No Place Like ‘Home’
By Laurie A. Kaiser
The glittery red shoes are ragged around the edges from constant wear. Sitting in a display case at St. Peter-St. Joseph (St. PJ’s) Children’s Home, they quietly tell the story of one little girl’s journey.
At age 4, Sonja moved to St. PJ’s, a long-term residence for abused and neglected children five years ago Her grandmother gave her the Dorothy-like slippers and told her that if she wore them, she would get to go home one day.
“We could hardly get her to take the shoes off,” says Annalisa Hernandez, associate director of development for St. PJ’s. “We replaced them with new pairs and she kept wearing them.”
After experiencing severe physical abuse in her home, Sonja found a safe haven at St. PJ’s. Her new home included a toddler bed with a princess bedspread, nestled in a room with two other little girls. It also came with hugs and discipline from house parents and meals shared with about 70 other children on a campus that boasts a large shady playground, an historic chapel and therapy rooms – all meant to mend trauma-filled little lives.
“A child’s self-esteem is so damaged due to abuse and neglect in the home,” says Sherry Loyd, program director for residential services. “It is our job to help that child heal from the abuse.”
More than 100 Years of ‘Home’
Founded in 1891 by the Sisters of Charity as an orphanage, St. PJ’s provides care for children ages 2 to 17 on a sprawling campus across from Mission Concepcion south of downtown. Child Protective Services (CPS) places the majority of the children after confirming abuse or neglect in their homes. Parents of many of the residents are struggling with drug addictions, mental illness or anger issues.
St. PJ’s houses up to 72 children in its long-term residence. An additional 27 children can stay in the home’s emergency shelter for up to 90 days, with some transitioning to long-term care.
“What’s special here is that we are able to keep large sibling groups together,” Hernandez says. “In many foster homes, the kids get separated because they either can’t take the little ones or the older ones.”
Therapeutic Backdrop for Healing
Some of the children arrive with bruises and black eyes; other recall regular trips to dumpsters to forage for food. But just as often, the trauma is hidden. Many experienced sexual abuse or blatant neglect.
“When you hear their stories and all that they’ve been through, it’s heartbreaking,” Hernandez says.
When children first come to St. PJ’s, they often are confused and upset that they are away from home. But the “homey” comforts of the campus win them over. “They make friends here and it becomes a second home,” says Hernandez.
The campus is remarkably cheerful. Dorm rooms are decorated with kid posters and photos, and the common rooms are furnished with comfy couches, child-size chairs, televisions and stacks of board games. Responsibility charts listing duties for each resident hang prominently on the walls.
Children age 5 and younger stay at the Kiddie Kottage, which has its own colorful playground and a playroom filled with stuffed animals, toy dinosaurs, blocks and dolls.
Preschoolers attend classes on campus, while older kids are enrolled in San Antonio public schools or private schools paid for by donations earmarked for Catholic education.
Children in the long-term facility stay an average of 15 months, usually while their case is wending its way through the Children’s Court system. Although 70 percent of the residents return to their parents or another relative after their St. PJ’s stay, some live in the facility until they finish high school. Photos of smiling graduates in caps and gowns line one wall of the recreation building.
Occasionally, parents’ rights are terminated and the children are available for adoption; 10 are available currently.
How To Get Involved
Caring adults can contribute to St. PJ’s in multiple ways. Monetary contributions are always needed. It costs $90 a day to care for one child, and the Texas Department of Family and Protective Service provides only about half of St. PJ’s $4 million annual operating budget. The rest comes from United Way and donations.
St. PJ’s also continually needs volunteers to help with office work, landscaping and tutoring. Many of the kids crave one-on-one time with a caring adult, as St. PJ’s has just one or two house parents for every 15 children.
“We always need mentors,” Hernandez says. “If you just want to come out and spend time with the children, it would be welcome.”
Every year, the home holds a “Red Shoes” gala, inspired by the little girl whose determination and faith took her home. After her parents completed parenting classes and therapy over 18 months Sonja left St. PJ’s for good.
Hernandez says it’s the hope that all of St. PJ’s children eventually get to return to an improved version of their biological homes. Sonja and her shoes demonstrated that it can happen.
To learn more about St. PJ’s or to volunteer, call 533-1203 or visit www.stpjhome.org.
Laurie A. Kaiser is the former editor of Our Kids.
First publishing November 2007 in Our Kids San Antonio.