Brookwood: Offering the Dignity of Work to Adults with Disabilities

A very special gem sits in a small Texas town an hour west of Houston. The Brookwood Community is a 475-acre God-centered educational, residential, and entrepreneurial community for adults with intellectual disabilities. The campus is bustling with activity and the love you feel there is thicker than the Texas humidity. Brookwood is home to 120 adults with special needs, who are called Citizens. An additional 110 Citizens living outside the campus commute daily to Brookwood for employment. It’s a place where everyone belongs, has an important job to do, and is part of a vibrant social community.

A few weeks ago I attended one of Brookwood’s annual Network Day events as a consultant with the Pennsylvania-based nonprofit Uniquely the Same. This organization is seeking to establish an integrated, inclusive, dignity-first community for adults of all abilities. We wanted to learn from the best, so a team of us from Uniquely the Same flew to the Lone Star state.

Arriving at Brookwood, we were overwhelmed by its scale and attractiveness. The campus boasts a rotunda, a chapel adorned with stained glass windows, expansive manicured lawns and landscaping, and shady willow trees dancing in the breeze. Brookwood’s beauty is rivaled only by the tenacity and kindness of its founder, Yvonne Streit, an 89-year-old firecracker, who still commutes 45 minutes to work at Brookwood three times per week. Yvonne started the precursor to Brookwood as a young mother over four decades ago, after her toddler lost all executive function when the child’s mumps led to traumatic brain damage. In the 1960s, there weren’t a lot of options for her daughter to participate in society, so Yvonne created one. What began as a small education program for a handful of children with special needs has grown into a multi-million dollar flagship organization that is shaping the way the world thinks about people with disabilities.

As we started our tour of Brookwood’s campus, we were greeted by Joe, a lanky, salt-and-pepper-haired Citizen who smiled broadly and handed each of us his business card. Joe exemplifies a foundational Brookwood principle: Everyone has the right to find meaningful, enjoyable work that adds value to the community. Initially, Joe was placed as a worker on one of Brookwood’s ceramics teams. But he did not thrive there. As they are trained to do, Brookwood staff noticed this and partnered with Joe to find him a better-suited role. They knew that Joe loved people and always greeted tour-goers with enthusiasm, so together they created business cards for Joe that introduced him and promoted Brookwood’s work.  Joe now earns his paycheck as the official Workshop Greeter of Brookwood and takes great pride in his job.

Brookwood’s staff seeks diligently to fit every Citizen with life-giving, paid employment. When they identify a good position, the Citizen submits an application for that job, is interviewed, and then receives an official offer of employment. Yvonne argues that this is a particularly important part of Brookwood’s approach, because in many cases, these Citizens have been rejected from many jobs outside of the community. Through this approach, she says, Brookwood is redeeming work for their Citizens.

As we continued on the tour, past the multi-million dollar therapy pool complex and gym, we heard a story from our tour guide that illustrates another core principle of Brookwood, called REDIRECT. When Citizens exhibit behavioral or functional-level problems in their jobs, staff labor to find creative solutions. If there is problem, the responsibility is on the staff to step back and find a solution, rather than trying to control the Citizen’s behavior.

For example, Brookwood had a young man with autism who started out well in his job, but then became mysteriously unable to settle down at his work. Teachers and coaches tried everything they could think of to remedy the situation. After two weeks, they called in another employee from Brookwood’s leadership staff who’d had significant training and experience with behavioral issues among people with autism. She walked around the classroom and immediately found the source of the trouble. A music boombox had been moved from sitting on a wooden shelf to the top of a metal filing cabinet, creating a frequency that seriously bothered this young Citizen. She moved boombox and his behavior immediately improved. Brookwood’s response to this episode contrasts with what is a more common approach in some other facilities caring for individuals with autism. Elsewhere, he may have been put on strong medication to calm him down—with potentially disagreeable side effects.

The tour ended and I stayed back to chat with some Citizens. For an hour, I heard these cheerful employees tell me about their work and the pride they take in their craftsmanship. Brookwood’s main source of employment is ceramic production. It is complex, time-consuming, and requires a great level of care. These are the reasons Yvonne and other leaders felt this particular labor would be a perfect fit for many of the Citizens. Everyone has an important role to play, from rolling out the clay, to pattern printing, shaping, firing, painting, and glazing. The Citizens form a well-oiled production machine—and also have a lot of fun together. They have important parts to play on their teams, just as they have important roles to play in the world. They know that they have a lot to offer “neuro-typical” people like me, and, thanks to the work of Brookwood, they’re getting to help educate us about that.

Kristin Owen earned her Masters of Public Policy from the University of Virginia and now works for as a Research Fellow for the Center on Faith in Communities at the Sagamore Institute.

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