A mom’s love leads to Brookwood in Georgetown
Like mothers everywhere, Erin Kiltz wants what’s best for her children. Last year she attended a meeting with educators at Georgetown High School to ask, “So what’s next for Gracie?”
“They couldn’t believe I didn’t know,” Erin says. To say Gracie’s options were limited was an understatement.
Gracie Kiltz has physical and intellectual disabilities. Born with Down syndrome, she was diagnosed with leukemia at two. By three, after numerous rounds of chemotherapy, Gracie had suffered complications that left her fully dependent, with severe brain damage.
“Everything we’ve worked so hard to attain—life skills, social skills—all of that just ends after high school,” a frustrated Erin says. “Our world has come so far in providing all kinds of educational support and inclusion, and then there’s nothing but a black hole.”
Erin admits to crying all the way home after learning the news, but she’s not the kind of woman to wallow in her tears. Instead, she began “to research different programs all over the nation about post-high school vocational programs for our special needs children.” Five or six caught her attention, but the one that immediately attracted her was closer to home: the Brookwood community in Brookshire, Texas.
“All I can say,” Erin explains, “is when my husband and I visited Brookwood, I felt like Dorothy in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ She lands in Oz and opens the door, and the world immediately goes from black and white to color. That was Brookwood.”
People around the world have heard of the Brookwood community, and for good reason. “Brookwood places high, high value on these kids. They’re not trying to ‘fix’ them. They celebrate their ‘neuro-differences.’” Brookwood believes their citizens need to know who they are, have relationships with others, and do something meaningful with their lives. “They give these kids purpose,” Erin says. “They’re celebrated and empowered.”
Brookwood’s philosophy is that “work is not an ethic—it’s an instinct.” Regardless of abilities, every citizen of Brookwood finds a place and a job. “Whatever these kids can do,” Erin explains, “that is going to be incorporated into their work. They make beautiful things to sell.” With revenues of over five million dollars a year, Brookwood and its citizens sustain a third of their operating budget through their three enterprises: horticulture, pottery, and consumables.
Now, for the first time in 26 years, Brookwood has chosen to expand their community and program—right here in Georgetown. “It’s a humbling and exciting thing,” Erin says, modestly, since her determination and hard work played a huge part in this venture. Last spring Erin began Light Texas, a pilot program modeled after Brookwood. After witnessing her success and the substantial support received from the city and community of Georgetown, Brookwood officially absorbed the Light Texas program last August.
Jill Weiland, whose daughter Chelsea now attends Brookwood in Georgetown, has been amazed by the outpouring of community support. “I am so very thankful that Georgetown has embraced our kids. Without the support we’ve received from the community, we wouldn’t have a program.”
“Every person who has heard about BiG has opened their doors,” Erin concurs. “Every church that has heard of us has opened their doors.”
Brookwood in Brookshire has its own campus and residential facility. At this time, Brookwood in Georgetown is a four-day-a-week vocational program. They don’t have their own building, so they meet at Georgetown Church of Christ. Previously, Faith Lutheran and Main Street Baptist had also hosted BiG.
“We’re conscious of wearing out our welcome,” Erin says, who is looking for the right property but hasn’t found it. Yet Erin isn’t concerned. “I know [Brookwood in Brookshire] started out with very humble roots, and we’re doing the same.”
Humble or not, Jill Weiland has already seen BiG’s fruits of labor with her daughter, Chelsea. “Since she started BiG, I have seen a twinkle in her that wasn’t there before. She walks a little taller and shows much more confidence in social situations. She talks and chatters with everyone now and is eager to show others what she’s accomplished.”
“The reality is,” Erin says, “our adults with intellectual disabilities are square pegs we’re trying to cram into round holes. Brookwood is a square-hole community, and these kids fit perfect.”
Jill agrees. “Brookwood allows Chelsea to be creative and productive in a safe environment surrounded by people who care about her.”
BiG has only two paid staff members, both with special education backgrounds. Everyone else volunteers, including BiG’s director, Erin herself. “Most of the volunteers are moms or people who have been touched by a special needs individual,” Erin says. Currently, BiG has 55 trained volunteers, but they are always on the lookout for more. “Volunteers are our lifeblood,” says Jill.
Many, many people and businesses in Georgetown have already volunteered their talents and facilities. Community Montessori School of Georgetown offered a plot of land where BiG citizens have planted sunflowers. “One seed at a time,” Erin says with a smile. Last year 1,700 sunflower seeds were planted. The goal for this year is 3,000. Besides horticulture, BiG citizens have learned pottery, flower arranging, and baking. Ironstone has given a small corner in its store for The BiG Shop, where BiG volunteers and citizens sell their stunning pottery and amazing food products, like jars of jalapeño peanut brittle.
Pottery is Chelsea Weiland’s favorite class at BiG. “I like rolling out the clay and tracing the pattern with the tools,” she says. “I just like it.”
“Brookwood gives Chelsea a variety of things to work on every day—pottery, cooking, horticulture, and even regular physical exercise,” Jill says. “Chelsea never has the opportunity to say she’s bored.”
>In March, BiG sent a batch of jewelry handcrafted by its citizens to Brookwood in Brookshire for approval to sell. Alyssa Manuel, a high school senior at GHS, had heard about BiG from Susan Upshaw, the transition coordinator, and said, “I think I can teach those citizens how to make jewelry”—and she did. Alyssa, who has been completely blind since the age of two, is the perfect example of what BiG hopes to achieve with its own citizens. She has learned a skill, and she gives back to the community, using what she has accomplished.
Brookwood in Georgetown is still a fledgling effort, but with all the amazing support and volunteers it has already garnered within the community, how could it go wrong? Brookwood and Georgetown should be proud.
“Someday Georgetown won’t be known just for its beautiful square or its university,” Jill Weiland says. “It will be known for having Brookwood in its community, too.”
For more information about volunteering, donating, or enrolling a citizen, contact Erin Kiltz at email@example.com.