Rancho Santa Fe resident’s orphanage in Baja gives medically fragile kids a chance
By Karen Billing
Rancho Santa Fe’s Jerry McTaggart considers himself the father of 11 very special children, and it’s difficult for him to speak about them without his eyes filling with tears.
The 11 children live at Catherine’s Kids, a home he founded for medically fragile children in Baja California in 2005.
If anyone can relate to what the children go through, it’s McTaggart, whose mother gave him up to an orphanage when he was 8 years old because she could no longer care for him.
He has dedicated his life to helping those who need it most and he says for everything he’s done, he gets 10 times back. Catherine’s is able to transform the children’s lives, loving them and helping them grow.
“We want to see the kids have a better life, whatever better is,” McTaggart said. “If they have a smile on their face, that’s successful. And they’re smiling. They never cry. When people visit they see happy kids who will snuggle up to you in a minute.”
“They just want to love. Together they’re a family. When I was in a home, there was 68 of us and we became like brothers and sisters,” McTaggart said. “They help each other; it’s beautiful. They’re great kids.”
McTaggart named his orphanage after his mother Catherine, who was never out of his life even when he and his brother lived in the orphanage — she visited every other Sunday.
At age 17, McTaggart signed up for the Marine Corps and served four years before finding success in the corporate world as a financial consultant. He founded Credit Counselors of America Inc. in 1971, as well as the nonprofit Christian Credit Counselors.
McTaggart first got the idea to support an orphanage after taking a mission trip with Horizon Christian Fellowship. The experience touched his heart and he began by supporting 12 orphanages in Baja.
McTaggart saw that there was a special-needs population that was being underserved. Children with severe medical issues had no place to go, and Baja has no facilities that accept children with autism under age 12. He wanted to a create a “top-notch” facility in Mexico that would rival what one would find in the U.S.
In 2005, he bought a three-building complex in a “sweetheart deal” from Calvary Chapel in Mendocino and has had help fixing it up from churches and volunteer groups who have traveled to Rosarito.
The facility is now home to 16 employees and 12 volunteers, providing love, care, education, physical therapy and rehabilitation. The staff work with doctors who volunteer medical expertise, such as a liaison from Rady Children’s Hospital.
Catherine’s has a principal and teachers on staff, and the children attend school at the facility. McTaggart works closely with the orphanage’s director, Jan Platovsky, whom he calls a “gift.”
Platovsky would say the same about McTaggart.
“Jerry is a man with a heart that you commonly do not get to see in people. He knows true suffering and understands the needs of those who have been seriously neglected in our society,” Platovsky said.
“Jerry’s commitment to the children has no limits, and begins with the love and care he knows we all need to provide for the kids.”
Children at Catherine’s range in age from 1 to 8 years.
There’s Adan, who is 6 and has spina bifida. Since coming to Catherine’s, he has learned to be more independent. Catherine’s recently hosted doctorate students from San Diego State University’s physical rehabilitation program who volunteered their time at Catherine’s.
Adan had walked on his knees but flourished with help from the students.
“Adan was the most impacted and cried uncontrollably as he hugged Gail who taught him to walk on crutches,” Platovsky said, adding that the students plan to visit again in December.
Little Alex and Jose, whose mother used crystal meth while she was pregnant, were both born with deformed noses.
Only 1 year old, Alex had surgery to open up his nose, which makes it easier to breathe. He also has heart problems.
While McTaggart said both children have a long way to go, Jose was one of three Catherine’s Kids who went to public school for the first time last week.
“All three kids were thrilled, but Briana was a true revelation. She loves the school, was not shy and was immediate friends with everyone,” said Platovsky of Briana, who was born with cerebral palsy and epilepsy.
There’s Camila, a 3-year-old whose parents abandoned her in the hospital after she got sick. It is difficult for her to use one side of her body, but McTaggart said she is full of life: “She is the sweetest little girl you ever saw.”
McTaggart said he doesn’t judge the decisions families down there must make to leave their children, like Camila. He said some families are trying to care for a special-needs child while making $1.25 an hour in minimum wage or living in extremely poor conditions.
“People used to ask me, ‘Do you hate your mother for abandoning you?’ I told them, ‘Can you imagine how must it much have hurt to put me in there, because she couldn’t feed me?’” McTaggart said.
“There’s no blame; it gets you nowhere. The kids need help. It doesn’t matter why they’re there.”
Some families, like McTaggart’s mom, remain present in the children’s’ lives. Ana Karen’s grandmother, who struggled to take care of her grandchild with severe cerebral palsy, visits whenever she can.
McTaggart keeps tabs on his kids constantly. He has remote cameras linked to his phone so he can always check in, and he visits the orphanage every week — he laughs when he tells how the kids call out “Jerry! Jerry! Monica!” when he comes with his wife.
“They just love us. Of course my wife wants to bring them all home,” he said.
McTaggart encourages people to visit the orphanage and love them; he has never forgotten the visits he received when he was a kid. Platovsky can help organize service trips and visitors.
“Anyone who visits Catherine’s in Rosarito leaves completely changed,” Platovsky said. “There is something happening here that cannot be put in words — it needs to be experienced. Everyone that visits agrees.”
McTaggart said the experience can be especially affecting to teenagers, who may forget their daily worries when they see a child who is unable to stand on his own.
“You get such an appreciation of what we take for granted, when you see what these little kids have to do just to get up in the morning,” McTaggart said.
The orphanage has 11 children right now, but McTaggart said it could get four more children this year. While the average child costs about $200 a month to care for, the medically fragile children at Catherine’s require about $2,000 a month.
McTaggart has been taking on about 90 percent of the expenses, but he is looking for more people to get involved. The nonprofit recently held a fundraiser at the Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club.
There is so much need, he said — hundreds of kids need care like Catherine’s provides, and he would love to see more children given a chance to thrive.
“What we need is sustainability. I’m not going to live forever, I’m not going to have this income forever,” said McTaggart, now 73. “Even God doesn’t want me to do it all. When you meet them you’ll see, you’ll be hooked. They don’t know that anything’s wrong with them … there’s no teasing, they’re always laughing.
“If you’re missing this, you’re missing everything.”
Visit CatherinesKids.org or call McTaggart at 760-804-8520.