GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — You might struggle to find someone who works as hard as Tonya Elias. By day, the mother of three is a special education teacher at East Kentwood High School. By night, she’s the motor behind Blessed By Brookelyn — a nonprofit group working to help West Michigan’s youth.
On the outside, she looks like a superhero. She picked up her son for an appointment, worked to open a thrift store and started dinner, all while sitting down for an interview.
On the inside, Elias admits, the busyness is a tactic to keep her mind occupied.
“My trauma response is being busy,” Elias said. “I just fill my day. I get home, I pass out and I do it again.”
If Elias is the motor, grief and love are the fuel. Blessed By Brookelyn comes back to making the impact that Brooke would have made on our community if her life hadn’t been cut short.
JULY 18, 2014
Paul and Tonya Elias are dedicated to service. That includes regular mission trips across the country, leading by example and putting their kids to work to learn the importance of giving back and working hard.
“We had been out to the Badlands in South Dakota several times on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. And then after the tornadoes in Alabama, (we went there),” Tonya Elias told News 8. “We know what we’re supposed to do. And in order to teach our kids those same values, they need to be coming alongside of us, doing these trips and seeing and experiencing.”
July 18, 2014, was a sunny Friday in West Michigan and a busy one for the family. They were getting ready to head to Alabama for another mission trip. Tonya said she had her master list and was delegating which chores needed to be done before they left.
She remembers two distinct moments that fateful day.
“I’m getting ready and I’m doing all the things that are on my list, and I felt this overwhelming feeling that I just needed to take a break for a minute,” Elias said. “I don’t even know what it was, but it was just an overwhelming feeling. And so for whatever reason… I just sat on the couch, and I took a breath and I looked out the window and I just felt this heaviness. I was looking out the window and Brooke was outside petting the dog.
“So, I’m just watching and watching. And I don’t know why, because I should have a million things running through my head. If you’ve ever gotten ready to go on a big trip as parents, right? You want to make sure that you (are prepared). But I just sat there, and I looked out the window and just kind of took a break from all the things that I was doing and needed to do. And I just watched.”
Eventually, the heaviness subsided. After a few minutes, Elias went back to work.
The oldest daughter, Sydney, was cutting grass on their 5-acre property. Elias was preparing food and getting everything packed up and ready for the trip. Ten-year-old Brookelyn was keeping her 6-year-old brother, Carter, entertained. She decided to take him for a ride on the family’s golf cart.
“We had golf carts for yard work. We have a Bobcat and a tractor, you know, all the stuff that is normal to country living,” Elias said.
Minutes later, she said she remembers hearing a voice.
“I’m in a room and getting some stuff together and I heard a voice — an audible voice. I thought my husband was home and had said, ‘You have to go.’ And I looked around and there was no Paul,” Elias said. “I looked at my watch and I’m like, ‘It’s not time to go.’ So I kept doing what I was doing and then probably about a minute or so later. I heard a voice again. It said, ‘You have to go.’ And I didn’t know where I was going, honestly, and Paul wasn’t home. And so I didn’t know why, but I went outside and it felt like I needed to get in the car. So I got in our van and I started going down the driveway.”
Elias quickly realized why she was being called outside.
“(I found) the golf cart flipped over. Carter, his head was under the golf cart and Brooke was laying there in a pool of blood. And that was where I was supposed to go,” Elias said through tears.
Through therapy, Carter was able to explain what happened. Elias speculates that Brooke was distracted while driving the golf cart and accidentally hit a large dip in the lawn, over-corrected and flipped. The metal footrest of the golf cart was pressing Carter’s head into the grass.
“I pushed the golf cart and it didn’t move because it was a solid golf cart, a metal, old, gas golf cart,” Elias said. “I just lifted my hands up and I just cried, ‘Lord, help me save my son.’ And I just cried, and I just screamed. And I hit the golf cart one more time with my left shoulder and it moved. And I pulled him out with my free right hand.”
Carter was rushed to a hospital, miraculously walking away only with a broken jaw.
But it was Brookelyn’s time, Elias said.
“We flipped that golf cart over, completely over, and then went back to Brooke, and I just said, ‘Mommy loves you.’ And she gurgled and made some sounds, and she took her last few breaths,” Elias said. “I needed that. I needed to be there for her first breath and I was there for her last.”
Paramedics performed CPR on Brookelyn, trying to revive her to no avail. News reports say she was pronounced dead on scene. Doctors said she died from head trauma.
“We lost our daughter very dramatically. We have trauma. I have PTSD. I have all of these things, but I carry it well,” Elias said. “But I’ll live all the rest of my days honoring the time, the 2,905 days I had her. Because there was a purpose for her being here.”
Elias says the last month has been particularly difficult for her. In just a few days, the Caledonia High School Class of 2022 will graduate. It would have been a day to celebrate Brookelyn and a major life accomplishment. Now, it’s a day that brings the pain and sorrow roaring back.
“I miss her with the core of my soul,” Elias said.
BLESSED BY BROOKELYN
The pain and misery doesn’t sideline the Elias family. They are working together, keeping Brookelyn’s memory alive by making the impact that she would have left behind.
It started as the Brookelyn Elias Promise, doing everything from gathering donated athletic equipment to cleaning up trash and recycling textiles. Now, Blessed By Brookelyn is taking on a bigger vision: opening a thrift store and helping at-risk kids along the way.
“Even at a young age, she was always a mentor, looking out for other kids,” Elias said.
The store, Brookelyn’s Thrifty Threads, is on Madison Avenue, just south of 28th Street. The Elias family decided to use the money they received from her life insurance on the storefront. Their team of volunteers is still getting the building ready. They plan to open sometime this summer.
The family plans to run the store alongside a rotating cast of paid interns, local at-risk teens.
“Kids know e-commerce. Kids know platforms,” Elias said. “So, (our focus can be) how do I teach them the importance of being on time, money management, manners, respect, relationship-building, all those kinds of things through a tool that they understand.”
Elias believes the store can be a building block for lots of teens in the area, providing them an opportunity to establish a resumé, learn how to communicate and solve problems in a professional setting and develop positive relationships with adults. Though the program will be centered around six-month internships, it will feel more like a family than a job.
“My big thing is food. (When the shift is over), we sit around the table in there and we eat dinner. We have family dinner,” Elias said. “We eat and we talk. You know, ‘What was something good that happened today? What is something that you struggled with?’”
Any profits earned through the store will go back into funding internships. Any quality clothes that don’t sell will be donated to recycling programs to either be repurposed or brought to communities in India and Africa.
For Elias, the store is a way to cope and express her grief and turn the negative energy of her daughter’s loss into something positive.
“That night that we were in the hospital and on the floor on an air mattress and Carter was in the hospital bed and Brooklyn had just passed away that day. It was pitch black in the room and I was just weeping,” Elias said. “And I couldn’t see my husband’s face. In the darkness of night, you know, he doesn’t remember saying it, but I don’t think it was for him to remember. I think I needed to hear it. He said to me, ‘We have two choices: We can choose to live this life that we are called to live and walk alongside people that are in a similar situation as us. Or we can choose to be angry and be miserable for the rest of our days.’
“And so I had to get to the point where instead of saying, ‘Why me?’ I would say, ‘Why not me?’ Because so much happens to people, right? Everybody has a story. And I feel like my story is to explain to people that grief is real, grief is hard, and that no matter how much time passes, you still need to have empathy for people. It still hurts and it’s still raw. But you can smile, you can come out on the other side. There is joy. You can find purpose.”