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Fisher House Charleston

Image of Fisher House Charleston

In late 2012 Trux and Durbin Emerson were at a crossroads. They felt compelled to give back, to contribute to their country, and perhaps more specifically, to veterans. “We were just at a stage where we could take the time and effort to do something,” says Durbin. She sits with Trux in their Kiawah home, their Welsh terrier puppy, Rodie, snoozing at their feet. 

It started as a golf tournament to raise money for veterans, which sounded simple enough. The Emersons enlisted Robbie Crawford, general manager at the River Course Clubhouse, to speak with the Kiawah Partners on their behalf. They hoped to host the tournament at the River Course. “They said yes way faster than we expected,” remembers Durbin. Trux laughs. “And it scared the bejesus out of us!”  

That set things in motion. They enlisted the help of a few passionate Kiawah residents and set to work. In conversations about the upcoming tournament, Crawford suggested the Emersons elect an honorary board member, and he recommended General James Livingston. “Many, many people have now heard the story of our ten-million-dollar sandwich with General Livingston,” laughs Durbin. 

They met in October 2012 at Hominy Grill in downtown Charleston. General Livingston brought Tonya Lobbestael, Director of Public Affairs at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center, and the two made a huge ask. The VA was in desperate need for a Fisher House-type facility, a place where the families of veterans could stay while their loved ones were in the hospital. “He asked if we would be willing to do something like that. We didn’t even know what a Fisher House was!” As it turned out, Fisher Houses must be built on federal land, and the Charleston VA didn’t even have room for a new parking structure, let alone a spare acre for this type of facility. In other words, the Emersons were asked to be the private solution to a public need. They needed to buy land and build a house, all within walking distance of the hospital. “We naively said, Sure, why not?” remembers Trux. “We’ve built a house before!”  

Over the course of that one momentous lunch, the Emersons went from a $50,000 raise to a $10 million raise. “We walked out of that restaurant with our knees knocking. What had we just committed ourselves to? We had never done anything remotely like this in our lives! Not even close.” But they dove into fundraising, looking for property, and planning the golf tournament. By August 2013 they had established 501(c)(3) status, and in September they hosted the tournament at the River Course. “It was a phenomenal success,” says Trux. We had set the goal at $50,000, but in that single day we raised over $160,000. “It was especially amazing how the Kiawah and Seabrook community responded,” says Durbin. “None of this would have happened, I don’t think, if not for the success of that first golf tournament.”

Since the lunch with General Livingston earlier that year, the Emersons had organized around a Fisher House-type concept. The board initially named it the Charleston Harbor House, and in conversation with potential donors and press, the Emersons had compared it directly to the Fisher House model. In January of 2013 Durbin received a call from the president of the Fisher House Foundation, David Coker. “I thought, Oh, they’re going to sue us, cease and desist!” she laughs. “But when I answered the phone, this voice started speaking—sometimes you can just feel how wonderful a person is when you hear their voice and the way they talk to you.” Coker made the Emersons an offer. If they would identify a piece of property and get it approved by Veterans Affairs, then the Fisher House Foundation would build the house. At the time, it was a six-million-dollar gift. “I mean how could we even say thank you?” marvels Trux. 

When they found the property at 150 Wentworth Street, they had only $300,000 in the bank, but the property was perfect. The odds of finding an acre in downtown Charleston were slim enough, but the task was further complicated by the requirement that any existing structure needed to be torn down—a tall order in an historic district with ironclad preservation codes. And so the Fisher House Foundation stepped up with another momentous gift—a loan to cover the purchase of the land. Another $3 million. 

With the funds from the Fisher House Foundation in place, the momentum continued to build. The Fisher House Charleston project received millions of dollars from donors, 40 percent of which came from the Kiawah and Seabrook communities. In 2014 the Shipley family, who have a home on Kiawah, contributed an additional 30 percent. “After we got the first gift from the Shipley Foundation, we went up [to Boston] and met with the executive director, Julia Satti Cosentino,” says Durbin thoughtfully. “She’s somebody that I think will be a part of our lives forever.” In January 2017, thanks to thousands of individual, church, community, military, fraternal, association, corporate, and foundation donations, Fisher House Charleston repaid $3 million plus interest to the Fisher House Foundation, and in the Fall of 2017 the building was complete. 

“The learning curve for us throughout this whole thing was incredibly steep because there was so much we didn’t know when we started,” says Durbin. “To say that it’s been an education is an understatement.” The Emersons are five years out from that fateful lunch with General Livingston in 2012. The dedication of Fisher House Charleston is days away. Ken Fisher, CEO of the Fisher House Foundation; Dave Coker, president of the Fisher House Foundation; John Tecklenburg, mayor of Charleston; and Scott Isaacks, director and CEO of the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center, are among many of the notable guests to attend. The house will be open for a grand, inaugural tour. “It still hasn’t really hit us,” says Trux. 

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The Fisher House Foundation builds comfort homes where military and veterans’ families can stay for free, for as long as they need, while their loved one is in the hospital. In downtown Charleston, where lodging is upwards of two and three hundred dollars per night, many family members sleep in hospital room chairs, or in their cars, a considerable hardship in addition to the stress of hospital stays. The Fisher House provides comfortable, free lodging within walking distance to the hospital. The Volunteer Services Office estimates that the Charleston Fisher House will run between 95 percent and 100 percent occupancy, 365 days a year. 

“In today’s dollars, if you just said the rooms are worth two hundred bucks a night—you do the math—that saves these families over a million dollars in the first year!” explains Trux.

The Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center serves twenty-two coastal counties, from Myrtle Beach all the way to Hinesville, Georgia. It has close partnerships with both the Medical University of South Carolina and Roper St. Francis. The VA Medical Center often engages specialists and surgeons from neighboring hospitals, and these partnerships make procedures possible that might not be available to veterans otherwise. 

“We were lucky,” says Durbin. “We were really lucky. You look at the Fisher House logo—those hands are divine!” — H.W.

 

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