To honor their late son Joey, Elon parents Mike and Karen Brocato P’16 have endowed a Teaching Fellows scholarship to support students studying special education. Their gift to the Elon LEADS Campaign will also create a second Teaching Fellows scholarship for students pursuing teaching in a STEM field.
To know Joey Brocato was to love him. The way he lived in the moment and took joy in the smallest things. How he bought presents for his family, special occasion or not, and called his Nana every night to remind her to take her medicine. Or the way he refused to allow Down syndrome to limit or define him. His joyful spirit was his gift to the world.
On Dec. 1, 2019, Joey died at the age of 28 following respiratory complications. Determined to keep their son’s spirit alive, Elon parents Mike and Karen Brocato P’16 made a gift to the Elon LEADS Campaign to endow the Joey Brocato Memorial Teaching Fellows Scholarship for students studying special education in Elon’s Dr. Jo Watts Williams School of Education. Their gift will also establish the Brocato Family Teaching Fellows Scholarship, with preference given to female students interested in teaching in a STEM field.
“Joey was my best friend and I miss him every day,” said Mike Brocato, who spearheaded the scholarship effort. “He was such an inspiration to me and had such a profound impact on my life. He taught me patience, perseverance and how to overcome obstacles, and I credit him with so much of who I am today. Whatever we can do to keep his memory alive is special, and we’re honored to do this at Elon.”
“Joey’s laugh could light up the room,” Karen Brocato said. “His teachers and everyone he encountered loved his spirit, and we wanted to honor him in this way. I miss him a lot.”
A Powerful Legacy at Elon
It seemed appropriate for the Brocato family to turn to Elon during a difficult time. After all, Elon prepared their daughter, Courtney ’16, to be an outstanding special education teacher and dedicated professional.
On Dec. 1, Mike, Karen and Courtney Brocato traveled to campus on the second anniversary of Joey’s death to formally sign their gift agreement to establish the Joey Brocato Memorial Teaching Fellows Scholarship and meet with some of Courtney’s former professors in the Watts Williams School of Education. It was their way of celebrating Joey’s life and turning a tragedy into something good.
“Now I can think of Dec. 1 as the day we went to Elon and honored Joey, and I will feel good about this day,” Karen said. “This scholarship is going toward something I know will help other people and that means everything to us.”
Following a successful career in finance at IBM and Lockheed Martin, Karen worked with special education students for 15 years in the Montgomery County, Maryland school system. She retired in March and moved to Bluffton, South Carolina, with Mike and the couple’s younger son, Kevin, 24. Mike serves as senior vice president of global pricing for Cognizant, a global information technology services and consulting company.
Karen and Mike have seen firsthand the need to prepare talented special education teachers.
“We’ve had amazing relationships with Joey’s teachers. They taught us so much about how these students learn,” Karen said. “We knew there was a need to find special people who would continue to work with these wonderful children, no matter their ability.”
“Having great teachers made such a huge difference in Joey’s life,” Mike said. “If this gift can help kids like Joey have better lives because they had great teachers, he’ll never be forgotten.”
A Big Brother’s Inspiration
One of those great teachers is Courtney, who double-majored in special education and middle grades education at Elon. Currently, she teaches special education at Alston Ridge Middle School in Cary, North Carolina. It’s a calling inspired by her big brother, who was her hero.
“I love those students. They make me laugh every day, and it’s an honor to teach them,” Courtney said. “Joey loved his teachers and going to school and now we have a scholarship dedicated to what made him happy. I’m incredibly proud and honored that we’re able to do this, especially in a climate where there aren’t a lot of special education teachers.”
Courtney credits Elon’s small classes, exceptional faculty and opportunities for student teaching with preparing her to be an effective educator.
“I love Elon. I was allowed to question systems and processes and that was welcomed by my professors who wanted students to be critical thinkers in that environment,” she said. “Elon also taught me to reflect and that it’s OK to fail. We’re not infallible as teachers and we are not just teachers. We are also students.”
Courtney is especially proud that her brother’s legacy will be to broaden access to an Elon education.
“We have to make higher education more accessible because college is very expensive,” she said. “I was blessed to go to Elon where I wanted to go and not worry about money. More people need that opportunity.”
Impacting Generations of Students
Ann Bullock, dean of the Watts Williams School of Education, thanked the Brocatos for helping to prepare future educators.
“The faculty and staff in the Dr. Jo Watts Williams School of Education are so thankful to the Brocato family for their generosity,” Bullock said. “Their gift will allow Elon Teaching Fellows candidates to have the opportunity to become exceptional teachers and have a positive impact on generations of children and families.”
“Working with the Brocatos to establish this generous gift that both creates a legacy of future educators and honors their son was a privilege and reminds all of us of the life-changing impact Elon has on students and their families,” said Elizabeth Read, Elon’s assistant director of planned giving.
The Brocatos have high hopes for both scholarships and the impact student recipients will have on teaching. They also look forward to meeting those scholars and sharing Joey’s story.
“I hope someone becomes a special education teacher and realizes what a wonderful and beautiful experience it is to help kids become all they can be,” Karen said. “We want to give that opportunity to anyone who wants to go into this field and not feel that they can’t do it because they can’t afford it.”
“It’s exciting to be able to endow this scholarship at a university like Elon, a tremendous place that is continuing to do bigger and better things and have an impact on society,” Mike said. “This scholarship makes me feel good about who Joey was and the impact he had on people. It’s one of those things I can smile about. It makes me very proud, too.”
(Read details about the historic $10 million gift to name the Dr. Jo Watts Williams School of Education at Elon.)
About the Elon LEADS Campaign
With a $250 million goal, Elon LEADS is the largest campaign in the university’s history and will support four main funding priorities: scholarships for graduates the world needs, increased access to engaged learning opportunities such as study abroad, research, internships and service learning, support for faculty and staff mentors who matter and Elon’s iconic campus. As of December 14, donors had contributed $231.3 million toward the goal.
Every gift to the university—including annual, endowment, capital, estate and other planned gifts—for any designation counts as a gift to the campaign, which will support students and strengthen Elon for generations to come. Visit www.elonleads.com to learn more.