Feature Stories

Spooky Folk's Christopher Brown Set to Open an Aquaponics Autism Center in Denton

When he graduated from the University of North Texas with a degree in psychology and philosophy, Christopher Brown found himself $30,000 in debt and short on job prospects. The Spooky Folk drummer took what he could get, working two jobs to cover his loan payments and rent. Luckily for Brown he had a little luck on his side: A coworker found a job utilizing her own psychology degree and presented him with an unexpected opportunity. Now that path has led to the fulfillment of a dream — opening his own autism clinic in Denton.

“I was intrigued,” Brown recalls now of his coworker’s proposal. “When she told me it was a pediatric autism therapy center, I wasn’t sure what to think. I had no experience working with children, let alone children with special needs. Still, she insisted I volunteer for a few days before ruling it out.”

Starting out, Brown found himself intimidated by the prospect of working in an unfamiliar field and by being the sole male therapist at the center, something the students picked up on. “That first recess and every subsequent recess was more or less ‘Attack Mr. Chris at all costs!’” Brown remembers. “I’d have three or four kids holding my legs, two kids suspended from my arms and two more crawling up my back or trying to push me over ... Seriously some of the best times in my life.”

After he was rapidly promoted to center manager and had his responsibilities expanded, Brown found himself looking for a slight change, so he presented the owner with the idea of creating a “construction project manager” position that would allow Brown and coworker Damian Miklojachak to retrofit homes to serve as autism centers. The idea was an overwhelming success and led to Brown and Miklojachak travelling the Northeast visiting autism centers to learn new practices and methods to bring back to Texas.

As the owner’s vision began to diverge from theirs, coworkers approached Brown with the idea of starting their own autism center. Brown enthusiastically agreed. A year after their first secret meeting, one of the four partners spilled the group’s plans to Brown’s superior.

“I was promptly sent home and fired. On Halloween, actually,” Brown says. “The kids and therapists wrote cards and sent them to my house. I don’t think I’ve cried harder than after reading my kids ask if I was ever coming back.”
Undeterred by the setback, Brown trudged on with his plans for his own center. With about eight months of unemployment benefits to work with, he set about making the most of the situation. One thing he wanted to avoid was clinics’ typical reliance on singular therapy (such as applied behavior analysis) and flash cards.

“Our program needed to be as multi-dimensional as the children themselves,” he says. “So, this being the information age, I got sucked into a Google black hole. I researched emerging therapies, effective teaching practices, TED talks and even stumbled upon something called aquaponics.”

Aquaponics is a form of hydroponic farming that filters fish waste and turns it into fertilizer for plants. As Brown explains, “It’s no simple thing, but where it lacks simplicity, it provides ample opportunity for kids to learn about complex ecological systems, aquaculture, horticulture, physics and chemistry.”

Brown describes the resulting curriculum as a “Frankenstein’s monster” — a mix of applied behavioral analysis, pivotal response therapy, speech therapy, physical therapy, Montessori practices, computer classes, music, yoga and a host of other influences.Brown, along with Miklojachak and longtime friend Max Widmer, then started looking for a site that could house both the Bright Mosaic school and their aquaponic venture Greenfinity Farms. They found a 90-year-old house with a 19-car parking lot in the heart of Denton where they could operate the businesses as well as live. “We couldn’t have asked for a bigger break,” Brown says.

However, the start-up still faced plenty of hurdles. First, the trio’s lease ended one month before the property would be ready, meaning they had to store their belongings with friends in the interim. Second, Brown’s unemployment benefit ran out. Third, to acquire the combination of residential and commercial zoning rights they would need, they had to drum up a business the IRS would recognize. “We created a shell company that offered ‘web consulting services.’ That type of business requires zero square-footage and services can be rendered remotely, effectively avoiding any inspections,” Brown says. “Still, it took a month of emails and appearances at City Hall to get us approved for moving in.”

Once the web consulting company was approved, the real work of starting the therapy center began. “The city [of Denton] required all kinds of inspections, documentation, fees and a separate day-care license from the state,” Brown says. “It took weeks just to figure out which requirements apply to a commercial/residential house that offers day-care services. Once the city agreed on that, it took weeks to meet with inspectors.”

Each inspector had a list of rigorous requirements to meet, some of which required permits from the city. Unable to afford a contractor, Brown got certified himself and finished the projects with the help of his father and roommates.

Even then the group still had to meet the state of Texas’ requirements for a day-care license, which include complying with a 211-page standards manual that outlines the need for thorough background checks, extensive documentation of personal qualifications, the creation of over 40 policy-related documents, fire exit maps, a changing table, child-proofing throughout the house, employee training modules, another application and a new round of inspections. As of early afternoon on Tuesday, September 15, the group has met all requirements for the city and state, and the Bright Mosaic School is approved for opening. The city of Denton has set a cap of six students for the center until the group is able to move out of the residential section of the building.
“Obtaining permits and licensure took about eight months. Purchasing therapy materials and remodeling took another six months. From that first secret meeting to now, this has been a three-year endeavor.”

With the city and state’s approval granted, those secret plans have finally come to fruition, bolstered by a fundraiser show scheduled for October 11th at Dan’s Silverleaf, where Brown will reunite with his Spooky Folk bandmates, who have spread around the country since their last show together more than a year ago. The band hopes to raise about $5,000 for the school through ticket sales, donations and raffles. For Brown, it’s just one more step in the long march toward achieving a dream he never knew he had until that coworker helped him find it.

SPOOKY FOLK perform with Whiskey Folk Ramblers and Siamese at 6 p.m. Saturday, October 11, at Dan's Silverleaf, 103 Industrial St., Denton, $10
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Jaime-Paul Falcon