Growth marks senior living CEO’s nearly half-century tenure
DELAWARE, Ohio — In 1974, Larry Harris was working as…
MESQUITE, Texas — In telling her life story, Sabrina Porter starts with her troubled childhood.
She recounts the sexual abuse she endured from age 4 until she turned 11.
“I didn’t know God,” she said. “I grew up in a Catholic church with the man sitting right next to me who was my perpetrator. So I didn’t believe that God was there.”
Porter, now 59, relates her personal trauma as she reflects on why her latest challenge — leading Texas-based Christian Care Centers Inc. through bankruptcy and a sale to new owners — does not faze her.
She’s focused, she said, on helping the 75-year-old ministry, which has been associated with Churches of Christ since its start in 1947, make a smooth transition.
The faith-based nonprofit filed for bankruptcy protection in the Northern District of Texas earlier this year. By the time of the May 23 filing, the situation was dire for the operator of three Christian senior living campuses in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
At the end of March, Christian Care Centers had about $61 million in assets and $65 million in liabilities, including about $50 million of municipal bond debt, according to a bankruptcy filing.
“My whole being from the time I was 4 years old was to protect other people,” said Porter, who joined Christian Care Centers as its president and CEO in August 2018 — unaware at the time, she noted, of the depth of the financial problems or the drastic role the COVID-19 pandemic would play.
“So it’s a natural, it’s an innate thing for me,” she said of devoting her attention to the organization’s more than 1,000 residents and employees. “And I’ll go back to when I was 11 years old, and my (abuser) moved from me to my little sister. That’s when I stood up, and a voice told me, ‘Run, grab your little sister and go out that window.’
“Back then I didn’t know it was God,” she added. “But after many, many years of counseling and helping other people get out of battered situations, it was God. I didn’t know him. He knew me.”
At age 13, Porter got a fake ID and a job as a nurse’s aide — a way to help support her family after her mother left the abuser, she said.
At Carriage Square nursing home in San Antonio, the late Fay Sutton served as the head nurse’s aide.
“Ms. Fay” became Porter’s friend and mentor.
“She didn’t go to church, and she didn’t talk about God,” Porter said. “She just represented him. … I just knew values, integrity, excellence, compassion and faith through her faith. And then her hope and her steadfastness — she was always out there to help people.”
That first job propelled Porter into a 46-year career that has taken her from managing small nursing homes to overseeing multisite continuing-care retirement communities.
“This industry saved me,” she said. “When I started working and the elderly needed me, and I knew that some people couldn’t feed themselves and I was the reason they had a meal, or I was the reason they were clean and dry and had no skin problems … it was the most rewarding job.”
“It was the most rewarding job.”
By age 27, Porter was working as a regional director of operations for 21 nursing homes when she bought a duplex in Dallas. A colleague introduced her to a friend who attended the Preston Road Church of Christ, and Porter accepted an invitation to church.
She got connected with the singles class.
“I loved the singles class because they went country dancing and didn’t drink,” she said with a chuckle. “I just thought that was absolutely wonderful … because I didn’t drink.”
At the Preston Road church, a friend, Jack Hodge, told her about a buddy he wanted her to meet: Joel Porter, a graduate of Abilene Christian University in West Texas. Both Hodge and Porter were the sons of ministers. Their fathers, Charles Hodge and Harvey Porter, had been classmates at Abilene Christian in the 1940s.
Hodge’s nudging led to a blind date at a Cheddar’s restaurant in North Dallas. The couple talked for seven hours, and six months later, there was a wedding at the Prestoncrest Church of Christ, a Dallas congregation where the groom was active.
Joel Porter, now an elder of the Cedar Hill Church of Christ, southwest of Dallas, baptized Sabrina when she was pregnant with their first child. Their daughter, Rachel, is now 28 and a nurse at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas. Their sons are both U.S. Army veterans who deployed overseas on active duty — Mason, 26, to Afghanistan and Caleb, 24, to Poland.
“I learned very quickly, just by Joel’s modeling, what a Christian does. I just can’t tell you how much my husband saved my life because he represented God to me.”
“I learned very quickly, just by Joel’s modeling, what a Christian does,” Sabrina said. “I just can’t tell you how much my husband saved my life because he represented God to me.”
