Cover Story: Treasures of the Heart

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Posted By on December 5, 2019
Warner Family

Kurt and Brenda Warner have turned life’s challenges into an enduring drive to give

            Brenda Warner doesn’t want this story to be about football. “I don’t like football,” she said in her no-nonsense way. Instead, the former Marine would prefer it to be about the things that she does love: her family, her metalwork and Treasure House, the home for adults with developmental disorders she founded with her husband, Kurt.

            Yes, that Kart Warner. The Hall of Fame quarterback whose 12-year career is one of the greatest stories in NFL history. So let’s get the basics out of the way. Not drafted out of college, Kurt got cut by the Green Bay Packers and wound up bagging groceries at a Hy-Vee to pay the bills before signing with the Arena League. He went on to become an NFL star playing for the St. Louis Rams, winning the Most Valuable Player Award and leading the team to a Super Bowl win in his first year. He had a second act with a celebrated run with the Arizona Cardinals, leading the team to its first Super Bowl berth before retiring in 2010. The only person inducted into both the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Arena Football Hall of Fame, his rags-to-riches story is legendary. But it’s not remotely the most interesting thing about him.

            To learn that, you have to travel back decades to when he met the love of his life at a country-and-western bar. Brenda was a divorced mother of two who needed to get out of the house. She and her mother took a line-dancing class, and Brenda stayed with friends after her mom left. That’s when she noticed Kurt. “I thought he was cute, but I come from a marriage with an affair, so I was like, ‘No way,’” Brenda said. But providence had other plans. “We did this dance called the barn dance, where you switch partners, and at the end, he was my partner,” Brenda said. “He asked if I wanted to keep dancing and we danced until they flicked the lights at the bar.”

            When Kurt walked Brenda to her car at the end of the night, she gave him the low-down. She had young kids and wasn’t interested in games. If this night was all they had, that was fine. She left without a kiss.

            The next morning, there was a knock on the door of her parents’ house, where Brenda was living at the time. It was Kurt. He had gotten her address from mutual friends and wanted to meet her kids. “Zachary heard his voice and, being blind, his hearing is impeccable. He immediately took Kurt’s hand and walked him around the entire house,” Brenda said. “Finally, they came into the living room and were wrestling on the floor. I remember thinking I didn’t have to explain Zack’s disability. We dated from then on.”

            Brenda was a U.S. Marine Corps corporal when her first husband, also in the military, accidentally dropped their 4-month-old baby Zack while bathing him. The injury left Zack brain-damaged and blind, causing Brenda to get a hardship discharge from the Marines in 1990. Doctors told Brenda she’d be lucky if Zack ever sat up. She was 21 at the time.

            “I think the Marine Corps taught me to step up and do what you have to do,” Brenda said. “When you’re in that mode, you’re not thinking about the future. You’re just hoping he doesn’t have a seizure and makes it through that day.”

            But when Kurt stepped into her life, Brenda allowed herself to start thinking about a future. “Kurt fell in love with the kids right away. I was tougher to fall in love with,” she said. Yet Brenda recognized there was something different about him. “I mean, what 21 year old starts dating a divorced mother of two who is 25 with two kids, on food stamps, living in her parents’ basement? He did, and did it well.”

            For his part, Kurt found someone who believed in him and his dreams. Brenda stood by him during the lean years of trying to make it as a professional athlete, following him from city to city. “Brenda has been there from day one. She shaped everything, from my perspective on life to helping me grow up,” Kurt said.

            The two married in 1997 and began living their improbable dream. Kurt officially adopted Brenda’s two kids, Zack and Jesse, and had five more of their own: Cade, Jada, EJ and twins Sienna and Sierra. Today Zack is 30 and, despite his old doctors’ dim prognosis, is walking, talking and changing lives.

