The Horticulture Enterprise at Brookwood

The Horticulture Enterprise at Brookwood

To live a productive life, to do meaningful work, to have a purpose — all these things are basic human desires. Unfortu-nately, adults with disabilities oftentimes do not have the opportunity to fulfill that desire. For the past 40 years, however, a remarkable place in Southeast Texas has made sure that such opportunities exist, regardless of the physical and mental challenges faced by the population it serves.

The Brookwood Community, located on a 485-acre campus in Brookshire (about 35 miles west of Houston), is dedi-cated to providing meaning and purpose to more than 200 neurodivergent adults. Those with neurodivergent diagnoses experience, interact with and interpret the world in unique ways. Included in this population are people with brain dam-age, autism and ADHD. Brookwood embraces neurodiversity, a viewpoint recognizing brain differences as normal rather than as deficits. This concept can help reduce any stigma around learning and thinking differences.

Brookwood was founded in 1985 by Yvonne Tuttle Streit, whose daughter Vicki was left with severe brain damage fol-lowing a case of mumps. As Vicki grew to adulthood, Yvonne realized that virtually no possibilities existed to provide peo-ple like her daughter with a purposeful future. And so, she took it upon herself to create one — a place where Vicki and others with similar situations could have a safe, supportive environment in which to fulfill their potential. Today, some 100 people reside on campus and another 130 live at home and commute daily to work in a variety of enterprises that enable them to perform dignified, meaningful work, thus building a sense of belonging and providing purpose wherever their abilities and interests lie. The Community’s website describes it this way:

“People with disabilities, like all people, have a basic need to feel useful and feel they are contributing to the world. There is a real difference between sitting around the house in a wheelchair all day doing nothing and sitting in a wheel-chair and making something of value for someone else to enjoy. Brookwood provides a safe and nurturing home envi-ronment with proper nutrition, plenty of activity and productive challenges. We are committed to serving adults with dis-abilities from all economic backgrounds and give extensive scholarship assistance. Our Residential and Day Citizens work in our Brookwood Enterprises; these include Horticulture, Ceramics, Stone Casting, Packaging, Specialty Shop, Soap Making, Shipping and Receiving, Café and Retail. Transportation is provided for those who do not live at Brookwood and come from Houston and the surrounding areas. The abilities, interests and the unique gifts of each Citizen are considered when determining the best Enterprise for them to genuinely contribute and find purpose in life.”

The Horticulture Enterprise is perhaps the one area with the highest public profile. There are 48 greenhouses cur-rently in operation at Brookwood, with another three set to come online in the near future. Every year, both Residential and Day Citizens grow nearly 300,000 plants that are sold to the public in a variety of ways, including directly in the onsite garden center as well as through orders from churches, school groups, service clubs or other civic organizations that, in turn, resell them to raise funds for specific projects. In fact, some 60% of the Horticulture Enterprise’s output is produced for fundraisers, as the inspiring story of the Brookwood Community continues to resonate with various groups in Houston and the surrounding area.

In spring, all sorts of perennials, (such as salvias and lantanas), are grown, aong with annuals, including (to name a few) geraniums, bougainvilleas and hydrangeas in four-inch, six-inch, and 10-inch pots. Indoor plants, such as pothos, are pot-ted in 10-inch hanging baskets (10-inch is the largest pot size used, as that is deemed the maximum safely handled by Cit-izens). In fall, mums are grown, and for the Christmas market, some 40,000 poinsettias. Succulents are available all year. At any given time, some 500 volunteers help Citizens carry out their jobs.

Robert Grove has been the General Manager of the Horticulture Enterprise for half a decade. Having grown up on a farm, and with a degree in Horticulture from Texas A&M, Grove brings practical experience to the job, along with a desire to produce the best outcome not only for the plants grown in his Enterprise, but more specifically for each of the people who work under his direction. “Our work is not just about growing plants; more importantly, it’s about growing purpose for our Citizens,” Grove explains. “We have to figure out the best job to fit the particular strengths and abilities of each person. For example, someone with mobility issues might work in propagation because it lends itself to sitting, while an-other who can’t sit still might be better suited to work on the Movers Crew.”

The Horticulture Enterprise is divided into different occupational areas in order to facilitate the most appropriate placement for each Citizen:

The Propagation Shop is where Citizens propagate around 70% of the plants grown. Different types of cuttings are taken from existing plants and put into cell trays for further growth into plugs for transplanting.

The Plant Shop is where Citizens fill the pots with soil, transplant a variety of plugs, water, and tag them with a barcode before the Movers Crew takes them to a greenhouse.

The Movers Crew is a “mobile shop,” where Citizens transport plants from one greenhouse to another, as plants grow. This may involve carrying pots and flats of pots, loading and unloading flatbed trailers, or lining up and tubing plants. In addition, the Movers also perform such tasks as cutting back plants and filling pots.

Project Green provides an environment for those Citizens who might require more individualized attention to learn the basic skills needed to be a contributing member of the Horticulture team.

Although Brookwood is a nonprofit organization, any moneys the Horticulture Enterprise makes over and above its operating costs go toward providing tuition scholarships for those Citizens who otherwise could not afford to be there. One of the stark truths facing disabled adults and their families is the fact that those adults might outlive their parents or other caregivers. In such cases, Brookwood provides a safe place for them to live out their lives in a secure, supportive and purposeful environment.

“My job is to provide a good plant at a good price to our customers, but working here at Brookwood is not just a job for me,” says Grove. “My wife and I have been blessed with a grandson who has severe autism. I now know the huge respon-sibility families face when making sure that their loved ones are going to be in the safest, most rewarding environment possible.”

At the Brookwood Community, Grove and his team of Citizens and volunteers are making sure that environment keeps on growing.

By Suzanne Labry, B.A., B.ED.
Volunteer Billie L. Turner Resources Center Herbarium
University of Texas at Austin