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Interview with: Yvonne Streit
Interviewed by: David Goldstein
Date: September 3, 2008
DG: Today is September 3, 2008. We are at the Brookwood Community with Yvonne Streit. My name is David Goldstein. We are conducting this interview for the Houston Oral History Project. As a disclaimer, we want to say that today, our discussion is going to be mostly about Brookwood and a little bit about Yvonne Streit.
YS: Very little.
DG: Well, let’s get that little bit out of the way. You are a rare being – you are a native Houstonian.
YS: That is right.
DG: Tell us when and where you were born. Let’s get that out of the way .
YS: Well, that is kind of an interesting thing, too. My dad was the very first intern at the Hermann Hospital. That is where I was born – Hermann Hospital so he could “direct.” He has been here for many, many years and was very instrumental in the building of Methodist and the Medical Center. So, we’ve got roots that go way back.
DG: Interesting. What were your earliest memories of Houston?
YS: That you could ride the bus and go downtown as a child by yourself because it was such a safe, hospitable place. I remember also realizing this is a pretty big place. There are a lot of people here besides just our family. And as a 4 year old or a 5 year old, I remember asking my mother, “How many people live in Houston?” and she said, “Oh, an awful lot. About 200,000.” And I thought, oh my goodness, that sounds big but it did not register. But that was a lot less than are here now.
DG: That is true. What sort of things did you enjoy doing? What could a young girl do in Houston back then?
YS: Well, one of the things I think will show my age and also my dream of getting back to that . . . we had to dream up things to do. We were outside and around playing with the neighbors and literally creating games. It was fun. I was fortunate in growing up where I had horses and, well, it was a farm outside of Houston. I had done an awful lot of riding. And then, we were on a creek and I remember I wanted my dad to buy me a – I have forgotten the name of it. It is not a water ski. We will think of it. He said, “Well, we are not going to buy any of that. If you want one of those, you can just make it.” So I made it. What are those things called? I am sorry about this. It is just a board. It is not a surf board. But you get up on it and you’ve got a little rope handle, and we would scoot down that creek in that. Of course, the water came through it like mad because I did not caulk it correctly.
DG: Those are what I call buggy boards now.
YS: That may be it.
DG: But I am pretty sure that is not what they called it . . .
YS: No, it wasn’t. That is not the name but that is the same idea. So we did a lot of things that we had to make up and do and be a little creative about it and get into childhood trouble doing it but not anything like the trouble we are subjected to today because of the influence of our society.
DG: Do you remember when you were a little girl what you wanted to be when you grew up?
YS: Not at all. I had no earthly idea. And the fact of the matter is I did not have any idea until I was about to graduate from college. I had this horrible, horrible advisor at SMU. He said, “You’ve got to make up your mind what you want to do and you are going to take trig and you are going to take government and you are going to take this.” Well, my major was psychology and I just ate it up but I realized you had to get a master’s at least in psychology to be effective or to get a good job. I was engaged to a future lawyer and I had to make money because he was getting ready to go into law school and the only thing I could do was to switch my major from psychology to education. That horrible, mean old professor, my advisor, had paved the way for me to be able to do that because he had made me take trig and history and government and all of those horrible things, so I was able to go right into education as a major and then had to practice teaching and absolutely fell head over heels in love with teaching. I was lucky because I got to teach the 7th and 8th grade and that is very good because you do not have to teach them anything – they know it all!
DG: How convenient!
YS: Yes, it was convenient, very convenient. I was just almost 21 when I started teaching. Those were the days that we got out of school a little bit earlier, I think.
DG: Where did you go to elementary school and high school?
YS: River Oaks and Lamar. They were both just little towns, you know. I was in about the 8th or 9th graduating class from Lamar High School way back when. Don’t you dare ask me when!
DG: I won’t. If I haven’t asked you by now, I am not going to.
DG: So you graduated from Lamar and you went to . . .
DG: And then, where was your first teaching assignment?
YS: In Dallas while my husband was in law school at SMU. I taught at Longfellow and Preston Hollow. He was called back into the Korean Conflict so we had kind of this hiatus there for a while and then I went back and changed from Longfellow to Preston Hollow.
DG: Sometimes we look back on that period of our lives from college, those first jobs, and we see experiences that we see as formative influences in our life log. If we look back on those years for you, what would we have seen that we might have said, “That is going to have an influence on her later?” Anything?
YS: Oh, a lot of things. You know, looking back gives you a real good perspective and understanding of God’s hand in your life. I saw a saying one time that “coincidences are just God’s little miracles in disguise,” and having to be creative and wanting to play and do and socialize, we had an awful lot of creativity born then or the ability to try it. And then, as I look back on things that happened, how they have had an influence on my life; how that crazy, awful, mean old professor who made me add education to psychology and paved the way for my opportunity to learn how to teach and how to meet challenge and to build self-esteem. These are great influences. And then, I guess one of the greatest was having our third daughter, Vickie, have mumps when she was very, very young. She was not 1. And because the protective coating that normally grows around each cell of the brain had not had time to mature, she was less than 12 months – she was just 12 months; therefore, the injury that encephalitis and meningitis caused was severe, severe brain damage. She went from being a very active, lively child who actually spoke when she was 8 months old to being someone who did nothing, saw nothing, heard nothing, and in reality, was nothing. My dad was Chief of Surgery at Methodist, I was married to a lawyer, I was a teacher with a psychology background – my goodness sakes alive, how those things began to mesh. We were given instructions by a number of leading doctors, “Put her away. Put her away.” Well, that was exactly the farthest point from our thinking and so we began to work to try to get her well, to try to cure her because she had become so ill overnight, it was in my conviction that she could become well overnight if we did the right things. And no matter how hard we tried, the brain damage was still there. I went to a speech here in Houston on Dr. Newell Kephart of Purdue University and he gave hope to me not to cure Vickie but to be able to help her have a better life. But she was so severe that I thought, you know, he is not going to want to deal with her. There is no chance for success here. I talked to him about it and he said, “Oh good, those are the kind we really like because then we can give them an opportunity that may seem small to us but very large to them to be a whole person -- accept them as they are, love them as they are and build on what we can build.”
