For children with special needs and the parents who love them, Respite Care brings rest, recuperation, love, and hope―all in the heart of the city.

I Love Texas: Castle of Hope In San Antonio
Children are loved and tenderly cared for at Respite House.
| Credit: John O'Hagan

Happy kids are busy playing under tall live oaks beside a "castle." Some can run; others can't. Some jump, and others climb. One little girl just sits, while a little boy toddles along on the playground's special spongy surface that's gentle on elbows and knees. All enjoy the warmth of the afternoon, the cool shade of the trees, and the sunshine of Miss Pearl's smile.

Pearl Williams and other caregivers at Davidson Respite House Emergency Shelter, the headquarters of Respite Care of San Antonio, closely supervise playtime for these youngsters who suffer from seizure disorders, cerebral palsy, autism, and other developmental disabilities. Some come from loving homes and stay only a night or a few days. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services brings others from abusive and neglected surroundings. Until they are delivered into foster care, they will live here in this big, white house--their last refuge and first, best hope for a decent life.

Taking a Care Break
To such children, this Beaux Arts-style structure, which is located in the historic Monte Vista neighborhood, must seem like an incredible wonderland. "This is Hollywood. This is Disney World," says associate director Cara Magrane as she watches the children play. "This is a castle for these youngsters who were living in hardly 1,000 square feet with multiple persons."

Cara and Bert Pfiester, executive director of Respite Care, like to pause in the middle of their office work and come out at playtime to chat with a staff member or push a kid in a swing. It's a care break instead of a coffee break, a few minutes that energize their work.

Inside the mansion where the youngsters live, brightly colored murals decorate walls. One depicts a lion and lamb lying down together. In another, animals board Noah's ark two by two. Upstairs feels like a tree house. Walls are painted with tree trunks and leaves, just like the arms of live oaks that rise outside the second-story windows.

"We wanted to create the sense of a castle, a place where a child would feel special just by living there. It's not an institution and not a clinic, but a home--and a magnificent one at that," Bert says.

Time for Mom and Dad
Davidson Respite House stands as the symbol for this nonprofit agency, cofounded in 1987 by Bob Murray, former executive director of Mission Road Ministries, and Paul and Marie Smith, parents of a twin daughter who was born with significant disabilities.

"Mrs. Smith saw that she needed a break for 30 minutes or a few hours," Bert says. "She worked with a few other parents and said, 'We need respite. How are we going to do this?' "

Here's how. The agency teams with churches and faith-based organizations that provide sites throughout the city for weekday and weekend childcare. Christ Episcopal Church hosts a Monday through Friday daycare. Mother's Day Out programs, headquartered at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church and Antioch Baptist Church, give single moms time to look for work or access services.

On Fridays, parents drop off youngsters for Parent's Night Out at Laurel Heights United Methodist Church. "We call it 'Date Night,' " Bert says. "We don't do matchmaking, but it's a chance for a couple to go out to the movies or to dinner or to be with your peer group if you're single."

Saturday is Family Day Out, when a couple or single parent leaves the kids at First Presbyterian Church or University United Methodist Church for a day to run errands or just to rest.

"When parents drop off their children, they look exhausted," Cara says. "When they come back at four o'clock, they've dressed. She has on makeup. They've slept and had showers. It's just a break for things we take for granted."

Helping Hands
Parents who can't afford Respite Care services pay sliding scale fees. Others are accepted on scholarship, just one of the endeavors funded by individuals and organizations. Grants come from such entities as The United Way of San Antonio and Bexar County and the San Antonio Area Foundation. Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas provides funding to CentroMed to deliver wellness services to the children of Respite Care and their siblings.

The Valero Texas Open, Golf of San Antonio, and the PGA Tour have contributed too. Bert mentions several more good friends, including Bill Greehey, chairman of the board at Valero Energy Corporation, Ed Whitacre, chief executive officer of AT&T, and Rosemary and Greg Kowalski, founder and president, respectively, of RK Group, a catering service.

In a way, staff members give of their time too. Many could earn more elsewhere, but they find this work rewards their souls. "I've worked here six years," says David Urrabazo, a U.S. Marine Corps retiree and facilities supervisor. "It's my way of giving back. It doesn't pay much, but there are other ways of receiving."

Bert himself left a successful corporate position to head up Respite Care. For the past three years, he has cared for two brothers and a sister who were residents of Davidson Respite House Emergency Shelter. Cara came to Respite Care as a volunteer. She's now married with a child and recently earned her MBA. Cara could thrive in the corporate world too. "Friends say, 'You could make so much more money,' " she says. "And I say, 'Why? I would not feel the value of what I do every day.' That makes a grand difference."

Help for Respite Care
The state provides $94 a day for each child, but Respite Care must spend about $170. You can help with money and more. Respite Care needs used clothing for infants to teenagers; new socks, underwear, and shoes; as well as formula and diaper wipes. Contact Respite Care of San Antonio, Inc., 605 Belknap Place, San Antonio, TX 78212; or (210) 737-1212.

"Castle of Hope In San Antonio" is from the December 2006 issue of Southern Living.