for brain injury survivors. Tanya, thank you so much for being here and tell us all about TBIncredible and how you got started founding that nonprofit and supporting the brain injury community.

TG: Thank you so much. Thank you so much for the warm welcome. Yeah. So I guess I’ll start off by saying where I come in through the brain injury. As I graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Points. My second semester, junior year, where I was involved in a near-fatal car accident, where I was driving back to the academy and I was T-boned by someone in their SUV, where they cut open my car to get me out, medevaced me to the hospital. It was 24 hours to live turned into 48 hours turned into two weeks in a coma, 30 days in ICU, and a lot of time in the hospital. I was still able to come out of there. It was very challenging. A survivor of severe traumatic brain injury from that accident. Still very challenging. I spent nine months in therapy for eight hours a day, cognitive and physical therapy. Just to learn how to– some of the basics of just coming back to and dealing with your daily tasks. Currently, I still receive therapy and it’s still just an ongoing process with the brain injury. I’m also involved in two different support groups. Before COVID when everybody was able to meet, which was amazing, I attended a civilian support group and a veterans support group. So what’s common to talk about is different struggles and challenges that everyone is facing. However, in the civilian support group, it was definitely a struggle with learning about different programs that may be available for therapy, but insurance companies will not pay for it or not provide the coverage needed for people to attend. That’s very discouraging and very hard for someone trying to recover. So I thought, “What can I do for my community and how can I help?” And that’s where TBIncredible came in. TBIncredible is just a great space for brain injury survivors to recover because survivors of brain injury face many challenges ranging from a few days to the remainder of their lives. And so many symptoms can occur, but not limited to– I mean, we experience headaches, memory loss, slower thinking, coordination, hearing or vision loss, and even dealing with emotions. And recuperation rates vary among TBI survivors and some of them even half making a positive recovery. So it’s just important to reach out to the community because those who may recover can experience long-term mental and physical health problems that can result in some disabilities. What TBIncredible does is we help to create a serene space to showcase the talents of amateur photographers. So if you have a brain injury and you love and are passionate about taking pictures, we welcome you and invite you. And even if you don’t know what’s going on with pictures but you still want to be involved, hey, come on in. Because we create a no-stress positive environment full of positive affirmation to reinforce self- esteem, to increase confidence in your abilities. With that sense of accomplishment, it’s great to go back into community. It helps with dealing with depression and dealing with anxiety and definitely getting everybody to a place where they can feel safe. We also deal with motor functioning, cognitive and physical therapy, dealing with motor functioning. Simulation takes place by operating cameras with trained professionals. That definitely does take place. So we’re also exciting. We’re also partially located online, which is great right now with the pandemic. Their photographers can post pictures with a short synopsis of how the photo makes them feel and then positive words of encouragement that everybody can share with each other. We’re still in our infancy phase with that process, but it’s still growing and it will be posted on our website very shortly, where many in our community, people in our community, can just share and can meet and connect with each other. Because you know what? It’s our goal to help brain injury survivors become more resilient while strengthening their resolve to live and enjoy a fulfilling life with the help of therapeutic photography.

JK: Tanya, I am so inspired by your story. First, I want to say congratulations on your accomplishment from graduating from the West Point, especially given the circumstances you were under. That shows your strength and your resilience. And I’m so thankful for your service.

TG: Thank you.

JK: Yes. No, thank you, my friend. And I’m inspired because you had such a traumatic injury, where you didn’t know if you would be living and I’m so thankful that you are. And I’m so thankful that you used this very difficult situation to create something so beautiful. So, I’m really excited about what you’re doing at TBIncredible. I just can’t imagine all of the success that you’ve had through founding TBIncredible and reaching the brain-injured community. Can you tell me how many clients you have and what you do, both in person as well as online, so that people who are listening in can check out your website, and learn more about you, and possibly donate to TBIncredible?

