A House of Learning & Support

By Craig Reed

Jonathan Symons, left, and Brian Miller enjoy interacting with the donkeys owned by D.J. Holbrook. Photo by D.J. Holbrook

D.J. Holbrook says he has learned his profession through “the school of hard knocks.”

His learning experiences came from working with the Oregon National Guard Youth Challenge Program, working at an Oregon Youth Authority juvenile prison, and spending a year with the state-operated community program that provides housing for people who aren’t deemed safe enough to live in regular residential homes. With that background, in 2007 D.J. opened the Holbrook House in Springfield, where he has hosted and mentored developmentally disabled men.

“I’ve had 15 to 20 clients in those 13 years,” says the 57-year-old, whose residence is outside Creswell. He shares that property with his wife, Hiedi, and their donkeys, chickens, and dogs.

The men who have lived at the Holbrook House have ranged in age from 18 to 42. Most of those D.J. has hosted have autistic health issues.

“Our guys don’t have physical problems,” he says. “Intellectual disability and autism are their main issues.”

D.J.’s house has individual rooms for five clients, but since early in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic became prevalent, he’s only hosted three. D.J. has employees so at least two staff members are in the house when the clients are there.

Brian and D.J. Holbrook hang out with one of D.J.’s dogs. Animals are an integral part of working with the men at Holbrook House. Photo by Craig Reed

“We’re trying to teach the guys to be responsible,” D.J. says. “It’s a career that is enjoyable, but keeps me on my toes because at times you’re dealing with child-like minds. The guys are young at heart. It feels good to be helping them.”

The house is certified and licensed by the state of Oregon through Lane County. The clients are vetted and come from juvenile houses they have aged out of, juvenile corrections facilities, mental hospitals, or jail. Each client has a state caseworker.

“Officials want to keep developmentally disabled people out of prison where they would be eaten alive,” says D.J. “It’s all state-regulated.”

Two of the three men currently at the house have part-time jobs. Staff members drive the men to their janitorial jobs in the Eugene-Springfield area, where those companies take responsibility for the men.

“Those companies serve the developmental disability population specifically,” D.J. says. “They go through a process to be approved. The company then supplies the right staff at the worksite to monitor the worker until we pick them up at the end of the workday.”

When all the clients are at the house, D.J. keeps them busy with chores posted on a chart. During their spare time at home, the clients might help staff prepare meals, play video games, work on remote control planes or put together jigsaw puzzles. When the weather allows, there are camping, fishing, and hiking trips, outings to play with the remote-control cars and planes, metal detecting excursions, visits to Creswell to spend time with the farm animals, and shopping trips. Before the COVID-19 pandemic shut some facilities down, there was a monthly bowling outing.

“The donkeys are cool,” says Brian Miller, a Holbrook House client for the past seven years. “The donkeys lay their heads on my arms. I love all the animals.”

Brian says his probation officer introduced him to D.J.

“That helped save my life,” Brian says. “I’d probably be out in the gutter or maybe in prison if I wasn’t here. D.J. is a caring, considerate person who loves to help people who are in need of extreme help.”

D.J. says the goal is to teach the skills necessary to be responsible men in community settings. The trips to different environments are for fun, but also to show the men how to behave in different situations.

“We lead by example,” D.J. says. “We correct negative behavior when it happens. We offer positive support, positive options. We show them the skills they need so they can act properly around other people.”

The men of Holbrook House keep busy with many activities, including flying remote control planes. Photos by Craig Reed

D.J. says most of the men he has mentored have come from horrendous parental backgrounds. One example he gave was of a young man who was locked up in a rabbit cage as a boy while his parents were out partying. He admits that helping clients deal with such past experiences can be difficult.

“I’ve had men we couldn’t handle and we had to turn them back to the system,” he says. “I don’t like to give up on them, but when they disrupt the house in a major way, I have to.”

D.J. has been assaulted, including having his head shoved through drywall and a pencil stuck in his arm. But he’s had many more positive experiences, including one man who was introverted until meeting the donkeys at D.J.’s home.

“Those donkeys broke him wide open,” D.J. says. “He said they were biblical. His face just lit up like I had never seen before. Boysenberry (one of the donkeys) just melted him. He talked about the donkeys for weeks. Whenever he was in a crappy mood, all you had to do was suggest a trip to the donkeys and he was ready to go.”

Hiedi says her husband has the patience to deal with these men and their issues.

“Patience is something you need with that type of business,” she says. “You have to talk the guys through the issues that cause negative behavior. He has the advantage of anticipation because of his experience. I’m proud of the fact D.J. goes the extra mile with the guys. He takes them into the community on a regular basis. It’s good for them to have those experiences.”

“It’s just a matter of trying to make a positive difference for these guys,” D.J. says.