CarePartners’ model of service is based on the concept of a Care Team®. A Care Team is a group of staff-trained volunteers dedicated to providing compassionate, coordinated support to older adults. The concept began in 1985 when CarePartners founders, Earl Shelp, Ph.D. and Ronald Sunderland, Ed. D., joined together to provide a support system of care for a colleague who was diagnosed with AIDS. The founders started a network of congregational partnerships that could provide compassionate care through volunteer programs using the nationally recognized Care Team model.
As AIDS became a treatable disease, the Care Team concept expanded to serve persons with Alzheimer’s, related dementia, and other challenges of aging.
Today, our programs support older adults, including those with dementia and family caregivers. Our Care Team model continues to provide quality support through our partnerships across the Greater Houston area.
It began with a phone call.
The idea for CarePartners was born in 1985 when founder Earl Shelp, Ph.D. answered a phone call from a scared colleague facing an AIDS diagnosis. At that time, that diagnosis almost always came with a death sentence and virtually no resources existed, so he and co-founder Ronald Sunderland, Ed. D. devised a support system of care for their colleague.
Combining compassion with action to serve people who are often overlooked and ignored—that is CarePartners’ purpose.
Knowing their colleague was one of many, Shelp and Sunderland started developing a network of congregation-based partnerships across Greater Houston to train and supervise volunteers in how to compassionately care for people dealing with a disease that few understood and most reviled. The volunteers treated them with the dignity and respect often denied them by their family, friends, doctors, and society. Becoming both their family and their lifeline, the volunteers were practicing a groundbreaking new model of care for AIDS patients at a time when care from medical, social services, and faith organizations was scarce.
The idea caught on, and in 1986, hundreds of clergy and laypeople gathered at South Main Baptist Church in Houston to hear an educational CarePartners program led by a doctor, social worker, lawyer, and minister. This bold initiative drew significant spotlight from reporters and national leaders, providing a platform for sharing it far and wide via dozens of speeches across the U.S. and abroad, as well as through five books and myriad articles in medical and ecumenical journals.
By the early 1990’s, with medication vastly reducing AIDS mortality, CarePartners saw a new emerging need—another population few understood and most ignored—and stepped in again to develop compassionate care solutions. CarePartners board member Dr. Paul Gustafson pointed out the lack of resources for the growing number of patients in his oncology clinics who also had Alzheimer’s or other dementia. He also noted the lack of resources for their caregivers, usually spouses or adult children, most of whom had no preparation or support for this arduous role. And thus, CarePartners’ next chapter began.
In 1993, CarePartners and Houston’s Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church started a program that evolved into the Gathering Place, an enriching half-day of activities for people living with memory loss. During a Gathering Place, family caregivers can work, see friends, or attend to their own health before returning to their caregiving role, while their loved ones enjoy a “field trip” tailored to their mental, physical, and social needs. Three decades later, Gathering Places flourish at dozens of congregations across the region, supervised by staff and run by volunteers. In fact, some of the original volunteers can still be found at Memorial Drive’s Gathering Place, proving the benefit to not just the participants, but the volunteers too.
Northwoods Presbyterian Church in Houston and Trinity Episcopal Church in Baytown were recruited in 1994 to launch CarePartners’ next program designed for another overlooked population: homebound seniors. Second Family was named after the close bond that formed between the participants and the volunteers who gave them companionship and practical assistance so they could continue to live independently in their own homes.
CarePartners’ focus in 2008 turned to the crucial role that caregivers serve, with Common Ground, a support group offering a safe haven and camaraderie for family members walking the lonely road of caring for an aging spouse or parent.
In early 2020, the COVID pandemic demanded a radical shift in how organizations provide care. Fortunately, CarePartners already had three decades of expertise at continually modifying services to meet the community’s changing needs. Most of CarePartners’ constituents are medically vulnerable, so the organization pivoted quickly to online platforms. Virtual groups, online resources, and driveway Gathering Places provided much-needed contact and support to thousands of people, both caregivers and receivers.
In late 2021, news surfaced of the upcoming closure of the Dementia Day Center, founded by Sheltering Arms in 1987. To save the only daytime facility in Houston that serves people with moderate-to-late stage dementia, CarePartners leapt into action, raising the necessary funds in record time to keep the doors open and ensuring its future for the hundreds of families who depend on it each year. CarePartners rang in the 2022 New Year thus with two new programs: the Dementia Day Center and a brand-new Caregiver Consultation service, which provides telecare and in-person consultation about care options from a licensed social worker.
Over the years, CarePartners has received recognition from many national groups and leaders that honor caregiving innovation and impact, the most prestigious of which was the President’s Service Award given to CarePartners in 1998 by President Bill Clinton. But the most important recognition can be seen when people’s faces light up at a Gathering Place or at the Dementia Day Center, when caregivers breathe a sigh of relief after experiencing partnership and resources, and when volunteers discover their own depths of compassion and humanity.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and a common theme throughout CarePartners’ history is adaptability. As the community’s needs change, so do the organization’s services, because meeting people’s needs is more important than any individual program’s longevity. What began with a single phone call has grown into nearly four decades of service for people whom society has not yet embraced. Wherever compassionate and responsive care is needed, that is where CarePartners can be found.