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Gracewood. What's their secret for success?

June, 2009

TexasNonprofits was pleased to receive the following good news:  Gracewood, a residential program for single mothers and children in crisis, was awarded a $100,000 grant by Houston Endowment to help fund its $12 million expansion in the Greater Houston Area. Gracewood has matched nearly $500,000 in challenge grants in the past year. So, we decided to learn a bit more about this organization and it's success.

TXNP asked Gracewood’s Executive Director Debbie Rippstein and Leslie Searle, Director of Development in Houston for the Children At Heart Foundation (CAHF), about Gracewood’s remarkable growth during challenging economic times, its long-term plans for expansion in Houston, and the history of this unique and highly successful ministry.

Why have people continued to give to Gracewood during these difficult times?

“Challenging financial times mean that our services are needed more than ever,” said Rippstein. “We’ve all tightened our belts, but for the single parent there’s usually not much room for adjustment. Almost everyone has a family member or knows a single mother who is struggling to care for her children.”   

Gracewood is unique because it is not a shelter and not for families in a perpetual state of crisis. Rather, it is a warm, loving home where women are taught life skills and are able to obtain vocational or educational training that will allow them to become self-sufficient.


  From left: Bette Moser, Leslie Searle, Beth Avalos, Laurie Wilson, Debbie Rippstein.  

“When people see that we are helping a segment of the population that often ‘falls through the cracks,’ they really want to participate,” Rippstein said. Gracewood clients are moms with children who have a lot of potential but little or no extended family to help them recover once the family unit is destabilized by some unforeseen event, such as job loss or a broken relationship. 

What factors have contributed to your successful fundraising?

“It is a combination of several things,” said Rippstein. “First, Houstonians are very caring and have responded generously to help us meet the needs of local families. People see a real need for our services.”

The award from Houston Endowment is one example. Houston Endowment, established in 1937, is dedicated to improving the lives of Houstonians. The grant recognizes that Gracewood is a program that consistently helps families become stable and independent in ways that affect future generations.

The Newfield Foundation, funded by employees of the Newfield Exploration Company, has also given very generously to Gracewood’s expansion, providing funding in excess of $35,000.


Construction is in the home stretch at the new Elmview campus for Gracewood in northwest Houston. Getting a first-hand look at the progress are, from left, Bette Moser, Executive Director of HomeAid Houston; Laurie Wilson, senior account executive for the New Home Guide and a member of the HomeAid Sales & Marketing Council; Leslie Searle, Development Director for the Children At Heart Foundation in Houston; Debbie Rippstein, Executive Director of HomeAid; and Beth Avalos, of Floors Inc., who has taken a leadership role in helping furnish the new home for single mothers and their children. To find out how you can help, visit the Gracewood Expansion Web page. Construction is expected to be completed in August.


Another factor in Gracewood’s success are the faithful individual donors who hear about the program from churches and friends. Their gifts are not always big, but they are critical. Many area churches of all denominations faithfully support the ministry as do local business, corporations, family foundations and civic groups.

Also important is the dedicated Gracewood family, including other programs that are part of Children At Heart Ministries and the Children at Heart Foundation, the Ministries’ communications and fundraising arm.

“We have a great team that is dedicated to helping as many women and children in Houston as possible,” Rippstein explained.  “Leslie Searle and I work very closely on a day-to-day basis. We are out in the community every week, networking, trying to think outside the box. We also work closely with the Foundation, which provides fundraising and communications support to Gracewood and other members of the Children At Heart Ministries family, including Miracle Farm in Brenham and Texas Baptist Children’s Home and STARRY in Round Rock.

An example of thinking outside the box is small dinners held at Gracewood, where donors and friends come out for a casual evening. They are able to see the campus and meet the clients they are supporting with their time, skills and resources. It is a powerful opportunity to meet and interact with the women and children they are helping.

Rippstein and Searle also believe that it is important for nonprofit agencies to work together instead of seeing others as competition, in order to reach more women and find better ways to serve their needs. “Our philosophy is that when we stay open to new ideas and share our knowledge with other care providers and learn from them as well, forming partnerships that are mutually beneficial, it is a win-win and the families in crisis are better served as a result,” Rippstein said.

 “We also watch for opportunities to collaborate with churches of other denominations, community organizations and other foundations,” she added. “We ask everyone we meet if they know of a community group, Sunday School class or civic organization that might be interested, and then offer to present information to them about our expansion.  All of these interactions are part of a bigger picture that helps us get the word out and increase the number of people who know about us. It allows us to provide more and better services to our clients.”

“Relationships are critical,” noted Leslie Searle. “That is why we try to be out in the community as often as possible each week, networking and meeting other people who serve this same or similar population.  We depend on donations from hundreds of individuals throughout Texas and especially in the greater Houston area.  Often, the donor who is not able to give what might be considered a “major” gift has introduced us to someone who can or has helped with a matching gift from an employer.”