            Like a lot of families of kids with disabilities, Kurt and Brenda thought Zack would always be with them. But they came to realize they were holding Zack back. He had graduated from high school, where he took part in work programs and thrived. But after that, he was home full-time in a busy house with six other kids and a family with lots of commitments. “We came to realize that we’re so busy doing everything else that he was kind of stuck. His life was waking up, seeing what today brought and then going to sleep and doing it again tomorrow,” Kurt said. “Being able to wake up with a purpose is important.”

            Purpose is fundamental to the Warners’ lives. Both Kurt and Brenda come from humble backgrounds and don’t take the blessings of success lightly. “I remember growing up, wanting to see myself on TV, people wearing a jersey with my name on it, and making lots of money. But you come to a realization very quickly that that’s not what life’s about,” Kurt said. He recognized his fame afforded him opportunities bigger than football — he had a chance to impact people.

            For years, Kurt and Brenda have done just that through their foundation, First Things First, which they created in 2001. The organization has been involved with numerous projects, much of it shaped by the Warners’ life experiences. Because Brenda was a single mom for years, they adopted a program called Homes for the Holidays that gives furnished homes to single parents — they’ve done about 50 so far. They’ve also done an annual coat drive in St. Louis for the past 20 years, inspired by the time Brenda saw a child with no jacket waiting for a school bus during a Midwestern winter. “We’ve given away 10,000 coats,” Kurt said, “It’s amazing what can happen when you get behind efforts like that.”

            First things first — faith and family — is the formula for their success. So it’s no surprise that their biggest undertaking is inspired by both. Back when Zack was struggling after high school, Kurt and Brenda knew he deserved more. After an exhaustive search, Brenda found a residential community for adults with intellectual and learning disabilities in St. Louis. Though the family lived in Arizona and would miss Zack, they decided he should live there. “It was incredible to watch him explode in the four years he was there,” Kurt said. Zack got a job at a movie theater, made friends and started to blossom. “Before that, if you’d ask him a question, he would answer but never had his own agenda. When we would call him, it would be 20 straight minutes where he would talk. The ability to communicate, the desire to connect and the social part were key for him. He was thriving there.”

            But it was a long way from family. When the Warners went to parent meetings, they realized other families like theirs had come from all over the country for a community like this. “You put all those things together and we realized that we need to do this. We need to bring Zack closer to us. We need to have something where other families like ours in this area can have a safe place where their child can thrive but also be a part of their family’s life,” Kurt said.

            That’s where Treasure House comes from – the Warners’ love of their son and their desire to bring him closer to home in a safe and loving environment. They rallied their forces and brought together people who donated land, architecture and more to build a facility in Glendale. Today, Treasure House is the only Arizona living community for young adults with cognitive disabilities that blends support for independence with community building. Each resident has his or her own studio apartment and shares a community family room, game room, patio, recreation area and family-style kitchen. In October, Treasure House celebrated its first anniversary and passed the 50-percent occupancy mark. “With God’s grace, we want to fill this place up, model it and then go build another one somewhere else for more families,” Kurt said.

            The road hasn’t been easy, starting from finding a neighborhood that would welcome the place. “Everybody says, ‘Oh, that’s sweet, but not in my backyard,’ and that broke my heart because they don’t know what they’re missing,” Brenda said. “It isn’t their fault. It has to do with how society treats people with disabilities. But once you meet somebody from Treasure House, you will want them to be a part of your life.”

            Which is a critical part of both the name and the master plan. “There is a scripture that says where your heart is, your treasure is. I know the value of knowing somebody like Zack and I want you to open your heart and see the treasure,” Brenda said. So the Warners are putting their money, time and energy into Treasure House. “This is where our heart is,” she said.

            The ultimate goal is to connect Treasure House residents with the community. “We want people to see the kind of blessing they are when you get to know them,” Kurt said. That means finding businesses willing to give residents jobs so the community gets a chance to see those with disabilities in a different light. “That is our all-encompassing dream and goal,” Kurt said.

            For his part, Zack is flourishing in his new home. He loves music and friends and lights up when visitors walk into the room. He enjoys reading palms and is diligent about what Kurt calls “landscaping.” Every morning Zack goes for a walk, picking up sticks and garbage that need to be disposed of. “He makes the world more beautiful,” Brenda said. “He is a light to this world.”