And so, I took her to Purdue and we did a big thing there. I will never forget this. Dr. Kephart asked me, “What does Vickie respond to?” I said, “Nothing. She simply does not respond to anything.” And he said, “Well, we’ve got to find something. Food. How about food?” “No, we have to force feed her.” “Well, does she like to swing?” “No, she won’t swing. She does not respond to anything.” And he said, “We’ve got to find something.” So he said, “I’ve got to leave. I am going to move my lecture to the gym and we are going to sit in there, Vickie on the trampoline.” So, I put her on the trampoline. She lay there. And with his right arm, she started bouncing on the trampoline as he stood beside it, up and down and up and down. He did that for 1 hour while he spoke. We took a coffee break and she did not move, did not do a thing. Came back for his lecture and he said, “I’ve got to change arms. That right arm is too tired,” so he started with his left arm and he started bouncing her up and down, up and down, up and down. Just very little. I mean, it was just really a motor input. He stopped at about 11:15 and Vickie goes “uh uh uh.” Well, I am standing there thinking, my golly! How fantastic, you know? So that was an opening door. He taught us what to do to work with Vickie, taught us an awful lot of perceptual motor techniques that can work with our more handicapped, and because of that, I was able to get some children in our backyard. To tell you the truth – God would not rest until it happened. I kept getting pounded on the head saying, “Share this with others. Share this with others.” And so, we took a child from Edna, Texas, one from El Campo, one from Lake Highlands, and several from Houston and we were working in our backyard on motor equipment and getting them to respond and to attend. Attend and respond to something. And lo and behold, they began to do that. The word got out and more children came and we outgrew it, outgrew the backyard. I went to a church, Memorial Drive Baptist, and asked them if I could use a classroom and they said, “Yes, come on.” And so, we began working with these children. And here goes God again. He sent a lady that lived down the street – she came by and she said, “I see what you are doing. I am a physical therapist. Could I help?” And I said, “Oh my golly, yes, but we do not have any money. We do not charge anything for this and we do not pay anybody.” She said, “Oh, I don’t care. I don’t care.” And a very good friend of mine came in with me whose husband was head of the Physics Department at Rice and she said, “Yvonne, let me take care of Vickie. Let me watch her while you start working with these children.” And I did. I said, “Hallelujah!” We began to get more and more. And then, I had a friend come who said, “You know, I’ve got a child who has cerebral palsy. Would you take him and let me help? I have a degree in art therapy.” Here we go. All of this is beginning to build. And then, we had a very strange thing happen – we had to leave the church and we went to St. Phillips because we had outgrown it and needed more room. St. Phillips Presbyterian said, “Sure. You can come on over here but you can only stay 3 years and we will contribute everything we can to help you be a success at that time. I love what you are doing. I love the fact that money does not seem to enter the picture. You take whoever you can.” Well, by this time, we had had to hire a teacher and I am telling you, it nearly broke us. We had to hire Peggy Brown McGoy who has a degree in Special Education. We had to pay her $250 a month and it was just almost more than we could stand but my husband, bless him, said, “O.K., we will handle this for a while but not forever.”
But because we had been given a time limit, we thought, you know, maybe we had better get a place that is permanent. Maybe we could find a room in another church or maybe we could do something but lo and behold, that was not to be. A friend of mine from a sorority came up and said, “Yvonne, we want to give you $250.” My golly, we couldn’t figure . . . she said, “We want you to buy some equipment.” I thought, my golly, what kind of equipment should we get? We had such need. Where can you start? Well, we decided on some headsets and a tape recorder type of thing that we could give instructions and the headsets would block out extraneous sounds and this would really help getting some message in. That was really exciting. So we got that. And the next thing I knew, the Fondren Foundation called us and I remember where I was standing. I was at St. Francis Episcopal School working with some children that had challenges and she called. When I went to the office to get the phone, she says, “The Fondren Foundation wants to give you $100,000.” I truly nearly fainted! And I thought, my golly, what happened? But right there, it was God’s hand. It changed us from a little Quonset hut facility into what we are today. So we began to move towards that. And the dream was to get something like we have today and I talked to every rotary club known to man. And some I am not sure were known to man. We told about the dream of starting a place that could be for the functionally disabled adult. You know, there is so much that is being done for the child but we are an adult three-quarters of our lives and rarely do you find facilities set up just for the adult. And so, that was our goal. And lo and behold, we could not get any money. Nobody could buy the scene because this was totally different. This was, in today’s jargon, “out of the box,” because we weren’t going to try to teach them everyday reading, writing and arithmetic. We would integrate that into the program but we were not going to teach it as such. But we could teach them living skills, everyday living skills. And if we could find something like this plate back here or one of the pieces that we have around -- we could teach them to do just a little bit of a part of that – they could become a contributor. And we forced learning on them. We forced it. We would not take no for an answer. You know, a lot of our citizens were, at this time 25 years old. They had done nothing but fail for 25 years in the eyes of society and in their own eyes. And lo and behold, as we gave them something in which they could succeed, they could take it and run with it but they did not want to learn. They wanted to reject anything that they would fail at again. So we pushed, we pulled, we guided, we coerced, we bribed, we did anything to get them to learn. And I will never forget one who was just fighting us tooth and nail, turned to one of our teachers who was as determined as anybody and said, “Stop it! Stop it! You are always trying to make me do something I don’t want to do. You are trying to make me learn. You act like you think I can learn. You act like you think I can learn,” and that was it. We were over the hill. And from there, the things that they make are a major contributor, the profit from them are the major contributor to Brookwood as it is today. Underwriting programs, doing wonderful things.