The couple moved to Cedar Hill in 2005. They own a 20-acre farm across the street from the church. They raise miniature livestock — cows, goats, pigs — and Sabrina enjoys busing senior residents to the farm to interact with the animals.
“They’re miniature for a reason,” she said. “They’re manageable animals for my elderly residents, whether they have dementia or not, so that they can pet them. … I believe so strongly in pet therapy.”
Besides teaching Bible classes and helping maintain the church facilities, Joel picks up people at an addiction recovery center for an Overcomers Outreach meeting at the church each Monday night, preaching minister Alan Martin said.
Related: Faith and COVID-19
Sabrina mentors young women and couples in the congregation, Martin said.
“People love her,” Martin said. “She brings a demeanor to the table that is just professional but also very, very caring and in touch with people.
“We depend upon both of them — Joel and Sabrina — for a lot of things,” the minister added.
Sabrina Porter was serving as president of Juliette Fowler Communities, a faith-based senior living nonprofit in Dallas, when she got a call from Harold Tidwell in 2018.
Tidwell, then the chairman of Christian Care Centers’ board, asked if he could visit Porter and learn about her operation. She did not realize at the time that Christian Care Centers was looking for a new president and CEO.
Tidwell was just a boy when Christian Care Centers was founded in Gunter, Texas, about 50 miles north of Dallas, on April 4, 1947.
The original idea was to build a “home for the aged” that could serve retired ministers of Churches of Christ.
“I was 9 years old, I think, and my friends and I played there in the old Gunter Bible College church building while our dads built that first cottage,” said Tidwell, now 84, who attends the Preston Road church.
Over the years, at least a dozen of Harold and Gail Tidwell’s relatives have lived at Christian Care Centers. The Gunter location closed in 2013, but campuses remain in Allen (north of Dallas), Fort Worth and Mesquite (east of Dallas).
In 2017, The Christian Chronicle featured Harold Tidwell and his “Aunt Melba” Warrach, then 97, in a front-page story about dealing with Alzheimer’s disease. (Warrach died later that year.)
Porter impressed Tidwell in their initial meeting.
“She showed me their property, their facility and all,” Tidwell said. “I was really struck by the fact that nearly everybody we ran across in the hallway, she knew them — whether it was an employee or a resident or whatever.
“And she’d say, ‘How’s sister Sue doing?’ and all that stuff,” he added. “But it really, really touched me the knowledge and recall that she had on all the employees and residents there.”
Later, when Tidwell asked Porter to consider taking the Christian Care Centers job, she was reluctant.
She was happy at Juliette Fowler Communities.
“When ministers say they feel called, I understand what that means.”
“He said, ‘Well, would you pray about it?’” she recalled. “Joel and I prayed about it … and I just felt called that I needed to do that.”
Porter said she knew Christian Care Centers was facing financial challenges but not the severity of them.
But even if she had known, she would have taken the job anyway, she said.
“When ministers say they feel called, I understand what that means,” she said.
At Christian Care Centers, Porter set out to change the culture.
One way she did so was by eliminating special parking spaces for top administrators.
“It kind of took away some of the hierarchical stigma,” said Kristen Mazza, a Christian Care Centers vice president who previously worked for Porter at Juliette Fowler Communities.
In addition, Porter rebranded the organization as Christian Care Communities and Services.
As the financial concerns became more apparent, Porter said, she initiated $3.2 million in budget cuts — roughly a 20 percent reduction — in February 2020. “It was all overhead,” said Porter, who focused the cuts on upper-level administrative positions.
Then came the long, lonely COVID-19 lockdown, which hit nursing homes and retirement communities particularly hard.
“I shouldn’t say nail in the coffin, but it definitely was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Porter said of the pandemic’s impact on Christian Care Centers.
The ministry’s financial demise since 2018 follows a pattern similar to other senior living operators that have filed for bankruptcy protection this year.
Communities for seniors are expensive to develop and, once built, they’re costly to maintain. The construction phase often requires the operator to take out bonds, leaving them with regular bond payments on top of their everyday expenses.
Christian Care Centers’ utility bill ran about $133,000 per month. Its payroll for 490 employees came out to about $690,000 every two weeks. Its payment obligations to bondholders totaled $53 million in principal and interest on bonds totaling $57 million when it filed for bankruptcy.
