Catholic Charities house named for Vietnam veteran will be home to orphans from abroad

FORT WORTH -- Above the front door is an unmistakable metal sign that reads "Percy's House."

In a few weeks, Catholic Charities will begin moving young orphans from some of the world's most brutal countries past that door, where they might legitimately wonder what they have in common with Robert "Percy" Purcell, a dashing and brash former Air Force pilot.

More than they can imagine.

Purcell, who died at his home in southwest Fort Worth in December, lived more than 71/2 years in unspeakable torture and hardship as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam yet resisted all efforts to let those experiences define him.

The idea for Percy's House came from a local home builder who knew Purcell and wanted to dedicate his gift to Catholic Charities in Purcell's memory.

"I just burst into tears when they told me," his widow, Suzanne Purcell, said. "He would just be overwhelmed. What a tribute to Percy."

At the request of Catholic Charities, the Star-Telegram is not identifying the house's street or neighborhood, other than to say it is in south Fort Worth within the attendance zone of Paschal High School. The home builder also asked not to be identified.

"I don't want anyone thinking I did this to bring attention to me," he said.

'A real godsend'

The 3,000-square-foot house has three bedrooms for youths, a master bedroom for foster parents, a large kitchen, a piano in the living room and six identical study desks overlooking the freshly sodded back yard.

The builder and his subcontractors furnished everything, down to the bedding and books on the shelves. The builder even bought the lot that the house sits on.

"Catholic Charities did not put a dime, a penny, into this house," said Sara Ramirez, vice president of development.

Last year, the builder approached Catholic Charities with an offer -- he'd build a house if the agency needed one. Catholic Charities worked to figure out which of its 43 programs might benefit most.

The agency settled on its International Foster Care program, which has an agreement with the State Department to help resettle minors from war-torn countries who no longer have a parent or guardian.

The program was developed in the 1980s when thousands of orphaned children from Southeast Asia were placed in the U.S. The government has about 700 children in the foster home program nationwide.

Unlike typical foster care situations, the young people in the program are not involved with Child Protective Services.

The Catholic Charities program has 27 minors in the Tarrant County area, a third of them from Myanmar, also called Burma. The others come from Africa -- Congo, Uganda, Rwanda and Ethiopia.

The youngest is 12, and while they can stay in the program until they're 22, most are in their high-school years. That doesn't mean, however, that they are comparable to American 15- or 16-year-olds.

Each brings unique experiences, but they've all gone through war and been driven from their hometowns, lost their families, lived for long periods in refugee camps and received less education than they should. Some of them have also been pawns in human trafficking organizations.

For that reason, counseling and in some cases psychiatric care is available for them.

"Chronologically they might be 17 years old, but developmentally, they're often behind because of what they've experienced," said Carolyn Hartsell, director of child welfare. "But despite seeing things I could not imagine seeing as an adult and living, often for years, in refugee camps, they're very resilient."

Youths already in the Fort Worth area will not move into the new house because "we don't want to separate these children from the foster families they've already bonded with," Hartsell said.

Instead, Catholic Charities has selected a couple to live in the house and will add children in the coming months as opportunities arise, particularly for siblings, which they've often had to turn down for space reasons, Hartsell said.

"This fell in our laps," Ramirez said. "This doesn't happen in the nonprofit world. It's been a real godsend."

'A way to honor him'

None of that really explains how it became Percy's House, though.

Retired Air Force Lt. Col. John Yuill served time in the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" with Purcell, but they didn't know each other until they met at Carswell Air Force Base several years after Vietnam.

They became close friends and could regularly be seen on the tennis courts for years afterward. Yuill introduced the home builder to Purcell, who made a lasting impression on him.

"I never knew how much of an impression until recently," Yuill said. "Flying back from Percy's funeral, he told me: 'You know that house I'm building for Catholic Charities? I'm going to dedicate it to Percy.'"

Suzanne Purcell taught foreign languages at a private school in Fort Worth before she quit to care for her husband when his health deteriorated in the last few years.

She hopes that she might be useful someday at Percy's House.

"I could help with their homework," she said. "I'd like to be involved in some way. It would be a way to honor him."

Chris Vaughn, 817-390-7547