TG: Thank you so much. Yeah. So TBIncredible, we are partially located online. If you become a member of our group, you’ll be assigned to a group of 10 individuals and those 10 individuals become your group. And so, once a month, we have a Picture Challenge. And so our first Picture Challenge will be Morning Glory. And so what inspires you and motivates you to wake up in the morning? For me, that’s my cup of coffee and my morning walk. Another veteran, it was his wife. And just giving an example, so you take a picture of what really motivates you in the morning, and so I’ll have my picture of the beautiful park with my cup of coffee. I’ll discuss that with the team during– every team meets once a month, once a month virtually, where you describe your picture and you get feedback on your picture. Positive feedback on, “Okay, this picture was great and it was taken at this angle,” or, “Maybe we can refine it and help it to promote it, to move it this way.” There are just so many different ways that you can receive positive feedback on a photo. Also, just dealing with their emotions and talking about it. “What gives you hope?” Like, “This inspired me on this day because it was really hard, but motivated me to get out of bed today, to fight through my anxiety, to fight through my depression, to go out and take this photo.” And that’s what we’re doing in helping and enforcing in our community, just being a member. On our first event, we had a Fall Photography Workshop and it was a great event where we had a professional photographer come and give a photography class. We had 15 members, socially distanced, in a nice open park where the photographer, [Carl?] Clarke, came and held up a great information session on taking a picture, understanding different angles, understanding how light can affect your pictures, understanding just from where you stand and different angles. And so, that was great. And then we went on on a nature walk where we had a scavenger hunt of learning how to take pictures. And that, again, was just a great event. This upcoming winter in February, we are looking to do a winter virtual photography workshop where we then have another professional photographer to give a class on learning how to take your best picture. Everybody’s home and we all love selfies. Who doesn’t love one? But hey, how can we take the best selfie, or the best angle, or understanding photography for what it is and the art behind it? So looking to do another virtual workshop there. We’re looking, post COVID, to hopefully have more photography workshops in-person. We’re still going to try first virtual one, but looking to start [with?] more in-person and just to have more people come out, understand photography, go through pictures, scavenger hunt. And, yes, just see how that can be involved in your life, dealing with your emotions, dealing with your motor functions, and working through to help you recover better.

JK: Tanya, I’m really amazed about how creative you are. Photography is not something I would have thought about as therapeutic. Clearly, I don’t know much about therapy, but I’m curious why you chose that medium to support the brain injury community.

TG: Photography has always been a passion of mine. Just seeing art is a passion of mine. And taking pictures was really hard for me to use my hands and motor functioning. Definitely, that’s a challenge that I faced coming on my recovery. And I had a professional camera. And it’s always been my passion. I love to shoot and to take. And so learning how to do that again, but learning how to coordinating that with my mind and understanding how each dial is different but focusing on that, concentrating on that, it was hard. It was hard. So I wanted to have a place where people can practice that, live that skill, go through that again. And also– I mean, taking pictures is beautiful and understanding that. And so seeing the beauty behind that, I definitely want to share my passion about that.

JK: Well, I’m so inspired already, and we’ve only been talking with you for 10 minutes. So I can’t wait to talk more. One thing I’d love for our listeners to hear about is I think you started just this past year in 2020. And I’d like for you to share how you started with founding TBIncredible. How did you get the name? How did you get started? And how exactly you go through the process of creating something from scratch, like a nonprofit?

TG: Yes. So it was hard to decide exactly what I wanted. I know I want to do something for my community. I know I want to bring something back. And so I wanted to do a recreational therapy. But how can I do this? And I love taking pictures. I was like, “You know what, we’re going to take pictures, and we are going to make this into a program. We’re going to find a way to do this.” And so doing a lot more research, working with my occupational therapist to understand the program that I can create, getting a mentor. So there are so many different resources that are out there if you are wanting to start a program, if you’re wanting to build, if you have just an idea. One program that I– one resource that helped me a lot was a program called Score. Score is a national program that provides you with mentor services that, “Hey, you come up with all these ideas. Where do we start? What do we go from here?” And so that’s definitely helped you organize the steps of what to do and where to go next. And that was big for me. And that was a great help. So I decided, “Hey, I want to create a program, recreational therapy, talk with my occupational therapist about that. I love photography. Let’s put this into motion.” I got the name TB Incredible because traumatic brain injury. I want to do a play on words from traumatic brain injury and you know what? I feel every brain injury survivors, they’re overcomers, achievers, and downright incredible. So, “Hey, we’re incredible.” So to be incredible TBI, to be incredible. So to be incredible. That’s how I got it. I got the logo created. Definitely, I was able to lean on my network. And that’s one thing that I share. And I invite everybody to lean on your network when you’re trying to do something. And so I was able to reach out to my college and [inaudible] message like, “Hey, I’m trying to do this nonprofit and it’s for brain injury survivors. I’m not really sure. I don’t know where I’m going yet. Who can help me? I need to build a website, get a logo, everything from scratch.” And so they were able to help me find somebody to help build my website, help me with somebody to produce my logo, go forward. It took a lot of research. I suggest, even if you might need one to get help with legal aid or more professional guidance. That’s totally fine. I did a lot more research on how to become a 501(c3) and a lot of paperwork to become incorporated in my state as well and to be a certified nonprofit in the nation, my state, and also in the nation.

JK: Tanya, I know you mentioned it’s hard, but the steps you outlined make it sound so easy and I’m just reflecting on the fact about what you’ve accomplished here when you were a West Point cadet and you undergod, such a serious accident and years, years of recovery from your injury and how inspirational it is to know that you have physically accomplished so much, mentally accomplished so much. And I think you have a job on top of all this, don’t you?

