This year the Ability Award goes to a person that has spent her life advocating for people with disabilities. From a young age, God placed in her a love for those that are marginalized, institutionalized and often overlooked and forgotten in our world. When talking with her, she emphasizes that her focus has always been on working WITH those with disabilities rather than deciding FOR them. She believes we are enriched by people who are different and when asked what else needs to still be done – her response was there is “always a need to educate people – ignorance is appalling.” Through all of her advocacy she has been a quiet champion who just kept going never asking for recognition for herself. Her efforts are even more commendable when you realize she began them in an era before women commonly went on to higher education and spoke out on such matters.
This year’s Ability Award winner is Helen Brownson. Helen’s service began when she grew up in a home with four sisters and one brother with a disability who was institutionalized almost his entire life. It continued after she and Bill Brownson married and had four sons — two of them developing disabilities.
Helen’s oldest son Billy at seven years old came down with Measles which turned into encephalitis. His life was spared but his brain was scarred. He lived the rest of his 27 years of life with a whole host of physical and mental disabilities. Helen went back for her Master’s in education and taught Special Education at Holland High School for many years, and in some of those years made it possible for Billy to graduate from Holland High School. After teaching, Helen went on to administration in the public school system continuing to advocate for other children with disabilities.
The trauma of son Billy’s illness triggered her son David’s nervous breakdown. David taught her not only about some of the torment of mental illness but also the tenderness of grace in the midst of it. She was privileged to help David form a support group for people with mental illness which, even after David’s death, still meets together socially to this day.
Helen has also co-authored a book with her husband Bill entitled Billy & Dave: From Brokenness to Blessedness. And while this book definitely tells of the struggles of Billy and Dave and how the family endured those struggles, it also tells the extraordinary beauty in how a community of people grew up around them to provide care, love and concern. If you haven’t read the book yet, I highly recommend it.
After working for the Holland School District, Helen worked with several non-profits and ended her career with service at Christ Memorial Church as their Minister of Outreach. Even in retirement, Helen is still helping her son Jonathon raise money for an elevator to make the church he pastors accessible to all.
It’s possible that Helen’s approach of working WITH those with disabilities rather than deciding FOR them is coming full circle as she deals with disabilities of her own. Heart disease, Parkinson’s and diabetes have not been able to stop her, but they have slowed her down considerably. She has come face-to-face with the stigma of being in a wheelchair and adapting to memory lapses - although she approaches both with tenacity and a sense of humor. When asked how she handles being in a wheelchair she stated “I want to get out of it” and went on to explain how she was doing physical therapy and was taking some steps now. And when asked how she handles lapses in her memory, she laughingly replied “I’m not aware of it, so it doesn’t bother me.”
I want to leave you with one passage from Helen and Bill’s book when Helen was discussing her concerns about her parenting skills related to Billy’s outbursts in public. Helen wrote:
“With Billy’s problems, I began to wonder what people would think. One day I read in my devotions about our Lord coming ‘not to be served but to serve and to give his life…’ The truth burst upon me that my calling was not to be personally successful, but to serve my family. I realized that I no longer should think of my reputation, but concentrate on taking up the cause of handicapped persons and loving them as our Lord did. I have become a stronger person, more able to understand and empathize with others who suffer.”
Ladies and gentleman, please help me in welcoming to the stage Helen Brownson and her son Jonathon.
Helen, tonight we honor you as an individual who advocates for inclusive communities, where everyone can participate, contribute, and belong — regardless of ability.
On behalf of Disability Network/Lakeshore, we present you with the 2014 Ability Award.