VALPARAISO — Tricia Brouwers’ journey plays out like a lifetime movie. As a mother, what many might consider an overwhelming roller coaster ride, she considers “an inspiring blessing.”
Brouwers was devastated 18 years ago when her 2-year-old son Daron’s social development skills seemed to regress without explanation.
After talking to several pediatricians, her concerns were dismissed and she was told her young son was just “lazy” and “he’d be just fine” because “boys take more time” to develop.
“It’s a horrible feeling to know something is wrong and everyone is looking at you like you’re just being an overprotective parent,” Brouwers said. “Mothers have a certain intuition and know their children.”
It was Tricia's and her husband Jon’s faith that pulled them through these frustrating times, they said. Susan Fox, “an angel” Tricia met at church, told her her son was experiencing diminishing language skills and becoming increasingly irritated, which are common among autistic children. Fox eventually would become Daron’s first speech pathologist and help get him back on track.
When Daron officially was diagnosed with autism, Tricia Brouwers made it her goal to give Daron a normal life filled with positive experiences, while educating others about autism along the way. She became a board member of Autism Speaks, a nonprofit dedicated to change the future for all who struggle with the disorder.
Autism education was now the mission adopted by the entire Brouwers family.
Daron's now-23-year-old sister, Lauren, was inspired to attain a master's degree as a board-certified behavioral analyst to help others like her brother.
Lauren Brouwers recently called her mom and told her the Nickelodeon TV show "Blues Clues" was making a comeback and looking for a new host. She thought Daron would be perfect for the job. They put a video together with Daron during Autism Awareness month and sent it in. To their delight, Daron became a finalist.
Tricia and Jon prepared Daron with the scripts and dialogue and flew with Daron to Los Angeles. When entering the studio lots, they were stopped and told, "Actors only beyond this point.”
“Daron looked at me and said, ‘See ya, Mom,’” Brouwers said. “I cried like a baby. Jon comforted me, but my baby was ready without me or his dad. I was proud and devastated at the same time because although Daron teaches us more lessons than we could teach him, we always experienced them together.”
Daron did not get a call back for the role, and although Tricia said it was not the outcome they had hoped for, Daron viewed it as a success.
“He told me, 'It was a success because I got to try and I received so much support and encouragement from strangers and people learned about autism and that there are no limitations,’” Brouwers said. “His response humbled me. Sometimes our plan is not God’s plan and it’s difficult to accept until someone puts it into perspective for you.”
Another of the Brouwers' dreams did come true a couple of years ago when they purchased property in Valparaiso that they now call Hope Grove. Their long-term goal is to transform the orchard into the Jeremiah Project, which will include a group home that provides social and employment opportunities for those with similar challenges to Daron's.
Daron has been busy working the orchard and just ordered crates of bee hives so that they can pollinate the apple trees in time for harvest.
“I’m learning a lot about apples and doing so much work,” Daron said. “My favorite part is selling the apples. That’s really cool.”
Tricia and Jon have shared a special relationship with their children and have made several mission trips to Haiti and have tried to adopt a child. Since Daron was a boy, his expertise has been placing smiles on the faces of Haitian children by performing puppet shows.
“We love being part of something significant that gives him a purpose,” Tricia Brouwers said. “He actually teaches us to live without limitations because he’s ready to flourish and embrace life for what it’s worth. Trust and faith have always been the foundation of our family and quite frankly, it’s all we need.”