Providing compassionate end-of-life care without adding a financial burden

In 1989, Sister Marian Strohmeyer established Comfort House Services, Inc., a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, under the auspices of the Diocese of Brownsville. The mission of Comfort House, since its founding, has been to provide a homelike environment for individuals during their final days on earth, allowing them to pass peacefully and pain free, with their loved ones beside them. When it opened, Comfort House (also known as Casa del Consuelo) had three bedrooms and a host of volunteers who cooked, cleaned, and provided loving care to the residents and their family members and friends.

Building projects were undertaken in 1994 and 1997 to add on to the home, eventually increasing the number of bedrooms to 10. The original home has a small kitchen, but the 1994 renovation added a much larger kitchen where volunteers cook lunch for residents, staff, and volunteers six days a week and dinner two evenings a week. (Residents, of course, are provided with all of their meals seven days a week.)

So how does a person become a resident of Comfort House? Veronica Whitacre, executive director, explained that when a patient is diagnosed as terminally ill with only up to a year to live, a doctor refers the patient to hospice care, which may include having a caregiver come to the person’s home daily to provide medical care and other needs. When a person is believed to have fewer than four months to live, the person qualifies for Comfort House. The family tours the home, and if they decide this is where they want their family member to be, and there is a room available, they sign the required paperwork.

“The paperwork, among other things, clarifies that their family member will no longer use maintenance meds,” Whitacre said, “such as diabetes medication.” Once at Comfort House, the person will be given only comfort medications to prevent any pain and suffering. There are many other ways they keep their residents comfortable.

At Comfort House, everyone realizes the importance of being surrounded by love.

“Family and friends can visit from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week,” Whitacre said. “And one person can stay each night. There is a recliner and a bed in every room.” Staff and volunteers encourage loved ones to make themselves at home at Comfort House.

Volunteers are truly the lifeblood of the place.

“We have over 40 volunteers,” said Whitacre. “They provide 450-500 volunteer hours per month.” Whitacre said she doesn’t know what they would do without them because the organization has only 13 paid staff.

There is something else Whitacre doesn’t know what they would do without. Donations. Comfort House provides compassionate, loving care for residents at absolutely no cost to the families. They rely solely on donations from individuals, organizations, and businesses. They also apply for grants to help them fulfill their mission.

Whitacre knew before she started working at Comfort House that funds were scarce, and during this interview, she did not avoid the proverbial elephant in the room. Tragically, Comfort House has been plagued by news reports of its former administrator being implicated in the death of the husband of a former resident. It has been extremely difficult, on so many levels, to deal with what reportedly happened.

Another major dilemma involved Comfort House being denied funding from the City of McAllen and from a federal program administered by the city in 2016 due to conflict-of-interest concerns because Whitacre is a city commissioner and the administrator of an organization seeking funding.

She has now been on the job for just over a year, and Whitacre readily admits she has had to maneuver over, under, and through a lot of difficult hurdles. But she has never doubted it is where she is meant to be.

“I looked out the window and saw a cardinal my very first day,” Whitacre said. “I knew it was my mom telling me, ‘You’re going to be fine.’”

Despite the potentially devastating situations, Whitacre is confident the organization is back on track, fulfilling the mission Sister Marian and others established almost 28 years ago.

Those who have never visited Comfort House may think it is a place of sorrow due to the impending passing of its residents. Rather, it is a place of serenity and of love. Just outside the doors of the sunroom in the back of the house is Bob’s Angel Garden, where family members of those who have passed away are invited to make or buy a stone in their memory. The Boy Scouts built a walking trail around the garden, and volunteers tend to the plants. It is a place of sunshine and tranquility.

Speaking of volunteers once again, Whitacre expressed sincere gratitude for our Winter Texans.

“Our Winter Texan parks open their doors to us,” she said. “We get 10 homemade quilts each month from Pharr South. So many Winter Texans help us. And our local churches, too. I can’t tell you how much they all do for us.”

This kind of help is critical. Besides monetary donations, Comfort House gratefully accepts a number of items that are needed on a daily basis, from dish soap to antibacterial wipes to 13-gallon trash bags to paper towels and toilet paper. They also need food items like ground beef, chicken, bread, frozen vegetables, frozen and fresh fruit, canned soup, cake mixes, cookies and bottled water. Whitacre can’t say enough about the generosity of all those who read Comfort House’s donation list and bring items by. Every single donation truly matters.

Whitacre recently learned that CVS is adopting Comfort House and will soon make it possible for their customers to make donations. Whitacre and her staff have also forged strong partnerships with United Way and our local homeless coalition.

“We have brought trust back,” Whitacre said.

She is counting on the community to come together February 18 for Comfort House’s 16th Annual Walkathon held in memory of the more than 2,000 residents they have cared for over the years. Registration will take place from 8:00-8:30 a.m., warm-up will be from 8:30-9:00, and the three-mile walk begins at 9:00. Parking is available at Victor Fields Elementary School, which is across the street from Comfort House. Face painting, live music, a cake walk, food, and beverages will be available at the walk. Sponsors and volunteers are still needed. (Please call 956-687-7367 for more information.) Walkers are asked to pick up pledges prior to walking. To register now and to pick up pledge envelopes, go to Comfort House at 617 Dallas Avenue in McAllen. You can also contact Whitacre or Michael Merinos, administrative liaison.

Maya Angelou once said, “Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.” The staff, volunteers, residents, their loved ones, and all who make Comfort House possible definitely understand this kind of love.