The biggest thing, I guess, cannot be put on film, it cannot be put in a book because it does not mean anything – is their self-esteem, their self-worth. I remember one story many years ago about the mother calling and saying she wanted John to come to Brookwood and the only thing he really card anything about was to go to see Aunt Louise in Beaumont every third Friday. Now, can we do that? I said, “Why sure you can but let’s let him get settled in first.” So about 4, 5, 6 weeks later, she called and said, “Yvonne, could I take John to see Aunt Louise in Beaumont?” I said, “You sure could. That would be fine. But ask John first.” She had never really thought to do that so she called John and said, “John, guess what? We are going to get to see Aunt Louise in Beaumont Friday. How does that sound to you?” He started crying. He said, “Oh, mother, no, no, no, I can’t go. You don’t understand. I am now a member of the human race.” Well, that got her. She had never realized what he had thought of himself, but he could not go because he is now a member of the human race.” Those are the things that you cannot put on tape. I wish you would have been here, David. You could have done some before and after.
We knew we had to find some land, and I am just rambling. Do you want me to stop?
DG: No. I want to put a fine point on it though. When you say you got a call that the Fondren Foundation gave you $100,000, people are going to hear that and say, “Well, I wonder how many times she applied. I wonder how many applications she” . . .
YS: She did not apply.
DG: That is the point I want to make. People came to you. People heard about it. I mean, imagine doing something in your backyard and people hearing about it from all these little towns and people bringing you things. I do not think we can overstate the fact that . . .
YS: No, because that is something God did.
DG: So you did not apply for the Fondren grant?
YS: I did not formally apply for a grant from the Fondren Foundation.
DS: You certainly did not ask for $100,000?
YS: Heavens to Betsy, no! $1,000 would have rocked our boat. $100,000 was beyond all dreams and, as I said, changed our destiny. It literally changed our destiny that day. I can remember standing there looking out a window in Sally Woolrich’s office at St. Francis Episcopal Day School and thinking, my golly, that’s wonderful! Oh my gosh, what does that mean? Oh, my golly, this is great! Oh my, where are we going with this? And that was the beginning of thinking big.
DG: You have mentioned a few individuals and the churches that were instrumental. Anybody in those early days? Any other names come to mind?
YS: Oh gosh, there are so many and my memory is so bad but I know we had been fortunate to be able to go to various places in the United States to programs that were doing something for the functionally disabled adult, and I should not say it that way. You are supposed to say adults with functional disabilities. That is the politically correct term today. One never knows what it is going to be tomorrow. But anyway, we went to Copaque, New York, we went to Baltimore, we went to Phoenix, we went to small towns in the United States and we saw a lot of programs. Some of it in our mind was pretty good, some of it wasn’t too good. And then, we heard of a place in Germany that was supposedly unbelievable. It is called Bethel (bee-tul) in Germany. Our pronunciation is (beth-ul) and it means quite literally “the house of God.” And these folks had started many, many years ago with Reverend von Bodelschwingh. He heard of the functionally disabled being taken to the hills to die and it just tore him up. He went to his congregation and talked about it and said, “Did you all know this was happening?” “Oh, yes.” “Well, don’t you think we ought to do something about it?” “Oh, yes,” and then walked out of church as so many of us do and get caught up in our everyday life and do not do anything. But one day after he made that talk about 3 times, he heard of 6 folks being taken to a hut in the ______ and he said, “I am going to talk to my congregation again.” He talked to them and said, “Are you aware of this?” “Oh, yes.” “Well, don’t you think we ought to do something about it because we have not?” And they said, “Oh, yes.” He said, “Good because here are 6 we can begin with and had them stand up to the congregation.” And that congregation rallied and they started a village and it is Bethel. It is near Bielefeld in Germany and it has been there for probably 150 years. When Hitler was there, he tried to send his SS troops to annihilate the unfit and, do you know what, David? They never made it.
Something deterred each of the 3 groups he sent. And that, today, is a village of 10,000. Not all handicapped. Not all with disabilities. But the people that have come to volunteer their work and have regular stories which can employ some of these folks, it is neat. It is primarily for the epileptic and the alcoholic. Now, who would have thought of combining those two? But it was good. We took some wonderful things from what they do. We took wonderful things from Himstedter of The Netherlands, from Layenhof, Germany, from Hull, England, and our fortunate quest for what is best. And we were very fortunate again in that we did not have a way to do it. We took other peoples’ ways and put them together to have the good for that particular individual come to the forefront and we would teach that to them. We truly are based on the needs of the individual but we did also create an environment that is theirs. Now we talk about inclusion, we talk about including all of these folks in our regular, everyday life. We include but we include you and me in their world. We are not trying to fit them into our world. You have always heard about trying to fit the square peg in the round hole? Well, we made a square hole for that square peg. We have had people rally because it is different, because in Texas, you can use your creativity and make something good happen – answering a need that is basically there. Do you realize that when we did this survey last which was probably 10 years ago, there were 30 million functionally disabled adults in America? Eight million of those need full or partial care for life and we have seen fit to close our institutions which is, in some ways, very good but many of those people have become the homeless. I will never forget talking to Carlos Morris many years ago saying, “You know, I think a lot of the homeless are disabled,” and he said, “Oh my, yes!” I said, “Well, I understand that about 80% are adults with disabilities.” He said, “Oh, no, Yvonne, it is 93%,” and I was overwhelmed by that.