            Knowing that Zack is settled and flourishing, Kurt and Brenda can shine their own lights in new directions. Earlier this year, Kurt started coaching high school football for free at Brophy College Prep, which his son EJ attends. “It’s a great opportunity to spend time with my son in a different setting, and a chance to help shape the character of these young men,” Kurt said. “I’m passionate about the game and it keeps me connected to something that I love as well.”

            For her part, Brenda has found something that she loves — metal art. Over the years, she had dabbled in yoga, photography, hiking and other pursuits but failed to find what made her heart sing. Then, approaching 50 — a difficult birthday, because a tornado killed her mother, with whom she shares a birthday, on her 50th birthday — Brenda felt like it was time to do what she wanted, other people’s opinions be damned. She found her calling in a surprising place: welding.

            She realized that wherever she traveled, she would pick up metal art, turn it over and try to figure out how it was made. “My mom and grandma taught me to sew. This is honestly sewing with fire because you’re welding two pieces together like a loop stitch,” she said. “It was something that was finally feeding me, and it felt like it was me.”

            After Brenda filled their home with so many metal works it looked like “Game of Thrones,” Kurt suggested she start to sell her art. Brenda refused. “I thought, no, I don’t need the money. I don’t want to deal with people’s opinions,” she said. But then she came up with the idea of selling her works to benefit Treasure House. Today, Brenda has a workshop and makes everything from jewelry to wall art. In fact, she created a lot of the art around Treasure House, including the large metal sign at the front of the building. After selling her wares for a year, she wrote her first check to Treasure House. “I know Kurt can write huge checks. But this was from me. It was special,” she said.

            Both Kurt and Brenda see the beauty of looking to their past to find their future. He has found his passion, she has found hers, and they are hoping Treasure House residents find theirs as well. “We’re able to take what we’ve learned and help others, so it’s not for nothing,” Brenda said.

            The way their lives have evolved has shaped their approach to giving, including in their own family. Each year, they take Make-a-Wish families with a child in medical crisis for a week in Disney World. “We spend the whole week with them and get to know the families and show them we love them and understand their struggle,” Kurt said. They also host a reunion of some 200 of these families each year, either here or in St. Louis, an event their own kids look forward to.

            The Warners feel a duty to raise kids who recognize their privilege and see the needs of others. “Back when I was on food stamps, I couldn’t go to restaurants, couldn’t afford a Happy Meal for my kids. Once we got money, we’d go to restaurants and it would be free because somebody paid for it or the manager was thrilled we were there. The rich get richer, and that’s messed up,” Brenda said. “You can’t do everything for everyone, but you can do something for someone. We’ve had seven kids. If we can have seven more people coming behind us that look for other people’s needs, we’ve made a difference.”

            So whether it be through their family, Brenda’s artwork, Kurt’s coaching, their philanthropy, or the opportunities they are creating through Treasure House, the Warners are trying to do as much for as many as they possibly can. And though Brenda may not like football, they are grateful for the platform the sport has provided.

            “I’ve been out of the game for 10 years, and if my legacy hinges on how long I hold onto a record or how long people remember me playing a game, it’s not going to last very long,” Kurt said. “I feel like I’m young and there’s so much more out there. We’ve been fortunate to have a lot of blessings, but I feel like there’s so much more we’re going to do in the next 40 years. That’s what excites me — to bless people.”

            To learn more about Treasure House, go to treasurehouse.org.

            For information about the First Things First Foundation, visit kurtwarner.org.

            To see Brenda’s artwork and jewelry, go to metalartbyb.com.

Karen Werner

About Karen Werner

Karen Werner is the editor of Frontdoors Media. She is a writer, editor and media consultant. She has interned at The New Yorker, worked at Parents Magazine, edited five books and founded several local magazines. Her work has appeared in Sunset, Mental Floss and the Saturday Evening Post.

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