 “We have seen a lot of success from the collaboration with other ministries and agencies that are helping to serve women and children in need,” added Rippstein. “This has led to a lot of synchronicity and we are now seeing the fruit of all the seeds sown since the program began here in Houston in 2001. We have a wonderful Board of Trustees and are blessed to be part of a great team. All of us realize how urgently more homes are needed for these mothers.”

How will the grant from Houston Endowment be used?

The grant is earmarked for a second residence on the new Gracewood campus in the Spring Branch area of Northwest Houston. Construction of the second residence will start this year. Already under construction is the first 6,500-square foot home on the Spring Branch campus, which will serve five families. Plans call for a third residence on the campus, allowing it to serve a total of up to 15 families in one location, with private living areas for three mentor families and space for individual and group counseling and life skills classes. Also underway is an expansion at the original Gracewood campus on Wanda Lane in Southwest Houston, which will increase its ability to serve from four to eight families. Both projects are being led by builders from HomeAid Houston. With the funding from Houston Endowment, Gracewood has fully funded a $275,000 challenge grant from the Leroy and Merle Weir Charitable Trust for construction of the second residence. Earlier important support included a $60,000 in-kind gift from HomeAid Houston, a $52,000 gift from an anonymous donor in honor of his mother, and the generosity of many individual donors. Previously funded was a $220,000 matching grant from the Christ Is Our Salvation (CIOS) Foundation to meet additional operating expenses associated with Gracewood expansion.



Left to right, Kathleen Stadler, Suncoast Post-Tension and President of HomeAid Houston; CAHM VP Don Forrester; HomeAid Executive Director; Bette Moser; Gracewood Executive Director Debbie Rippstein; CAHM President/CEO Jerry Bradley; MHI President James Miller; Gracewood mom Tamara Davis; Leslie Searle, CAHF Director of Development, Houston; MHI Marketing Director Joie Trombotore. 

The anonymous donor of the $52,000 leadership gift provided the first major boost to the Elmview campus. “Having seen the work at Gracewood in Houston grow from the very beginning, and recognizing the potential for its future, it was pure joy to contribute to its expansion,” he said.

What is HomeAid’s role?

HomeAid Houston and the Greater Houston Builders Association (GHBA) are dedicated to helping families at risk of homelessness. Gracewood’s partnership with HomeAid has been a blessing in every way.

HomeAid Executive Director Bette Moser helped match Gracewood’s needs with builders who wanted to help. The builder captain for the Spring Branch campus is McGuyer Homebuilders, Inc. (MHI), one of the Houston area’s leading builders. Brothers Strong Remodeling, a member of the GHBA Remodelors Council, is the lead builder on the Wanda Lane expansion. Both projects will be completed this fall.


Elmview in May ‘09  

“One of the aspects of working with Gracewood that we have so appreciated is that they share our vision of building dignified housing,” Bette said. "By partnering with Greater Houston Builders Association builders, remodelers and their vendors and suppliers, we are able to construct homes for our care providers that are not only energy efficient and durable, but beautiful.  We want the clients who come into these shelters to know how valued they are and that they deserve to live in a space that will inspire them to achieve self sufficiency.”

The partnership with HomeAid led to the involvement of the GHBA Sales and Marketing Council, which has taken a leading role in helping furnish the new residences, bringing together homebuilders, interior designers and others.

What are the long-range expansion plans for Gracewood?

From the start, the vision at Gracewood has been to have campuses in each quadrant of Houston so that mothers and children in crisis would have a place nearby that could help them regardless of where they live. Each campus will consist of three to four 6,500-square foot group homes and each campus will serve a minimum of 15 families. The estimated total construction cost of each campus is between $2.5 and $3 million. When complete, Gracewood, the Children At Heart Foundation and Gracewood supporters will have invested nearly $12 million in serving single mothers and children, most of it to be raised from the Greater Houston Area.

“There is no way we can do this alone,” said Rippstein. “Our experience at Spring Branch and Wanda Lane provides the perfect example of what can be accomplished when there is a partnership between groups dedicated to helping people at risk for homelessness.”

Importantly, Children At Heart Ministries operates with a pay-as-you-go, no-debt philosophy. That means it must have the money committed before it will begin any construction.

How does the Children at Heart Foundation help Gracewood?

The Children at Heart Foundation provides fundraising and communications support to each of the four ministries, including Gracewood, that operate under the umbrella of Children at Heart Ministries. All are united under a common mission of “serving children and strengthening families.”  The Foundation provided the initial funding for acquisition of land for the Spring Branch campus.

