It was a 14-word headline – “Name of 10-year-old killed in Gaines Township golf cart crash is released” – followed by an 86-word story.
In those words on the mLive website on July 19, 2014 was a tale of tragedy: details on the death of Brookelyn Elias, who had died the day before when a golf cart she was on rolled over.
But the story didn’t end that terrible day in July five years ago. And it won’t end anytime soon says Brookelyn’s mom, Tonya Elias. That’s because in the wake of Brookelyn’s death, she and her husband, Paul, started a nonprofit called Blessed by Brookelyn, using the life insurance money received after her death to do so.
“Out of our grief, we have developed a deeper faith and perseverance,” she says. “And we are using the nonprofit that carries Brookelyn’s name to impact our community.”
Among those on the receiving end of that positive impact are elementary schools in the Grand Rapids Public Schools system. This past soccer season Blessed by Brookelyn donated some 150 pairs of cleats, plus numerous pairs of shin guards, soccer socks and even balls to the GRPS soccer program. They also purchased gift cards for GRPS volunteer coaches in memory of Brookelyn.
Now Elias and her organization are collecting basketball shoes to donate this winter to GRPS for the elementary school season, which starts after Christmas (donations are still needed, and Elias can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via the charity’s Facebook page).
A Teacher Giving Back
The connection to GRPS schools is a natural for Elias, a former GRPS teacher who taught at both Harrison Park and Westwood middle schools before moving to East Kentwood High School, where she continues to teach while also heading up her charity.
But beyond her background and belief in education, there is also Brookelyn’s history as an athlete, including as a soccer player who loved the game and was a strong last line of support as a defender. Today the charity that bears her name provides a similar last line of support, equipping numerous kids who might not otherwise be able to play with the tools needed to participate.
For Kellie Kieren, a physical education teacher at North Park Montessori and district coordinator for elementary soccer for GRPS elementary schools, the partnership with Elias has been unexpected but vital.
“It fell into our laps,” she says. “Tonya is an amazing human being. Whatever she could do, she just wanted to help. She and Paul are particularly passionate about helping kids in need within Grand Rapids, and they’ve done amazing things for our district. She will get it done.”
And it’s not just soccer and basketball gear that Tonya collects. Word is getting out about the charity, and donations of clothing now make regular appearances at both the Elias house (on Facebook, Tonya jokes with friends that “yes, the porch is always open”) as well as at the headquarters for both the charity and Paul’s HVAC business on Madison Avenue SE in Grand Rapids, just south of 28th Street.
Developing Center for At-risk Youth
The couple is in the process of renovating the building, which they purchased in the summer of 2018, and there, Tonya plans someday to open a resale store. She also brings in young people every week who are required to complete community service hours due to car theft, petty theft, assault, and various other juvenile offenses in Kent County. Together they sort clothes and cleats and whatever else needs doing, and they often have a meal together.
Eventually, she says, the goal is to set up a job training and internship program for at-risk youth, with all of the money from the resale store going to provide their mentees with a paid, part-time job to go along with a structured learning experience.
Through it all, Tonya and Paul draw strength both from memories of their precious daughter, and from the power of the stories that are now being written because of the charity that bears Brookelyn’s name. Indeed, on the Blessed by Brookelyn Facebook page there are lots of posts about the work of the charity, the need for donations, where things stand with the renovations and more, but there are also more personal entries.
On Oct. 13, there was this from Tonya: “Yesterday, the soccer season at GRPS ended. I cried. I cried because of the kids. The season was over. I cried for the kids. I cried from all the hugs. But the tears weren’t tears of sorrow but tears of joy. Tears for the smiles, the laughter and joy that came from them allowing me to be a part of their story.”
Their story, her story, Brookelyn’s story.