In a small suburb of Houston, Texas, sits 475 acres of an unexpected enterprise. You’ll find a campus with dozens of homes, an educational center, a chapel, a garden center, shops, and more.
It’s the Brookwood Community, an educational, residential, and entrepreneurial community for adults with disabilities. And unlike similar facilities, Brookwood provides adults with a range of work opportunities to promote dignity and worth through vocational endeavors.
Brookwood Community started in 1985 when founder Yvonne Tutlle Streit’s daughter, Vicki, became disabled after suffering complications from mumps as a child. At the time, education opportunities for children — and later adults — with special needs was sparse.
While the exact population of people with Down syndrome in America is unknown (according to the Global Down Syndrome Foundation), estimates hover around 400,000, with speculation of higher numbers. Data around their work is also sparse, but a 2015 survey reported that while 57 percent of adults with Down syndrome were employed, only three percent were full time.
If you search your local area for centers for adults with disabilities, Anthony Emerson told me, you often find the equivalent of adult day cares that don’t involve the residents as much, which is what makes Brookwood unique.
Emerson works as the director of spiritual life at Brookwood Community. Like a chaplain, he works with the residents to promote spiritual health, no matter their mental capacity.
“If we’re going to have our residents live a full life, work is a part of that. The sense of being productive, the importance of not being in your pajamas all day, is important,” he said during a recent conversation. “To give everyone a job and to have a unique role in the community does huge amounts in terms of self-esteem, a sense of personal mission and identity, as well as a sense of belonging. That’s a huge part of flourishing.”
Currently, there are more than 100 people who live on the Brookwood campus, and 120 additional workers on-site who help with gardening, the cafe, and customer service at the stores. The residents range from those who can’t speak coherently to men and women who can “explain the plot of Hamlet.”
Brookwood’s goal is to help residents know their worth isn’t found in what the world values, but because of the image they bear each day, reflecting God in the work of their hands.
“My life and faith have been so enriched by being around adults with disabilities, and I think churches are missing a huge opportunity to grow into greater spiritual maturity by not having special needs ministries,” Emerson said. “Adults with disabilities tend to have less honor, so the church, then, should be treating them with special honor and should have them at the center of our church life.”