They say what’s important is not the number of breaths you take in life, but the moments that take your breath away. Such is the feeling when learning about the breadth, depth, and warmth that embodies the San Antonio agency known as Respite Care. As CEO Bert Pfeister describes Respite Care’s programs and process, feelings of awe of the love that the people that ARE this program collides with the dawning horror of why these children are here. Respite Care shelters and nurses special needs children rescued from abusive/neglectful environments. Tragically, most of those environments are the child’s home. The only Agency of it’s kind in Texas, Respite Care is about providing a loving, safe, temporary home for special needs children (many come with siblings) and giving them the structure, the medical care, and the customized therapy to bring each child as close to their developmental level as possible. Most of all, the Agency heals with love and all that the word implies: safety, security, patience, healthy food, treatment, and play. Respite Care’s capacity is 20 children and they are always at capacity. Housed quite literally in a beautiful older home on a pastoral street, the Agency looks and feels more like a home for 20 active children (they range in ages from days old to 17) than an “Agency”. Run more as a self-described “Mom and Pop” organization, Bert and the staff are passionate, committed, and quite clearly love what they do. Two full time nurses cover 18 hours a day, and the staff includes a full time cook, and two women who have been working over 20 years each. The turnover is low, and Bert loves to brag on his team, including marketing director Elvia Gonzales. Both retired AT&T executives, they became aware of the Agency while working for AT&T’s foundation and outreach side. This is no retirement life. This home needs their “Mom and Pop” and both are quite present.
As much as is possible, OT workers and other therapists come to the home, including friends of Elvias’ who often will show up once a month to cut the children’s hair, 20 at a time! A typical stay is 3-4 months, but some children are there as long as 18 months. As much as possible, siblings are kept together, and while the Agency’s primary home houses 20, adjacent houses are now an extension of Respite Care, providing for siblings without special needs, co-mingling them during the day.
Founded by parents of special needs children needing a temporary break –or respite– from the demands that this type of parenting requires, it has grown and adapted according to need. Quite simply, the State of Texas approached the Agency about creating the nurturing environment that currently exists. Children arrive from all over, often with very little notice.
Continuing to serve the community of special needs children in SA, another extension of the home is the adjacent daycare facility that provides low cost, quality care to these kids, coming thru for families in times of need, be it a daylong respite to focus on a sibling, or an emergency need. Says Bert, “If you have, for instance a death in the family, and need to travel out of town on a moments notice, where do your turn to provide care for an autistic child? Travel, new situations, new environments are difficult for these children.” Respite Care’s outreach program comes thru again.
The challenges are that Respite Care is the only facility of its kind in Texas, that their capacity is 20 children, and that their qualified foster parents base is small. “It takes a unique couple to foster special needs children, and we have a thorough process to determine if a foster home will be able to provide a successful experience. No one wants a “failed foster” situation.”
And, after the foster experience? The children are available for adoption. Bert “walked the talk” six years ago, when he personally adopted a family of three siblings, at the time, 3, 4 & 5.
A number of children that come to the Agency are “non-verbal” and they experience all that Respite Care has to offer—and then a lot more. “We are on a race to help them catch up developmentally. So much happens between 1 and 3, and we want them to have the opportunity to try to gain what the neglect and abuse left behind.” A formerly “non verbal” 4 yr old chatted away with Bert before our interview started. “Dan has a busy day” Bert continued. “Up at 6:30am, on the bus by 7:30 to a special pre-school, then when he comes home on the bus @ 3:45pm with his brother, a speech therapist is here to meet him.” Dan’s brother is one of the children that live next door, but he is constantly with his sibling. Often, the older bother or sister has become the caregiver in their (abusive) home setting, and we want to make that brother or sister feel close and included, not shut out by licensed caregivers.” Transitions for foster care are important and handled tenderly and over time, so each child is familiar with the foster parents that will bring him or her into their home. Still the separations are hard, the tears are there. But the fact that these children have a sanctuary, a place where they can enter a safe and secure world, and a pathway to a new life is moving. It can take your breath away.