Bruce Brown had the celebration of a lifetime when dozens of people drove by his house to honor him for his 59th birthday.
The joy on Bruce Brown’s face Sunday, Feb. 7, also was a gift to his sister, Annette Brown.
The Ocoee resident turned 59 last week, and a community birthday parade was just what was needed to lift his spirits. Bruce Brown has autism and is deaf. Having never learned sign language, he relies solely on reading people’s lips to communicate. Ever since the pandemic started and people began wearing face masks, it has been rough for Bruce Brown — and it has been an even further-isolating experience, his sister said.
“The last 10 months have been really hard for Bruce with the face mask due to COVID,” Annette Brown said. “But Bruce didn’t understand because of the autism. Bruce loves to greet and shake hands, and me saying, ‘No, stay back’ — it started depressing him, and I wasn’t allowing him to be the person he was.”
Annette Brown is her brother’s caregiver, and as transplants from Fort Pierce two years ago, the pair have no family and few friends in the area.
She posted a message on the NextDoor social media site asking for folks to drive by their home Sunday afternoon to help her brother celebrate his big day. She said she didn’t know what to expect, but then Ocoee’s police and fire departments signed on to participate.
On any given day, Bruce Brown is sitting in a lawn chair in his driveway, watching for the occasional walker or vehicle to pass by so he could greet them. On Sunday afternoon, however, Ridgefield Avenue was bustling with activity, and there was plenty of opportunity to wave.
He said he had a good birthday and enjoyed the parade.
His favorite part? “When they gave me the birthday cards,” he said.
About 50 people showed up with birthday wishes for Bruce Brown, including Ocoee City Commissioner George Oliver. Participants met at one location to decorate their vehicles and then started parading in front of the house. Some passed by a second time.
Many came with balloons and posters on their vehicles as well as birthday cards in their hands. Bruce Brown also received restaurant gift cards and chocolate.
“The mail lady brought me a gift, too,” he said.
Friends donned Mickey Mouse, Daffy Duck and Spider-man costumes; people poked their heads out of car windows and waved from the back of pickup trucks; family drove over from Fort Pierce; and police cars and a fire truck came with their lights flashing.
“The parade was phenomenal,” Annette Brown said. “He was super happy, too. I’ve never seen Bruce shed tears, but he really connected to that parade.”
LIFE WITH BRUCE
Bruce Brown, the third of six children, was always quiet and content sitting outside watching other children play.
“Nothing ruffles his feathers,” Annette Brown said. “He’s just cool, calm and collected. He’s got the patience of Job. He doesn’t need the spotlight.”
Her brother never was taught sign language because no one realized he was deaf, she said; the family thought he chose to ignore everyone. Years later, when Annette Brown took him to a hearing specialist, the doctor told them his hearing was impaired because the umbilical cord likely had been wrapped around his neck before birth. Annette Brown remembered her mother talking about the pregnancy mishap.
The brother and sister have lived together for about 22 years, and their recent move to Ocoee was to afford him more opportunities with other families living with autism.
They became involved in Circles Winter Garden, a group that partners community leaders with individuals and families who face barriers. Before each Tuesday dinner meeting, Bruce Brown was in charge of setting up the dining hall.
“That’s pride for Bruce to know he set up the hall for people to sit down,” Annette Brown said. “That’s important to me to make sure Bruce feels accepted and a part of something.”
Then everything came to a halt during the pandemic shutdown; she said it was painful watching him sit in his room for months on end, feeling like he lost all communication with the world.
“I started seeing Bruce shut down,” she said. “I said, ‘I have to do something to resuscitate Bruce.’ I extended to Circles and said, ‘Let’s all do a parade for Bruce’s birthday,’ and they said yes.”