WHITTIER — The phone call came late on a Friday afternoon, with Newcomb House only three days away from running out of money after two years of successfully providing temporary care for the area's severely handicapped.
The caller said her boss had watched a television newscast about the center's dwindling finances and wanted to know how much it would take to keep the facility open for at least another three months.
"I could hardly believe it," said Maria Morales, whose 19-year-old son has Downs syndrome and spends half his time at Newcomb House. "I know that there are some very generous people out there, but we never dreamed that we would be fortunate enough to have someone look at a few seconds on the news and come forth to help us."
Stephen Boyer, who oversees Newcomb House, was elated. But realistically, he said, the $15,000 donation from an anonymous Century City businessman means Newcomb House will be in the same position when that money runs out Nov. 30--unable to cope with what has become a $60,000 annual deficit. If the center has to shut down, he said, life will be more difficult for the 50 to 60 families who use Newcomb House each year as an alternative to keeping their relatives in an institution full-time.
Newcomb House is believed to be the only facility in California that exclusively provides a place where parents can leave their handicapped children in case of emergency or when they need a break from the 24-hour supervision many of them require. It was opened in 1985 by the Whittier Area Parents' Assn. for the Developmentally Handicapped, which Boyer serves as executive director. Before that, the association operated for five years from another residence.
Supporters say they cherish the Newcomb House philosophy as much as the service itself, which strives to create a normal life style for young people whose disabilities are often met with averted eyes or over-pampering.
Newcomb House is a three-bedroom home in a residential area near the Whittwood Mall. There is no sign on the door advertising the presence of handicapped people, and the homey atmosphere inside reveals few indications of special treatment.
"We emphasize basic care issues: looking good, looking clean and helping out with the daily routine," Boyer said. "Traditionally, everybody gives to these guys. We give and give and give. But we forget that part of the joy of life is being allowed to give back" through participating in everyday activities.
Chance to Socialize
Residents spend evenings and weekends doing what everyone else does--going to a movie, to the mall or to the park. Parents like that idea, as well as the opportunity for their children to socialize.
For Morales, the only semblance of a normal life occurs when she can get a break from caring for Dionicio, who spends two weeks of each month at Newcomb House.
"Being away from us and with this new combination housing, he has grown tremendously," she said. "It's good for them to see that there are other people who love them. They get so tied into the parent sometimes that when something happens to the parent, it's devastating to them."
Lydia del Rio uses Newcomb House to take a break from caring for Dean, her 18-year-old son who is severely retarded and has a heart condition as well as behavioral problems. The burden of entire care for Dean fell upon her four years ago when her husband died. The only time she can go shopping or out to dinner with friends is by leaving Dean at Newcomb House.
An Invaluable Service
"It's an invaluable service for me," she said. "Without that respite, I literally am with him the rest of the time. I need the break from him and I think he needs it from me."
Newcomb House gets about half of its $120,000 annual budget from the state, and the rest is raised by parents of the Whittier association. That budget pays for a $500 monthly mortgage payment on the house, salaries for 24-hour staffing and the cost of the various activities for residents.
Boyer says the only way Newcomb House can break even is to persuade the state to change its funding rate, granting an increase from the current $45 a day per client to about $72. Such a request is expected to reach state officials this month, Boyer said.
Occupancy Rate Varies
The current rate does not take into account the intense care required for clients with such severe disabilities, and that the Newcomb House occupancy rate varies, Boyer said. While there are sometimes a couple of empty beds on weekdays, weekend slots have to be booked far in advance.
"The state doesn't realize the extensive types of services we provide," Boyer said. "They need to look at us a little differently."
Harold Pitchford of the state Department of Developmental Services says the flexible and expensive nature of respite care has led to the demise of similar facilities. A more typical facility caring for the developmentally disabled would offer principally full-time, permanent care with one bed occasionally available for respite care, Pitchford said.
"But if this is a valuable program and it assists in keeping kids in their own homes, that's one of the highest priorities of this Administration," he said. "We're interested in making that work."