TG: I do. So I am the community engagement manager for the Motor Vehicle Commission in the state of New Jersey. So I deal a lot with legislation and different events for the community. And so, I mean, I love being out there and I love helping people. And so that is something that I do for work. And I’m so glad I brought that attitude and everything into my nonprofit and so definitely helping people. I mean, it’s my mantra to keep going and keep pushing and just there’s always something to do. And how can you help?

JK: That’s amazing, just getting into a little bit more about founding a nonprofit, I had the opportunity to be a founding board member of a nonprofit in my town, and it took an immense amount of work by many volunteers. And I’m just curious, you said you do have a community of helpers that support you. And I’m just curious what they do, how they support you, either through donations or through helping with the workshops you do.

TG: I do have a lot of family support as well through photography workshops. My trade photographers that come out and help are all volunteers and they’re all veterans that help in the community. Yes, it is. It’s a lot of paperwork and it’s a lot of work to do. And that’s where it comes with your tenacity and your motivation, your push. Because if you want this and if you– something you can that wakes you up in the morning, that burns your fire and keeps you going, you’ll find ways. And there’s– mentorship helps, so my score mentors have helped me, my family have helped me, donors, money has helped a lot building the program because there’re certain fees that you will pay your state there are certain fees, that you will pay the IRS, there are certain fees that are involved with just building your brand as well. And all the help is great, and it builds the brand as well.

JK: That’s awesome. Yeah, I just want to reiterate that not everybody has the time to commit to founding a nonprofit. But even if we do an hour, a week to help a nonprofit like TBIncredible or a food pantry or any of our favorite charities that we enjoy making donations to or what they are doing in our communities, this really adds value to our world. And I’m curious about the recommendations you would make to our listeners about how to make a difference in their community and in our world.

TG: That’s a great question. For me. It was probably the worst thing that happened to me was my brain injury. That’s where you build on, and that’s where you go forward from there. I mean life is 20% of what happens to you and 80% of how you react to it and putting it all together and building up from there. Again, I turned my situation into something positive. And so I inspire everybody who’s going through something to know that it’s okay and to keep going and keep pushing and to know that you can always turn things around. I mean, 11 years post my injury, I still go to therapy every Tuesday morning. And that’s ongoing and I mean probably for another 10 years, who knows? But however, it’s not something to be sad about or mad about because that’s the challenges life gives you and how you deal with them. And so my first event, we had 15 members. Looking at the virtual event, hopefully, we can reach out to a 100 members. Next year, post-COVID, next event, 2,000 members. Who knows? Who knows? But to know that this is great and to keep going and keep pushing and hopefully be able to reach out to more people and get them more involved.

JK: I love that you mention your future dreams for TBIncredible. And I’d like to just close out our show today with you sharing about what keeps you up at night, how you’re solving that problem in the world, and what your dreams are for the traumatic brain injury community, and what TBIncredible does. So I know that’s a lot of questions.

TG: Yeah. So my ultimate dream is to get brain injury better recognized. Roughly, every year there is 2.8 million cases of traumatic brain injury for survivors every year, and that’s only traumatic brain injury. And there’s mild, moderate, and severe. So 2.8 million of severe. So there’s many people that are brain injured. And so to understand the challenges that we all face, and it’s the most invisible handicap there is, but we still go through it and we’re still managing. I would love for insurance companies to allow more programs to go forward and to be funded and people can participate in them because as one with invisible handicaps, there’s no real book or blueprint on how to fix this or what do you need, and as it all pertains to each person, and the recovery rate is different. So it’s ultimately my dream to have TBIncredible to expand to many different states, to many different countries, to get this program going, and to have people involved, know that there’s a safe space for them to recover, to use art as a medium to help them recover, to grow, and to live.

JK: Wow, Tanya. That is a beautiful vision for what you see for the traumatic brain injury community. And I’m so hopeful that the listeners of this podcast today are going to help you. And going to see your vision. And I just want to remind everybody to go to the website tbincredible.com. And if you feel like this has made a difference in the traumatic brain injury community, and this is an area that you feel you can make a difference in too, I ask you to support them by going to tbincredible.com/donate. And, Tanya, you’re an inspiration. I’m so thankful that we connected. And I hope to get an update from you weeks ahead from now hearing about that greater vision that you have that it would be accomplished. But, for now, it’s amazing what you’ve done. It’s amazing what you started from scratch. And just as somebody who is just a citizen of the world, I want to thank you for making a difference for people who really need it.

TG: Thank you.
JK: Thank you, Tanya. Thank you.

TG: Thank you.

IMPHILANTHROPIC, LLC, owns the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of the You Are A Philanthropist podcast, with all rights reserved, including right of publicity.

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