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Loving plants and people at The Brookwood Community

October 19, 2021, Brookshire, TX

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As you walk into The Brookwood Community, displayed in large print on the wall of the foyer are these words, “Through the Grace of God, The Brookwood Community offers an educational environment that creates meaningful jobs, builds a sense of belonging, and provides real purpose for adults with disabilities.” In the beautiful courtyard, Bob, a crew member watering the plants for sale, pointed me to the building where Robert Grove, Horticulture Manager could tell me more about the farm.

Robert graciously dropped what he was doing to explain his part in fulfilling the mission of Brookwood. Before giving me a tour, he told me about the vision Mrs. Strait, the founder of the organization had. Robert explained, “It was so clear to her. We are still in the process of fulfilling it. We’ve never strayed from that.”

The Community

The Brookwood encompasses a campus of 150 acres of which five are under cultivation. The 122 “citizen” residents pay tuition for boarding each year for the rest of their lives. Robert’s work as Horticulture Manager is to 1) be profitable, 2) create more meaningful work for the citizens, and 3) be here for the duration for the citizens who will live their whole lives in this community.

To accomplish that mission, six crew members work full time to pull orders, water plants, maintain the facilities, and manage pests and plant disease. “An onsite dietician works with citizens to eat better, not just candy they sometimes prefer,” said Robert. An inventory coordinator keeps track of all their annuals and perennials for sale. They operate a restaurant, a gift shop, an outdoor and indoor nursery, 47 greenhouses, and the propagation house where the plants get started.

Working together with plants

The magic is working with the citizens! Ann came running up to Robert to give him a big hug. Indeed, many of the crew members smiled and said hello when Robert came to show me the propagation area where about 20 of the citizens were working and exchanging. He explained how the perennial cuttings are placed into growing cells, covered, and watered before they are transported to the greenhouses. The citizens work on one of four horticulture enterprise teams: the propagation team, the production team, the moving team, and the pot cleaning team.

Their goal is to plant, grow and supply the customers with the plants they want when they need them. That includes seven shipments per year and managing their major fundraiser Poinsettias. Robert explained that they actually grow twelve different varieties to maturity to meet the needs of each of their customers. I looked with awe over the sea of Poinsettias - 48,000 in total some of which were turning red in time for the Thanksgiving orders. H.E.B. is a great community partner. We service 20 stores in the San Antonio and Austin area. 90% of our plants go to churches for fundraising.

Profitability and Community Outreach

Robert announced, “Last year, his second year at The Brookwood, we achieved a profitable operation! We are continually looking for ways to cut costs and to market better so that we can generate additional funds to supply scholarship tuition for those families of our citizens who may not be able to afford it. We also want to expand our outreach beyond the Brookwood Community. For example, we are planning a community vegetable garden in which the citizens can help plant and water, and the community can come for a U-Pick harvest. This county is one of the poorest in Texas. The locals really appreciate access to local, organic produce! The community gets a feel of where their food comes from. “It’s not just a handout; it is a hand-up,” Robert affirmed. The community garden for the citizens helps them follow the whole seasonal cycle and learn how to care for their plants. It also increases their sense of self-sufficiency and self-reliance as well as that of the community members involved.”

Robert is also starting another luffa project with community volunteers who put up a staked high trellis fence for the fast-growing, sponge-making luffa vines to grow on. These can then be made into holiday gifts. The citizens can help us peel the skins off the luffas once they are dry. It’s about creating dignified work for them to do.

Joy in my Job

The citizens find much joy in beautifying their own residences - both inside and out. We’ve insourced our landscaping now so that many of the flowers you see around campus have been planted by our crew. The citizens help with four-season flower change-outs per year. It’s wonderful to see how the citizens are involved in the whole process of that creation, from planting the seed, transplanting the plant, watering it, and enjoying the blooms each day as they leave and enter their homes.

Robert has worked most of his career in for-profit horticulture. He learned many important things that he has carried into this job. Three years ago, he was approached about being the lead grower for Brookwood. “I love my job here! Some of the joys I find each day include hugs from Ann, hearing from another citizen about the Rocket’s game. Now I know that those profits are going to a right cause,” Robert shared.

What impressed me most was The Brookwood Community staff’s single focus on people. Vivian Shudde, the CEO, drove up and rolled down her window to talk with Robert. She was concerned about a community member. She wanted input about where best to place him in the work environment. The photo of Robert with his crew says it all: “It’s all about love!”

Author: Farmer Karl

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