“The Children At Heart Foundation has been greatly encouraged by the faithfulness of its donors during a time of economic instability,” said Don Cramer, Vice President/COO of the Foundation. “In fact, we have seen no significant drop off in giving this year compared to 2008. There are a couple of reasons for that.

“First, ministries like ours that benefit children and families are always going to have a place in most donors’ giving plans. Second, donors want their financial support to go where it will make a difference. Children At Heart has a nearly 60-year history of benefiting children and families and that is appreciated by our donors.”

He added, “The support that Gracewood is receiving in the Houston community is a real blessing. We are a relatively small nonprofit in a major metropolitan area that has fully funded $500,000 in challenge grants in a difficult economy. That tells us that our ministry to single mothers and their children is filling a real need in the community and people have responded.”

The Future is Under Construction

Gracewood hopes to have all four campuses complete by 2012, a challenging prospect, especially with a no-debt philosophy. Raising funds for land in Northeast and Southeast Houston, buildings, staff, and other resources for families in care, sometimes seems overwhelming. But, said Searle, “it helps to keep in mind that the reason the need is so very great is that there are thousands of single moms out there who want a better life for their children but have no one to help them create that life. That is why we do what we do.”


Participating in the groundbreaking were, left to right, Children At Heart Ministries President, Jerry Bradley; Linda Bradley; HomeAid Houston President Kathleen Stadler; Gracewood Executive Director Debbie Rippstein; Gracewood President Don Forrester; MHI Regional President James Miller; Toy Wood, Executive VP/CEO, Greater Houston Builders Association; CAHF/Gracewood Development Director Leslie Searle; Children At Heart Foundation VP/COO Don Cramer; HomeAid Houston Executive Director Bette Moser; Greater Houston Builders Association President Eddie Martin; and Anthony Love, CEO, Coalition for the Homeless of Houston and Harris County. 


Gracewood and its partners in the community will continue working diligently to raise awareness of the needs and the program, certain that the people of Houston and of Texas will help mothers and children in need.

“Yes, construction of the campuses and running the programs represents a significant investment of dollars, but the bottom line is that the program works,” said Rippstein. “You cannot put a dollar value on changed lives. If we can continue to partner with individuals, foundations and groups that share our vision of strengthening single-parent families at risk for homelessness, we know it can be done.”

How did the Family Care Program at Gracewood begin?              

The ministry at Gracewood began in 2001 in Houston, but its roots are at Texas Baptist Children’s Home (TBCH) in Round Rock. In 1979, one of the children who grew up at TBCH was struggling to raise her children on her own and came back to the only “family” she had ever known, the staff at TBCH.  From her need, the Family Care Program was born. 

Serving single-mother households, one of the fastest-growing and most vulnerable segments of society, the ministry expanded quickly at TBCH and now has seven cottages serving over 100 mothers and children. 

In 1999, TBCH and Memorial Hermann Healthcare System conducted a feasibility study for a similar program in Houston. The next year, the property for the original Wanda Lane campus was acquired. The first client family was admitted to Gracewood on February 26, 2001.

What is Gracewood’s Model for Successful Restoration of Families?

Every home is designed for group living and has a small apartment for the resident mentor who serves as a coach to the families. There is a balance of shared living and private areas. Each family has its own bedroom and bathroom. There are also community areas equipped with large, open kitchens with multiple stoves and refrigerators, where families can congregate in the evenings. There are family rooms, play areas for children and places where moms can study or search for jobs.

“The goal is to provide a warm, safe loving home where women can regroup, learn from their past, and get the support they need to begin creating a better life for themselves and their children,” explained Rippstein.    

The presence of the family “coach” or mentor is one key factor in the success of the Gracewood model, explained Rippstein.

“We have a staff family that lives in each home and serves as a model and encouragement to the mothers in that cottage,” she said. “The house mom sees that the home runs smoothly and that any struggles the moms face are handled appropriately.  That might range from observing nightly struggles with dinner, bath time or bed time for the children to the need for parenting classes or play therapy for the children. When you have someone helping you on a day-to-day basis, the progress is much quicker and the changes are much deeper than, for example, someone who goes to a counseling session only one time a week.” 

Gracewood staff also tries to address each family’s individual needs with a customized plan of service that includes counseling and a realistic plan for vocational or educational training in keeping with a mom’s skill set and abilities. The result is that when she leaves the program, a Gracewood mom is much more emotionally stable and will have the ability to support her family.

If you or anyone you know would like to partner with Gracewood in meeting the needs of women and children in the Houston area, please contact Leslie Searle at (713) 248-8120 or or Debbie Rippstein at (832) 498-9814 or

To read the stories of some of the women who have benefited from the Gracewood ministry, click here.   

To find out more about how you can help, click here or call Gracewood at (713) 988-9757.

To view a specific needs list for the new buildings, click here.

To read about how your donations will help, click here.   


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