by Natalie Townsend
Published in the Williamson Count Sun, July 27,2014
Before joining Brookwood in Georgetown, Eric would introduce himself as “Eric with autism.” Mr. Clark now calls himself “Eric the artisan.” He is just one of many intellectually disabled adults to experience a change in self-perception since joining the organization.
Called citizens and respected as coworkers, the adults with intellectual disabilities at Brookwood in Georgetown, or BiG for short, are given jobs that utilize their innate talents. They craft hand-made pottery, care for gardens and bake granola bars that are sold at the BiG shop at 202 South Austin Avenue. Five of the items made by the organization, including cards and plates, will soon be on sale at Whole Foods in Austin.
“We want to elevate citizens and put them in a place where the world will recognize their contribution,” said Erin Klitz, director and founder of BiG.
“When I went to day habilitation programs before, I would see our citizens stringing plastic beads on shoelaces and I thought, ‘Why can’t that be sterling silver and turquoise? Why can’t we sell what they make?”
“They have the skills–they just needed to be affirmed in who are and believe they have something to give. Set them up with the right tools for success and they create beautiful, marketable pieces to sell.”
Their stories touched Seeds of Strength, which for the last two years has funded two of the organization’s grant requests. In 2013, Seeds of Strength donated $21,000 to BiG for two pug mills, devices to repurpose clay, and hand chimes. This year, BiG received $20,000 from Seeds of Strength to purchase a greenhouse.
“One of our desires is to have hydroponic lettuce, so we can do farm-to-table to sell to local restaurants, but we’re still investigating,” Ms. Klitz said. “We’ll start out with herbs and things that are easier to grow…. We’re learning as we go together.”
Plants aren’t the only thing growing at BiG; applications for admission to the organization have swelled to the point that “I can’t keep up with the calls,” Ms. Klitz said.
In March 2011, eight adults with disabilities worked in the precursor to BiG, called Light Texas, which was modeled after the Brookwood Community in Brookshire, Texas. Six months later, Brookwood Community chartered Light Texas as its first expansion in 30 years, and BiG has grown ever since.
Today, four staff members and about 50 volunteers work in Georgetown with the 25 special needs adults enrolled at the center. For many parents of adults with intellectual disabilities, BiG has provided hope for their futures.
“BiG is such an amazing change from anything he’s know,” said Karen Lee, mother of a BiG citizen and volunteer. “If you ask him about it, his big deal is that he gets a paycheck. On Jason’s second day, we drove up here and he looked at me and smiled, saying, ‘Can you believe I’m in the business world now?'”
At BiG, everyone has a job and is an essential part of the community–no matter their intellectual disability.
After high school, the talents of many special needs adults are lost in a “black hole,” where they are unable to compete for or retain jobs. As a result, adults with cognitive disabilities often find themselves in “day-habs,” where they are managed rather than developed.
Ms. Klitz wanted more for her daughter with special needs, Gracie Klitz. Gracie was diagnosed with leukemia at 2 years old. The treatment for the cancer resulted in a brain injury, and she was left dependent on others.
After Ms. Klitz attended a school meeting to discuss Gracie’s post-graduation options, or lack thereof, she began a mission to launch a meaningful and engaging environment for other adults like her daughter.
Shortly after Erin Klitz visited Brookwood Community in Brookshire, west of Houston, BiG was born. In May, Gracie aged out of the school system and, as Tuesday, works alongside her mother at BiG.
Without the support of organizations such as Seeds of Strength, BiG would be much smaller.
“I love Seeds of Strength’s mission and not just for BiG but also just their collective impact on the community,” Ms. Klitz said.
“I believe Seeds of Strength is helping facilitate and sowing seeds of a future and a hope for our citizens. For the first time, with the help of Seeds of Strength and many other organizations, our citizens are experiencing meaning, purpose and community.”
The citizens’ products can be found in the BiG store, Monument Market, Hat Creek Burger Company’s Georgetown location, and soon, Whole Foods.