This idea that we use for Brookwood is not going to be the answer to everybody but it is going to be the answer to a lot. I remember trying to talk to two of my good friends, Jack Trotter and Randy Smith, about this idea that we could teach them to do something and I could teach you to do a part of it, I could teach Joe to do a part of it, I could teach Jane to do a part of it, and together, putting all of that together, we would have a good product. And they said to me, Randy particularly, said to me, “Yvonne, this is a great idea. It is a stroke of practical genius. I can see it would work but let me ask you one question: do you think this is God’s will?” and I could immediately say, “Yes, in no uncertain terms,” because as I looked back and watched these little coincidences occur, I realized it was the touch of the Master’s hand. And the many thousands of people who have come together to make this happen are unbelievable. Randy is probably one of the biggest ones. He was convinced that this was a good thing. Jack said to me that day, “I love the idea. It is right. It is a win-win. It is a win for society and it is a win for these people. But, do you know what? Talk is not going to make it happen. We need to put it on the ground, get it started and let people see what you are talking about.”
And so, the first time in our history, we borrowed money and we bought land. I had already put 8,000 miles on my car looking for a place that was near a metropolitan center but not in it, near a freeway but not on it, and would be beautiful. We ran into this land out here, 475 acres. We did not want all of it but they said, “You can take it or leave it. You take all of it or you don’t take any of it.” So we took all of it, not knowing for one minute what on earth we were going to do with all of that land. But, you know, it came to our attention what we needed to do with it. And so, these thoughts occurred. We would have a place that belonged to the adults with functional disabilities and their families. You see, we only have 110 living here right now. We have about 50 that come in a day program. And if we had another bus, we would have another 50, I guess, but we have a number of those people but that is not who we are touching only. We are touching mother, dad, sister, brother, the extended family. So that takes it from being 110 to being several thousand. And then, the thrust of what we want to do is to be able to share what we have learned with others because the number of adults with functional disabilities is growing at an unreal number because of the wonderful progress we have made in medicine and because of our ability to take them in and help them and guide them with what we call supervised independence. That means a lot. When we bought . . . scary. That was when the 1980s and the oil bubble burst. And our backers, our friends who were in foundations and individuals had been giving us the money to make this thing go and had the confidence and faith in us that we would make it go, when the oil bubble burst, the foundations dropped their giving by 80%. It was a tremendous blow. God would not let us give up. He kept sending us people. In 1985, we opened some buildings here – three small homes, very small, and one inn. We had an opening ceremony. It was wonderful. And now, we’ve got 8 homes but we have added another facet that we are only studying. We are not there yet. And here is an answer to all of that land. Chapelwood Methodist Church is considering putting a retreat center out here. Other churches may be interested in combining. I do not know how that is going to work out. And then, we had a couple who have a granddaughter here. He was chairman of the history department at Rice, she was a librarian at Rice, and they came out from where they lived in Houston frequently to volunteer. One day, they came in and they said, “If we gave you some money, would you build a house for us and let us live there as long as we can and volunteer? That will keep us off of I-10 and that will help I-10 and it will certainly help us?” So we said, “Heck, yes. Let’s try it.” And they have been here now . . . they are so valuable, we cannot tell you how valuable they are. And they love it. They get to do this. They are contributing. You know, we all have the need to be needed and this is something that is answering that need in them. He does readings with our high level citizens and they discuss Huckleberry Finn or they discuss Mutiny on the Bounty. I need to be in on that one. She is a receptionist, a greeter at our wonderful café, and we serve about 700-800 people a week. Well, that is not true -- it is about 1,000 now -- a week. And she is needed and is a wonderful asset. They are just a tremendous asset to Brookwood. So we are thinking about that. Do we want to have a retirement place? You know, people have said this, “I don’t play golf. I don’t want to go to some retirement facility that is focused around golf but I love volunteering and I would like to be here to help you all. Would you consider taking us in?” As we told Dr. and Mrs. Heiman, they are the guinea pigs. We are finding out whether we will mesh or not. But that is growth in the horizon.
There are so many things that come in with people. Dossie Fondren, Lumis. Randy Smith. Good grief, without Randy, we would never have been where we are. Without educators who said, “My golly, we can do this” . . . we now have people coming from foreign countries. We have had people from Mexico come 5 times to study our techniques – not that we know all the answers. We do not. We learn from them as well as they from us. But now, that is a very going concern down in Monterrey. We have a Rainbow Omega in Estaboga, Alabama. And we have a group from Russia that have been here a number of times and we are helping them. But it reaches as far as Thailand, South America, Germany, sending interns, and many states that we have been able to say, “We want to share with you what we do,” and they come and learn and give us ideas also. So the scope is ever widening. The ever widening circle.
DG: In a way, this chance to talk with you is taking a snapshot of where Brookwood is today so draw the picture for us. Tell us what is on the campus now, what operates here, tell us about the greenhouse and the café and the crafts.
YS: Well, when we first started doing horticulture, this is for the benefit of these novices that are just beginning and think they are going to begin at level 9 out of 10, level 1, we killed 97% of our plants as we replanted them and that is not good. That is not a good horticulture success story. Today, 97% grow because our people are so good at it and that is amazing. Most places do not have them 97% grow. We are planting I think 37,000 poinsettias this year. When we first began poinsettias, we had to take a day off from the administration because all of the administrators had to go down and help plant poinsettias. Today, we are not even allowed in the greenhouse. We have 46 greenhouses and horticulture is a major, major enterprise. These enterprises come in and give about one-third of our budget to keep our head above water. This is the good old American, free enterprise system in action. We have a store where we sell our stone cast items, our screening printing, our ceramics, our candles, and it is a really beautiful store. This was designed by some people who are very, very successful in the retail business. Maggies is their store. And they came in and helped us design this. They helped guide our hands in what should we have for sale that people want to buy. When people buy from us, their dollar does double duty. They not only get a good plant or a good gift, they also underwrite the community as a whole. And we have a café. That is another one of those things in our investigation many, many years ago. We went to the Lamb’s Farm in Chicago, outside of Chicago, and they had this gift shop, they had a pet store, they had a bakery and they had a tea room. And I remember sitting there one day saying, “Gosh, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have something like that tea room?” We put it on the back burner because we were not ready yet but lo and behold, something happened again – one of those God things. Our store, our little lob cabin store, burned down. This was our first store. And it burned down overnight. No one was in it. And everything was lost. We had to build a new store. I remember Grace Presbyterian Church calling and saying, “I heard about the fire. We want to give you some money to get started. We want to start a fire fund for you and let’s get another store built quickly.” And Chapelwood United Methodist called and said, “We want to help you with that store. We are giving you a major contribution for it, so let’s get that going.” And all of a sudden, these things just started coming in again. We thought, what should we do? Where should we build it? We do not want to build it where the old store was because it was off the beaten path, so we decided we would build it up on 1489 which is the main highway that goes by our community.
