The journey of four non-profit organizations toward new, permanent homes began with Dick Rathgeber’s caring for other humans, his vision, and his ability to make things happen.
Rathgeber Village sits near the intersection of Zach Scott Street and Manor Road, at the far east end of the Mueller neighborhood. The 17.6-acre plot of land was donated to the Austin Community Foundation in 2008 by Dick and Sara Rathgeber, to provide homes for several non-profit organizations that help children. These are Austin Children’s Shelter, Salvation Army (Austin Citadel Corps Community Center and Area Command), Rise School of Austin, and Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) of Central Texas. The SAFE Alliance also has administrative offices in the BBBS building. The style of the buildings may look familiar, as Rathgeber Village was required to follow Mueller Design Book guidelines in order to fit in with our community. The main entrance to the village is on Manor Road just north of Zach Scott Street.
Rathgeber Village came about after Dick Rathgeber, a local real estate developer and philanthropist, visited a children’s shelter on busy Enfield Road and realized it was inadequate and unsafe for children. Still very engaged in his 70s, he began looking for a better shelter location and found it as he was driving along Manor Road one Sunday afternoon. He knew the property, adorned with a small, rusted metal realtor’s sign, was adjacent to what would soon be developed into the Mueller neighborhood. It took a year before he was able to negotiate the purchase and donate the property for a new children’s shelter.
The Austin Children’s Shelter made its new home at Rathgeber Village in 2009, with 5 cottages. In 2015, the shelter and SafePlace (formerly The Center for Battered Women) joined to form the SAFE Alliance. (A future Front Porch Flyer article will focus on SAFE and its local facilities, one of which will soon open on Tannehill Lane.)
The newest organization to locate at the Village is the Salvation Army Austin Citadel Corps and Area Command. Major Andy Kelly, a 34-year Salvation Army veteran, and his wife, Major Amy Kelly, were assigned to the facility after serving in Washington, D.C., among other places. Together, the Kellys oversee all Salvation Army facilities in Travis and Williamson Counties, including shelters and Social Service Centers, plus stores and donation centers that fund a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in South Austin. This is one of about 40 Salvation Army Area Command centers in the U.S. Groundbreaking for the building took place in June of 2017, and the offices were occupied in September 2018. The 17,000 square foot $6.4 million facility includes a chapel, gym, classrooms, kitchen, and community room on the first floor. Administrative offices are housed on the second floor. The community center is intended for public use, including neighborhood meetings, banquets and receptions, and indoor basketball (which may require a reservation). A banquet hall seats 200 and has a commercial kitchen.
The Salvation Army lobby has a display of articles, awards, and photos of Dick Rathgeber, who has donated much time and money to a variety of Austin area causes. Rathgeber started working with the Salvation Army in the 1970s. His family donated money for the downtown Salvation Army shelter and purchased land to double the capacity of the Salvation Army operated Austin Shelter for Women and Children. In 2016, he was awarded the title of Honorary Colonel, one of the highest honors given by the Salvation Army and the first in Texas. Only 7 others worldwide have received this award in Salvation Army history, which began in 1865.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas headquarters at Rathgeber Village opened in October 2016 and held its grand opening in January 2017. It includes a youth activity center, meeting rooms, offices, and conference space. BBBS of Central Texas started as “Dads and Sons Clubs” in the 1960s and in 1971 became Big Brothers of Austin. The organization’s objective is to “provide children facing adversity with professionally supported one-to-one mentoring relationships that change their lives for the better, forever.”
By 1974, the organization served more than 250 boys and in 1975 was renamed Big Brothers Big Sisters of Austin. The group now serves over 1,000 children and families, and there’s a waiting list of 270 children, mostly boys. About two thirds of children served are from single parent families, and 85 percent live at or below the poverty level.
The mentoring center is named for Kyndel Bennett and Dick Rathgeber, partners on several projects over many years. Bennett, a developer of affordable communities in Texas, has been involved with BBBS for over 20 years and is a past board chair of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas. Kyndel and Laura Bennett were major financial contributors to the building, and will be recognized in February for their philanthropy by the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Greater Austin Chapter.
The BBBS philosophy is simple and clear: “The greatest predictor of a child’s future success is the presence of a consistent, supportive adult in their life.”
Providing supportive adults to children in need is the organization’s specialty: they carefully match compatible adult mentors with client children based on interests, personality, proximity, and preferences. Mentors make a minimum one year commitment to meet for an hour three to four times a month. Many of these relationships last for a lifetime, and many former “Littles” go on to become mentors or community volunteers themselves. Mentored children do better socially and in school, and attend college at higher rates than peers.
Opening its first permanent location at Rathgeber Village in 2014, the Rise School of Austin is a 26,000 square foot preschool with seven classrooms and a unique environment for 85 students, ages 12 months to five years. About half of the Rise students are children with developmental delays. All children, gifted, traditional, and developmentally delayed, learn and play side by side in the same classrooms.
The lobby of the school building includes a large mosaic, which was designed by artist Tracy Van Duinen, in keeping with the school’s parents’ and teachers’ vision of what the Rise School means to them. A large tree is the artwork’s focal point, with the mosaic pieces assembled by parents and seeds painted by students. Within the artwork is a quote from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots, the other, wings.”
The first Rise School was established at the University of Alabama in 1974. There are now seven such schools in the U.S., including four in Texas, and one in Oklahoma, Colorado, and Alabama. The Rise School of Austin opened its doors in 2003, and had multiple temporary locations before moving to its current, permanent, location in Rathgeber Village in 2014. In 2011, University of Texas notables, Mack and Sally Brown, two of the school’s original board members, were honored for their longstanding commitment to the Rise School when the new Austin site was unveiled.
The Rise School of Austin currently serves families in 29 local zip codes. Rise offers scholarships and financial assistance to ensure their program is accessible to any family seeking a high-quality early childhood education. Donations and fundraising events currently cover 60 percent of operating costs.
All of the organizations at Rathgeber Village are everyday heroes to those they serve. They need support, and are willing to serve our community as well. Mueller residents looking for a nearby place to have meetings or banquets, or to volunteer and/or donate, need look no farther than the east end of Mueller, where Dick Rathgeber made all of this possible.
Now 85 years old, Rathgeber continues do real estate deals and be a champion for human needs. He recognizes that there’s always more need than available facilities, and said he wakes up many nights with ideas. “I will have my finger stuck up in the air as they close my casket,” he quipped.