Making BiG strides in the community
Erin Kiltz didn’t know, at first, that her quest for a post-high school vocational program for her severely brain-damaged daughter, Gracie, would have a lasting impact on the Georgetown community.
Erin and her husband, John, knew they had found their answer to prayer the moment they walked into the Brookwood Community in Brookshire, Texas, in November 2010. There, young adults with physical and intellectual challenges are celebrated rather than pigeon-holed as people that need to be “fixed.” At Brookwood, clients are “citizens,” contributing members of a community. They have a place, learn to do a job in one of three enterprises, and understand that their lives have a God-given purpose. As Erin and John drove home that day in November, they sensed their lives would never be the same.
With a yearning to make a difference in the special needs community, Erin brought Brookwood’s “work is not an ethic—it’s an instinct” philosophy back to Georgetown and started a vocational pilot program, Light Texas, with the Georgetown ISD. The success of the program and the depth of community support impressed Brookwood so much that in 2011 they absorbed the program and BiG (Brookwood in Georgetown) was born!
Fast forward six years, and the program is bearing even more fruit. The move from donated church space to a new campus at 905 N. Church Street in May 2016 resulted in explosive growth. “The changes to the BiG program are happening so quickly that our heads are spinning,” says Stacey Quisenberry, BiG grants coordinator and BiG parent.
Dramatic additions to the program include the new retail space, café, and the greenhouse nursery. The greenhouse opened earlier this spring and offers plants for sale. Every week the Brookwood Community delivers a truckload of beautiful plants from its 47 production greenhouses. BiG citizens unload the new plants, check them in, place them in the greenhouse, and tend them daily. “Our citizens have also begun propagating succulents and herbs,” Erin adds.
The retail space opened on Austin Avenue in May 2016 and has since moved to the new campus. Pottery, handcrafted cards, and jewelry made by BiG citizens are beautifully displayed and sold alongside items from several different social enterprises that support underserved populations around the world.
A large wrought-iron tree branching out over the inventory provides visible testimony to the community support the program receives. Ceramic leaves made by BiG citizens bear the names of individuals, businesses, and foundations that have donated at least $10,000 to the nonprofit program. “A dedicated staff and fully engaged team of volunteers are critical to our operations,” says Erin, who wears many hats, including that of BiG director. In January 2017, BiG added a day, making it a five-day program. On Fridays, citizens give their time and abilities to perform community service as a way to thank those who support their program. For example, citizens recently wrote thank-you notes and delivered homemade cookies to local police and fire fighters as part of their “Cookies for Heroes” service program.
Traci Johnston is a welcoming face at The BiG Café, which opened in June 2016. She is greeter, server, advocate, and friend to café regulars. She is one of about 40 citizens who currently take shifts in the shop and café. Mouth-watering menu items such as quiche with sweet potato crust, dark chocolate quinoa cake, and Greek salad are getting rave reviews. In fact, “the buzz is that it’s the newest favorite place to shop and eat in town,” Erin says.
“Working not only gives citizens a sense of pride but is an opportunity for the community to witness their abilities,” says Stacey, whose son Connor recently began working in The BiG Shop. Stacey says, “It’s something I never even thought he would be interested in. Although he knows the answer, he’ll ask me, ‘Am I a real employee, Mom?’ I love the smile on his face when I say, ‘Yes, you are!’“
“I think it’s fun to remember and give credit to our student body at GHS because they named Gracie Kiltz and Jared Friemel homecoming queen and king, which went viral across the nation, making World News with Diane Sawyer. I say it was the student body who started BiG because they recognized the value their peers with special needs bring to their community.”
BiG Shop and Greenhouse hours: 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
BiG Café hours: 8:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
To learn more about the BiG program, visit www.brookwoodingeorgetown.org.
COMING SOON: The BiG Fudge Company!