And what can we do to make people come where we could get a café? We had already started it over here in our inn and there was a lady that was a chef, she went to the culinary institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and landed in Brookshire, Texas and was without a job because the place she had worked folded, not because of her, by the way, but I called her one day and said, “Would you like to start a café?” Well, I thought she was going to come through the phone, she was so excited. But why on earth did we want to start a café? Well, that is another one of those God things. This lady called me from, I do not know where she was – the Chamber of Commerce or something in Houston. We were going to host the international oil place. I will have to fill this in later. But they were having their first convention in America and it was going to be in Houston, Texas. The economics, I will have to find it, David. And they said, “Well, do you all have a place they could eat?” “Oh, yes, there are several places around here.” And we said, “No, no, do you have a place we could eat there?” It was in March at the time this happened. I said, “When are you coming?” “Well, in October.” “Yes, we have a place. So that was the birth of it right there. Oh Lord have mercy, what were we going to do? So we began making plans to have a café and that café was born in our inn over here where we had our kitchen that we did not use during the daytime and that would be a place to start. So we started. They were coming on October, let’s say, the 10th . . .
DG: Was that the Economic Summit?
YS: Yes, thank you. The Economic Summit. These were the wives of the chief executive officers of the Economic Summit. We did not want to start with just anybody, we had to start big time because that is what stupidity does for you, you know, you just go fools run in where angels fear to tread. Well, we had those angels right behind us moving us and pushing us all the way. It was wonderful. Our first day, we had all the neighbors around here come for a dry run. David, it was so bad, we cried. The next day, the executive wives of the Economic Council, World Economic Council, arrived and it was wonderful. Oh, it was so good! We could not believe it. But we did believe it. We knew how that happened. But then we outgrew it and we said, “Wait a second, we can put this in with the store. And if it is going to remain as good as it is today, that will be a magnet to draw people out to Brookwood. We do not really make a lot of money on the café but they go next door to the store, they go in the other part of that building and purchase things and that does help us underwrite the needs of our community.
DG: And the café employs some citizens?
YS: Yes, thank you for reminding me of that. We have a wait staff. They do not make the food. They do not even help except to serve the food. But we’ve got a real good educational technique that works very well. A lot of folks from some restaurants here in Houston will say, “Gosh, I need to implement this type of thing for my waiters and waitresses. It works better than ours does.” But what we do, we have a code on the table and it is a ceramic piece – a blue egg or a red egg or a purple butterfly or something like that that sticks out of the centerpiece. Most people do not even notice it but our citizens know and that is the blue egg table. So they go over and take your drink order on a blue egg card and number one person has a ribbon, very unobtrusive on his chair that is chair #1, and then we go to chair #2, 3 and 4 or 8 or 10 or whatever and take the orders and rarely do we miss because when it goes back to the kitchen, that order is then placed on a card that has a blue egg on it and it is placed in order -- #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, how ever many, so when our citizens take the card out to the table, they know exactly who ordered what because we set it up. We were going to write a story which we will some day and entitle it, “This was a Setup,” and it was a setup – it was God setting it up and us just following orders as best we can. We have made some big boo-boos but so we learn from them.
The café is a magnet. Now we are getting ready to add a western division based on an old hat factory that was here in Houston in 1900. That family wanted us to have the equipment. This was Shooty Brothers. Old, old Houstonians. And they said, “We do not want to let this go to a museum.” The Smithsonian even voiced an interest in that equipment. “We want it to be where people can see it and enjoy it and perhaps be a magnet to draw people out here.” So the last remaining hatter of the Shooty Brothers firm has given us the equipment and he can demonstrate it and show how they used to make hats and how they still restore hats so right now, we are trying to get that off the ground, if you will. Thank you for reminding me about the café and the store.
DG: So the community is here in Brookshire, Texas, but the city that you wanted to be close to but not in is Houston.
YS: That is correct.
DG: And this is the Houston Oral History Project. So what can you say about the spirit of Houston, about the generosity of Houston which I am sure you have been on the receiving end of? What kind of city is Houston and how has it been supportive of your dream out here?
YS: You know, let me use an analogy. We have citizens out here, they are adult bodies but they are, in so many ways, children living in those bodies. Houston is a little bit like that. Houston is a huge city but it is a little town where we want to help each other. I have found that to be prevalent and I think one of the things we need to do in Houston is to keep that spirit alive. Helping each other when we are in need. I was fortunate to have been born here in Houston and grew up with an awful lot of the leaders of Houston. They were far-sighted and they looked beyond just today. They looked beyond what would happen and the realization that we give so much to children’s causes and so little to adult causes because we cannot see beyond what today brings. Houstonians are different. They do see beyond. Look at the Medical Center. Look what has happened there because they could see beyond building just Hermann Hospital and Methodist Hospital, and Baylor College of Medicine. There is just so much that our citizens, our Houston citizens have been able to use their foresightedness to build. Certainly we have made a lot of mistakes. I do not know of anybody that doesn’t. It is the greatest teacher known to man. But Houstonians said, hey, this sounds like a good idea, let’s venture out, let’s stick our neck out and see if we can’t make something happen. And what has happened, and this is nothing to brag on us about but what has happened has been people from literally all over the world coming to see a truly revolutionary technique in teaching the “unteachable.” To have the feeling of self-worth, the lack of the desperation that they came in to Brookwood with, the loneliness, the sense of not belonging anywhere, being an outcast, is a terrible, terrible feeling. But Brookwood, with God’s help and instruction, has allowed us to build a place for them where they do feel worthwhile and good. And other people that have come in to help is almost inborn in the Houstonians as an evidence of what we can do together and a tribute to God, I think.
