Couples dealing with the language disorder aphasia find help at St. Pete nonprofit

Rachael and Debbie Georgia-Stein with an aquatic friend. (Photo courtesy Debbie Georgia-Stein)

For their second date back in 2015, Rachael and Debbie Georgia-Stein went to see Boy George in a festival on Madeira Beach. The date could have been a disaster — a thunderstorm shut down everything for close to three hours — but the two had a great time talking and have been together ever since.

Kay Kennedy and Tillie Smith decided to get married in 2015, 35 years after meeting as softball umpires in Clearwater. After getting a chilly reception from jewelers reluctant to make wedding rings for a same-sex couple, they shopped around — and eventually found someone who not only was glad to make the rings but also hosted the wedding in her jewelry store.

Persistence in the face of adversity — it’s one of the many qualities that have kept these two couples together. It’s been crucial in helping them meet their biggest challenge so far: aphasia. Due to stroke, Rachael and Tillie are both living with the language disorder, which can hinder the ability to speak, write and even comprehend what’s being said to you.

They credit Voices of Hope for Aphasia with helping them cope. The St. Pete nonprofit has been helping people with aphasia for over 10 years, offering free workshops, excursions and other forms of socialization to help counter the sense of isolation that often accompanies the loss of language.

VOH Program Director Debbie Yones remembers how scared Rachael was when she was first struggling with communication. But since then, she’s made remarkable progress. A phlebotomist at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, Rachael, 62, returned to her job eight months after her stroke in 2018.

She sometimes encounters patients she hasn’t seen in many years, and none seem to recognize anything different in her. Her speech is only slightly halting now, and her spirit is as ebullient as ever. “I keep getting better and better!” she says.

Debbie Georgia-Stein, 61, is a math teacher at Gibbs High School in St. Pete — and a finalist this year for Pinellas County’s Teacher of the Year. Her background as an educator has helped her guide Rachael: “I have to put my teacher’s hat on sometimes.”

As she says to her students at Gibbs, “There’s no learned helplessness here!”

Kay Kennedy, 77,  retired from a 40-year teaching career in Illinois, California, Australia, and most recently at Safety Harbor Middle School. Like Debbie Georgia-Stein, she gently guides her wife’s words without dictating them. Following the example of another VOH member (the organization uses the word “member,” not “patient”), the couple maintains a whiteboard at home where Tillie can write down things to talk about at VOH meetings. A recent topic: painting their garden decor.

“What did you come up with?” she asks Tillie.

“I dressed a turkey,” Tillie answers.

“You mean a rooster?” Kay asks.

That clicks, and Tillie corrects herself: “I have roosters outside that are rusted so I painted them.”

Tillie, 79, retired from the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office in 2004, and last year suffered a series of strokes, one of which led to aphasia.

Group sessions at VOH have been very helpful, the couple says, and they’ve also found online services that connect them with the wider aphasia community.

“We never give up,” says Kay. That’s her message to anyone struggling with aphasia: “Don’t ever, ever, ever give up.”

Both couples have long lived active lifestyles — travel, Zumba and gardening are tops with Kay and Tillie, while Rachael, a whiz at the slots, has snagged bargains on multiple Caribbean cruises. All are dog owners: Debbie and Rachael have three beloved dachshunds, and Kay and Tillie have two rescues from the Humane Society of Pinellas, where Tillie has volunteered since her retirement.

The women are also fans of the Tampa Bay Rays, who figure prominently in VOH’s second annual crossword-puzzle gala, Word Play, June 6. Guests — including Rays pitchers Pete Fairbanks and Jason Adam, big crossword fans — will compete over dinner for puzzle-solving glory in an evening of fun, games and giving. View a photo of Kay (L) and Tillie with DJ Kitty in April 2023 at Tropicana Field, courtesy of the couple:

The proceeds for this year’s fundraiser will help VOH expand the programs that have been so indispensable for people like Kay, Tillie, Debbie and Rachael. Tickets begin at $95 and tables for 8 can be purchased at $1,000.

Voices of Hope for Aphasia’s Word Play 2024 will be held June 6 at 6:30 p.m. at Banquet Masters, located at 13355 49th St. N. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit

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