Zachary Brooks, '24

October 27, 2021
Honoring his brother through his autism awareness and advocacy.

In third grade, Zachary Brooks, ’24, realized his twin brother, Jack, was often mistreated and wanted to do something about it. “People were judging him based on how he acted without getting to know him,” he shared. “Jack is like anyone else. He has likes and dislikes. Favorite foods and hobbies. He also has autism and has limited verbal skills. Sometimes people don’t understand what that means.”

Brooks began finding unique ways to raise awareness and acceptance of autism. He started by making announcements at his elementary school, stationing a spare change jar for donations in the office, and asking students and staff to wear blue in recognition of World Autism Month each April. “I wanted to bring more attention to and understanding of autism and help people be more respectful, inclusive, and kind to those who have it. I started with my peers in hopes they would grow up to be tolerant, patient, and accepting of differences,” he said. 

He also partnered with his aunt to petition local businesses in his hometown of Summit, N.J., to join the cause. From displaying posters and donating sales to offering blue plate specials (the color associated with autism advocacy), 24 businesses supported the outreach.

“Each year it continues to grow,” Brooks said of their efforts. Because of the continued support, Brooks realized another opportunity to showcase the abilities, rather than limitations, of those with autism. He created Artfully Abled, an art event in downtown Summit, partnering with a local gallery to collect and display artwork by people who have autism and other developmental disabilities. “Jack loves to draw and paint. He expresses himself through the practice and it’s very therapeutic for him. I wanted to focus on the talents and abilities he has, and others who are affected by autism and developmental disabilities, and highlight their contributions to society,” he said.

Brooks worked with local schools to contribute artwork and invited artists, their families, and community members to join the now annual event. In its last year, over 90 artists contributed work to the show.

He also continued efforts at his high school and established We All Fit Together, an initiative that uses puzzles as a vehicle to bring together students of diverse backgrounds and beliefs to collaborate on completing puzzles. “I wanted to demonstrate how each one of us represents a piece to the puzzle of life and how we are all necessary to complete the bigger picture,” Brooks said. The Summit Educational Foundation provided a grant for the project, and the initiative continues to this day.

In 2020, Brooks was recognized for his advocacy by the Congressional Medal of Honor Society and received the Youth Service Award in honor of his selfless service and dedication to others. The society is comprised of those who wear the U.S. highest and most prestigious military award for valor, and each year selects five individuals to receive the Citizen Honors Award. Brooks traveled to the society’s headquarters in Charleston, S.C., to accept the award which was presented by living Medal of Honor recipients. “It was a very memorable and humbling experience,” he shared.

Brooks acknowledges there is always more work to be done and hopes to expand autism awareness, advocacy, and acceptance on the University of Richmond campus, with his brother always top of mind. “I miss being around him,” Brooks said of Jack, who lives and attends a life skills school in New Jersey. “He doesn’t respond verbally, but I know he feels my absence as well.”