DG: Well said. You are officially retired?
DG: Your daughter is running Brookwood?
YS: That was a funny story, too. There are so many stories we need to tell. We had a headhunter come in and try to help find somebody that would follow me. And, of course, we do an awful lot of seeking pro bono work. Pro bono is our middle name along with “Yes, I can.” Can’t is a 4 letter word and we do not allow it on the campus. But this headhunter came pro bono from one of the big firms and here again, I cannot recall that name – I should. And we had applicants. We gave him this bunch of applicants to look at and we had him come see Brookwood and what it was and what we were trying to do and it truly is a mission. We cannot forget that. It is to try to do good for our world. So he came over and saw it and he said, “Oh my golly, this is going to take a very special kind of a person. It is going to take somebody who truly is dedicated to helping these people. It takes somebody with a mission spirit. It certainly takes an educator. You’ve got education as your middle name.” We have a lot of middle names but education is our middle name. “And it is going to take somebody that is going to be tough. I will look at these things but that is going to be very difficult.” So we had the next meeting and he pulled one application out and he put it on the table and said, “There is your person.” And we looked. He did not know it was my daughter. I nearly fainted and our search group nearly fainted because they knew it was my daughter. But she has taken over, not because she is my daughter but in spite of that, she has taken over and doing an outstanding job. As she says, “We have built the entity and now we need to polish it and refine it and formalize it so that as we in our next dream of being able to form a seminar group or a training group of some sort, a college, if you will – not a university – that is too broad, but a learning mechanism that people can come and attend and perhaps receive continuing education credits because that is what a lot of these folks have been doing, and we want to open that up; again, not because we have all the answers but to brainstorm and teach what we have learned to others.”
DG: In closing, and closing is not what we have to do but we are reaching the end of this tape, at least, what do you want people to know about Brookwood? This is a project to capture these stories for the future and it is 20 years fro now and somebody looks at this interview, what do you want them to know about Brookwood, what it has meant since you started, what it means today, what you hope it means to the future? What should we take away from your experience?
YS: That this is truly a mission, that it is truly God-centered, that that is what drives us. It is what keeps us on task, focused on what we are supposed to be doing. We have had money offered to us to do things we did not agree with and we have refused. I hope that will still be there. We have been offered to be on a national television show that we do not particularly think represents the moral standards that America should encompass so we have refused. I hope that is still there. To keep in touch with God. What does he want us to do? At this stage of the game, he is right up there first but you can look at places that have let this drift off. We need to get that instilled in a majority of . . . I’d love to say, in all of our staff but that is not realistic.
But if we have it in the majority of the staff and they will reach out to help other staff members, to help the parents that come of citizens we do not have room for, to really try to do good. There are a lot of other things, too. We want the foresightedness to be able to say when should we stop building? When will we lose our individuality? We are based on that. There are a number of places that have 300 and 400 people but if we do not know each one and make it an extended family, we are losing a core value. We have had people like David Weekly that have come in, a Houstonian, and say, “Do you know what? Ya’ll need to formalize what you are doing. You need to give it away in a proper fashion,” and he has helped us through sending consultants. There are so many people that give us in-kind gifts. Year one. We have had this man from Cisco, gosh, has Cisco been good to us. But he came out and took a portrait – he is a portrait photographer. He came out and took a portrait of our 150 citizens, gave them to them for them to give to their parents for Christmas. Things like that. Mike Hall gives us cars. And see, I do not want to name all of these people because I will leave somebody important out and that is not because they are not important, it is because my mind is on vacation half the time. But giving us cars. When he gave us our first car, a new car from Ron Carter, the least mileage on any one of our cars was 123,000, and they were well worn. But we have people that came in . . . Bill McMinn came in and said, “I want to give you a house.” Grant it, he had a daughter that he wanted to get in Brookwood but I said, “Well, you don’t even know us.” And he said, “Oh, yes, I do. I have done an awful lot of investigating and I want to give you a house.” And I said, “But you don’t even know how much it costs.” He says, “Yes, I do.” So he wrote out a check. Pardon moi! And I do not think he would appreciate his name being used, by the way. But thousands of people have come together because they want to do good and good is coming. It is here. It is God’s miracle in action.
DG: And how is your daughter, your youngest daughter?
YS: She is doing pretty well. She is working. She takes . . . now, you understand, she did nothing and now she is putting pots in flats for our horticulture division. She is carrying the soil flats filled with soil to the transplanters. She is doing well. She is doing well.
DG: Ms. Streit, thank you for your time. Thank you for sharing the story.
YS: I am sorry I did not have anything to say!
DG: This is tape 2 with Yvonne Streit. We are back because after turning the first tape off, we realized we had some important people that deserved mention. Ms. Streit, we are going to begin with Vinson & Elkins who have served you long and well.
YS: It is just absolutely amazing what they have done for us. They began way back before we had a building, before we had land and they have helped us with their different divisions – the taxation division – and I guess probably the biggest one has been the labor division. There are some outstanding Houstonians that have come in and said, “Ask VE and ask Cisco and ask different places like that if they would not help us.” They came to our rescue many, many times. I hate to even give credit to one because you know good and well you are going to leave out somebody that is big time and one person I left out was David Streit who put up with my meanderings all over the country and Europe and paid the bills for us to do the studying and paid our first teacher’s salary for several months before we finally realized that if we were going to pay her a salary, we may need to charge a tuition. And that was when I did not think that M&M was anything but a candy. But mission and money do mix and each is necessary for the other. And that is true both ways. Without a mission, all the money in the world cannot succeed. Without money, the best mission in the world cannot succeed except God’s mission which is succeeding, excuse me.