For some communities struggling with payments in 2018 and 2019, the pandemic was their breaking point. Occupancy dropped as seniors delayed moving into a community, while labor costs rose. The senior living sector was the “most poorly positioned” to withstand the pandemic and the sector “most directly harmed” by it, according to an April report by Moody’s Investors Service.
The first public sign of trouble for Christian Care Centers came in 2018 when it failed to maintain the required number of days of cash on hand that it agreed to with its bondholders. In early 2020, before the pandemic took hold in the U.S., the ministry continued to struggle and made an agreement with its bond trustee, UMB Bank, to delay payments.
Later that year, the operator received a $4.5 million forgivable loan from the Paycheck Protection Program, which helped companies keep employees on payroll during the pandemic.
But in 2021, the operator failed to make bond payments again. In February 2021, the company retained B. Riley Financial as its chief restructuring officer, a sign that it was headed for a sale or restructuring of some kind.
In April 2021, the bond trustee said bondholders were no longer waiting and would seek immediate payment from the facility of its outstanding debt. In June 2021, the two parties came to an agreement for the second time to delay payments. In return, Christian Care Centers agreed to hire an investment banker to help it explore solutions, including a sale.
Related: A long, lonely lockdown
The following month, management presented the board members with a summary of the company’s past and future financial status, according to a filing. Following the meeting, board members unanimously agreed to file for bankruptcy.
“Decreases in fundraising contributions also meant donations were not sufficient to defray the shortfall,” a bankruptcy filing said. “Based on extensive financial analysis and other due diligence, the debtors have determined it is in the best interest of their estates, their residents, and the future of their communities to sell substantially all of their assets.”
When it filed for bankruptcy protection, Christian Care Centers was desperate with about $85,000 in cash on hand, according to a bankruptcy filing. The company said it didn’t have funds to take care of necessary maintenance issues and general improvements.
As part of the bankruptcy filing, the board also agreed that Texas Benevolent Trust LLC would be its initial bidder at $45 million. This created a purchase price floor for other interested bidders.
Texas Benevolent is a joint venture between Covington Health Group of Atlanta and McFarlin Group of Dallas, a senior living-focused real estate investment firm. McFarlin launched a $100 million fund to acquire senior housing in 2020, hoping to take advantage of discounted pricing as communities struggled to keep up with payments during the pandemic.
When Christian Care Centers received no other qualified bids by the July 12 deadline, Texas Benevolent Trust’s bid was approved on July 20, according to a bankruptcy filing. The company will lease the campuses to affiliates of the Atlanta-based Boncrest Resource Group, a nonprofit that specializes in operating long-term care facilities.
The official change of ownership is expected to occur by the end of the year. At that time, the nonprofit’s board — composed entirely of members of Churches of Christ — will be dissolved.
Until just recently, Porter did not know if the new owners would retain her as president and CEO.
“She just, she kept on, and I feel like God really used her to make this transition go smoothly.”
If she were in a similar situation, Pat Lawson, a Christian Care Centers board member for 15 years, said she wonders if she would give her job the same level of energy.
“But she just, she kept on,” Lawson said of Porter, “and I feel like God really used her to make this transition go smoothly.”
Lawson, a member of the Waterview Church of Christ in Richardson, north of Dallas, said Christian Care Centers always has been a focus of ministry for that congregation.
“I remember when we moved there (in 1980), that seemed to be one of the first things that I would hear a lot about,” she said. “Once a month, we’d make pies and take them down to the residents. … And we have had a lot of people from Waterview that in their later years were at Christian Care.”
Just in the last few weeks, the new owners asked Porter to stay in her position as they take over.
“I’m thrilled for the ministry,” Lawson said. “I’m thrilled for Sabrina. But it still will be — it will be hard.”
Porter, who was involved in vetting potential owners, said she prefers to think of the new owners as “investors.”
She said she’s excited about Christian Care Centers’ future and her planned role in it.
“I’m a survivor. I have peace of mind about it all.”
“They want us to keep our name, our branding,” Porter said of the new owners. “They want us to continue honoring our heritage with Churches of Christ. They want us to stay the same.
“They realize that it’s the money, the resources that we need to put into our buildings and then into our people, our programs,” she added. “And that’s the only thing we don’t have because we had such a big loan that was refinanced and refinanced.”
Porter believes she is right where she needs to be.
“I’m a survivor,” she said. “I have peace of mind about it all.”
BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].
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