DG: This is an extensive campus here. You had to have had help from land planners, from construction people. Who are some of those?
YS: Oh my goodness! Thank you for bringing that up. Many, many years ago when we first decided what we wanted to do, we had one of our board members, Dan Stoffer, decide that we needed a land planner, somebody, urban development type of thing and I did not even know what those words. He insisted. So he called SWA which is Sasaki/Walker and Associates and it is still a major land planning company in the world. They came out and they talked to us and they listened. You know, that is one of the greatest gifts God gave us – two ears and only one mouth and I think that is for listening more than talking, and here I am doing all this talking!
But they listened very carefully to what we needed and what our dream was, and they put this down on paper. We got that paper out not too long ago and were shocked at how close we came to almost doing the exact things that they had suggested. But on that paper, oddly enough, was this retreat center and a retirement community which had been sitting off in the background until just recently and when we began talking about it again, people began to say, “Oh, you just got this idea?” No, we have had this idea ever since the very beginning. And so, that is charted out on this piece of parchment paper. It is almost that old. But SWA has been wonderful. And then we have had a construction company out of Giddings – it is not out of Houston but they are wonderful. Gaeke Construction has been wonderful to us. Architects that have helped us by giving us major discounts and Paul Lodholz is the one I am thinking of there. We have had some good folks come in from every direction and there is no way I can remember all of them. I would love to have the library have a list of the donors that have been an integral part of what we have done. I cannot even begin to name all the foundations that have come to our aid and truly with confidence in us and in the fact that God was the leader. I think that has opened quite a few doors.
DG: We should say for the record that Brookwood has a capable development staff and if anybody wants to see the list of donors, it is readily available. They should come by and see Brookwood and they can get that list and certainly anybody who is interested in Brookwood will have other resources so we are not going to hold you accountable.
YS: Thank you, thank you, thank you.
DG: In case you forget somebody . . . but we were talking, while we were changing tapes, about some of the other people and we are going to turn to your capable assistant, Janie, and say, Janie, was there anybody else on the list that we wanted to be sure and mention?
J: Speaking of development, John Scales.
YS: Oh, good grief, yes, John Scales. He accuses me falsely of putting up a detour sign on I-10 as he was moving to Houston from Baylor University going to work for the University of Houston. They had recruited him. He swears up and down I put a detour sign up there and aimed it at Brookwood so that we would capture him. He has been our mentor in development. He went from the University of Houston -- Baylor College of Medicine recruited him and then Columbia Medical School recruited him in New York. He is a true Texan and therefore, he had to move back to Houston and he is now development officer at Texas Children’s Hospital and does a fantastic job, but has never once not answered our call for help. He is one of the Brookwood angels of which we have 10,000.
J: Dossie Fondren?
YS: I mentioned Dossie earlier.
J: The Blantons and the Trotters.
YS: Blanton, I did not mention. Let me go back to that very beginning and that very first group was my very good friend, lifelong friend, Jack Blanton who said, “You know, this can be done if we all work together on it,” and Randy said, “If it is God’s will, we will work together on it,” and we have. Jack has been a stalwart supporter financially. His wife, Ginger, Lauralee – many, many people. It is just . . . that is why it is very humbling to have to serve or had the opportunity to serve as a spokesperson for these people and I would give anything if we could read the names. I remember one person way, way back. They were, I would say, in the lower economic range of salaries. They had a cerebral palsy son and when we started a campaign, they gave us $10 a month for 2 years. They pledged $10 a month for 2 years. They moved and their son, Keith, was never here in body but he has been here in spirit because of $10 a month. We have just been very blessed.
DG: This is the kind of work that can inspire people who are not directly involved. You have had some neighbors of people who have had children here that have seen the impact. Tell us about that story, about the one neighbor in particular.
YS: When we started back at Memorial Drive Baptist Day School?
DG: Whichever story you want to tell.
YS: Didn’t I already do that? Oh, yes, I am sorry – I was back on somebody else. O.K. We had one story. We had a young man here who lived in Houston and he was coming out here and then he moved out here and lo and behold, a neighbor of his noticed a change in him. He was more alert, he was into things, he was friendly and she said to his mother one day, “What on earth has happened to Patrick? He is looking so good, it is just great.” And she says, “Oh my golly, we have found this wonderful place and answered a prayer outside of Houston and we drive out there all the time and it has turned him around. It has just been wonderful.” Well, that Christmas, we got a check for $20,000 and I picked up the phone and said, “Who are you?” Not quite that way. But we then got another check the next year for $50,000 and another check the next year for $75,000 and one night, we were out at dinner and John and Marian Mundy handed me a check, a small little bitty household check for $1 million dollars. And when I picked myself up off the floor, we began the work of building the worship center which stands where the first building at one time stood, a 1932 farm house that housed, at that time, everything you see on our campus today with the exception of our horticulture unit.
And then I think back about Westminster Methodist Church. That is really where it all began. Our horticulture division began there. I got my friends to bring Asiatic jasmine cuttings and then we had volunteers going in, taking the cuttings and planting them in 4 inch pots. I would bring them out to Brookwood and we would put them in the greenhouse and then, too, we had our very first bazaar there and it was a big money maker. I took plants in, in my station wagon – those were the station wagon days – and we ran out. I had to ask a couple of volunteers to stand there and say, “We are coming back. We are coming back,” and I came running out and got some more plants and I decided I needed another platform in my station wagon so I took a door off of one of our sheds and put it in the back of the station wagon and made another shelf for plants and I took more plants and we sold $483 worth of plants that day. That was the beginning of our bazaars. And thank goodness they have grown a little bit since then. But these are just bits and pieces of things that have happened all through the years of people who wanted to make their time in this chapter of their lives on earth count. And they have made it count.
DG: You can only imagine how many there must be. It has been decades and between the pro bono contributions of professionals and the well-intended generosity of individual citizens, I am sure there are thousands, tens of thousands of people.
YS: It is.
DG: You could not be expected to remember all of them.
YS: Well, thank you very much for saying that but somebody reminds me of them and all these stories keep coming. It has just been . . . well, as I said before – you cannot tell somebody about Brookwood with a piece of paper or even a video or somebody telling the story. You have to come out here and feel the spirit because there truly is, truly is a spirit in this place and it is God’s miracle in action. Brookwood, we like to say, is pragmatic therapy in tandem with life. Not a classroom where you sit in a formal educational system but one that takes place in every move we make and every thought, and every prayer.
DG: You mentioned at one point the failure rate of the early seedlings, the cuttings. There must have been some other starts and stops. You have overcome them but anything else, any other stories stick out in mind? There was your first produce, your first plantings, your first products.
YS: Well, the first products were ceramics and we used to jokingly say that they were so bad that the garbage men would not even pick them up. And they were. They were horrible. And how we learned through our mistakes, I guess is just one of the greatest assets that we have. We are not afraid to venture out. We will try new things, put them into action. If they failed, we will have learned and that is exciting.
J: What about the tomato crop?
YS: Oh, the tomatoes. Thank you. Fiesta Food Market was good enough to say, “You know, if you all will grow hydroponic tomatoes, we will buy all of them from you. In fact, we will even send a truck out to pick them up. You don’t have to worry about that. And we will help you by building climate controlled greenhouses.” And so, they did – they built 3. They had heating in the floors to keep the roots of the plants warm, we had trestles on which the plants could grow, but we did a lot of research first and we went to A&M and asked them about the success rate of hydroponics in the Houston area and they said, “for heaven sakes, don’t do it. It won’t work. There are too many clouds.” Well, that did not satisfy us so we went to Kansas State Agriculture and told them about it. “No, I wouldn’t try it. I wouldn’t try it. Your chances are slim.” Well, as I told you earlier, the word “can’t” is not in our vocabulary. However, failure and mistakes are in our vocabulary and so we built them and we had tremendous success with growing the plants. However, because of the overcast days that are in Houston, the clusters of tomatoes on those plants were not 3 feet apart, they were 5 feet apart which meant the number of tomatoes grew was three-fifths of what it should have been and that was our failure. We did well with the tomatoes we had but not enough to get a profit margin in there. And so, we gave it up but we are still using those greenhouses and we still have love in our heart for Fiesta who helped us venture forth. They taught us how to grow better, how to grow hanging baskets and they are gorgeous. You ought to come out and see at Christmas the sea of red poinsettias. And so many churches and businesses support us with this and our citizens are part of the delivery team and it is a neat thing. We also have a program at Christmas that really gives the spirit of Christmas in a very different way.
J: Regarding those poinsettias, how did that first crop occur? Did you take cuttings?
YS: No, we did not take cuttings. We grew from plugs.
J: Are there some plants that you took cuttings from the discard?
YS: Yes, thank you. Ellisons, up in Brenham. We went up there. They grew poinsettias.
DG: They might not have heard what she said so tell us, this is about some of the early poinsettias?
YS: O.K. The early poinsettias, we grew from plugs and we transplanted them into 4 inch pots. But when we went up to a place in Brenham that grew poinsettias for profit, they helped us so much. That was Ellisons. They were really, really nice to us. But we saw some little roots, big root systems that they had thrown over there and we said, “Well, what are those?” and they said, “Well, we take cuttings from those. Those are our stock plants.” And we said, “Well, could we take some of those and see if we can’t grow some great big poinsettias?” And they said, “Sure, go ahead.” So, sure enough, we took them and the first year, they were kind of puny but the next year, they were gorgeous and now we grow these huge poinsettia bushes that have been a real eye catcher in our stores. But now, we have refined that to where we have 12 inch pots of poinsettias that are really, really pretty and very, very well done.
J: Can you talk about some attempts and failures like failed partnerships, attempts at partnerships.
YS: I am a little leery of that.
DG: I think one thing that would be hard to miss at this point; I mean, this is called the Brookwood Community and when you tell the stories and you see how many people had a hand in making Brookwood what it is today, and I should say, again, for the record that you were personally reluctant to tell the story for fear that it might put undue credit on you personally. And I think you have done a great job of telling us just how many congregations and lawyers and horticulturalists to regular citizens to people who write million dollar checks and people who write $10 checks. I mean, this really is a community of givers, a community of supporters as well as the community of families that are represented here. The people here, this really is just the tip of the iceberg and the rest of the iceberg at nine-tenths below . . . I mean, it is impossible to name every name but you certainly did a . . .
YS: Well, in our dream to share what we have learned with others and to touch the lives of the 8 million that need full or partial care for life. That truly is a major focus of our mission. I would love it if we could have called this the Brookwood Mission instead of the Brookwood Community but that did not ring as well as community. But it truly is a mission and it is absolutely mind-boggling to see the numbers of people. Not the greatest organizer in the world could have brought all these people together. It had to be the Master’s hand.
DG: And no doubt there are miracles here every day.
YS: Every day.
DG: When you talked about your daughter, when she first had that reaction to the bouncing of the trampoline, those moments must happen here every day.
YS: The pride and the accomplishments, the John story of going to see Aunt Louise in Beaumont, “I am now a member of the human race. I belong. I am important.” That is there buy word. And the thing is, they are not just words – they truly are important to every member here, every person here.
DG: What gives you the greatest personal satisfaction?
YS: Giving credit to God. I am just in awe of it. It sounds so ridiculous to say. I sit here and watch it and just say thank you. It is amazing.