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Fisher House opens in Charleston to support veterans, families

Staff //January 16, 2018//

Fisher House opens in Charleston to support veterans, families

Staff //January 16, 2018//

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Trux and Durbin Emerson, holding the scissors at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Fisher House Charleston in December, spent five years raising money and working with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Fisher House Foundation to get the veteran guesthouse built. (Photo/Kim McManus)

In 2012, Charleston-area couple Trux and Durbin Emerson were looking for a way to give back to their community, especially veterans who lived in the Lowcountry.

The Emersons approached retired Maj. Gen. James Livingston, a Medal of Honor recipient and Charleston-area resident, for his thoughts on how they could give back. Livingston suggested the couple fundraise to build a Fisher House, a guesthouse for families of veterans who are receiving care at a VA Medical Center.

“We were not the first people to try to do something like this, but I think we were just … lucky in the confluence of certain factors that came into play that sort of ensured the success of what we were trying to accomplish,” Durbin Emerson said.

Fisher House Charleston, located at 150 Wentworth St. in downtown Charleston, is one of over 70 Fisher Houses built by the Fisher House Foundation. (Photo/Kim McManus)Five years and millions of dollars later, the ribbon was cut on the 16-suite Fisher House Charleston at 150 Wentworth St. in downtown Charleston, less than two miles from Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center.

The Fisher House Foundation, the nonprofit that builds Fisher Houses across the country, was founded in 1990 by Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher. The organization has built more than 70 homes across the country to assist veterans and their families. Fisher House Charleston is No. 73.

Tonya Lobbestael, public affairs officer for the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center, said the hospital provides health care for 75,000 veterans across 21 counties along the South Carolina and Georgia coast, which created the need for a place for veteran families to stay.

“We have patients that are coming from geographic distances for care, and it’s very expensive at many of the hotels in downtown Charleston to be close to them, or even in West Ashley and the surrounding area,” Lobbestael said. “And many of our veterans don’t always have the financial resources to be able to stay at a commercial facility for an extended period of time if their loved one is recuperating.”

Emerson said initially, the goal was to build an independent guesthouse that they called a Harbour House because the national Fisher House Foundation requires an acre of federal land to build a house on.

She said one of the challenges in raising money was having to teach people what a Fisher House was while asking for donations, and then explaining why they were doing it independently instead of through the Fisher House Foundation.

“There are many, many people who’ve never heard of (Fisher House), don’t know what they are,” she said. “So when you start with something that is purely conceptual and you’re trying to imitate something that nobody even knows what it is, it’s … an educational process that you’ve got to go through that is very difficult.”

However, in the midst of their fundraising push, the Fisher House Foundation called the Emersons to say they wanted to help. If the Emersons bought the land and donated it to the Department of Veteran Affairs, the foundation would build an official Fisher House there.

“It was a $7 million to $8 million phone call,” Emerson said, referring to how much money it would have cost to build the house independently. “It was almost surreal.”

The Emersons now only had to raise $4 million to buy an acre of land to donate to Veteran Affairs.

“This house is 100% a gift to the Charleston community and to the Ralph H. Johnson VA Hospital,” Emerson said.

After the Emersons raised the first $1 million to buy the land, the Fisher House Foundation loaned the couple $3 million so they could close on the land, which held an abandoned funeral home at the time.

“There were times it was a real roller coaster ride,” Emerson said. “I don’t know how you feel about waking up every morning owing $3 million but to me it’s not a good feeling.”

The Emersons continued to raise money, and after about a year, the loan was paid off and the land could be donated.

Approval and design

After donating the land to the Department of Veterans Affairs, it took a year for the department to approve the donation because of archeological and other surveys to make sure there weren’t contaminants on the land.

“Once it becomes federal property, then the federal government is responsible for all the maintenance, upkeep and everything that is related to the land,” Lobbestael said.

Every bedroom in Fisher House Charleston is different in style and layout. Families staying at the Fisher House are assigned to rooms based on the size and needs of the family. (Photo/Kim McManus)

Another obstacle to getting a Fisher House in Charleston, especially in the downtown area, was the typical two-story design the Fisher House Foundation uses didn’t fit, in both style and size. Instead, architects from the foundation took elements from the Fisher House design and created the only three-story house in the country.

“There are many common elements that have to be included, such as the kitchen facilities, the larger dining area, … the living room area, the den,” Lobbestael said. “And then we had to factor in putting in an elevator because in most Fisher Houses, they don’t have a need for an elevator because in their standard design, two wings (on the first floor) are guest facilities and anyone who would be in a wheelchair would be in the first floor. But all of our accommodations are on the second and third floor.”

Since the Fisher House Foundation was building on federal land, it wasn’t required to go through typical city approval processes, but through a memorandum of understanding between Veteran Affairs, the Fisher House Foundation, the city of Charleston and neighborhood associations, local entities were able to give input on the design.

“There were over 20 modifications that were made to the design of the house based on the community feedback and our community partners’ feedback,” Lobbestael said. “It was very important to us at the VA and to the foundation that we be very cognizant of the fact that we are in a neighborhood — a very beautiful historic neighborhood — and we want to fit in and be good neighbors.”

There were also historical objects, such as a carriage house and a brick wall, which needed to be protected during construction, and elevation requirements to protect the house from flooding, which added even more layers of complexity.

“It was really an interesting process in marrying up federal building requirements, what the foundation commits to providing in the sense of … this level of quality, and the need for us to fit into the community,” Lobbestael said. “It was really such a unique learning experience and an opportunity for us in the VA.”

After all of the planning was done, Fisher House Charleston broke ground on Nov. 16, 2016, and 385 days later, it was completed.

“It was amazing to see how quickly and how efficiently that construction crew worked,” Lobbestael said. “It was really something to behold.”

Continuing support

With the house completed and the first families scheduled to arrive in early January, Vicki Johnson, manager of Fisher House Charleston, and the staff at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center are filling the double-sized kitchen with food and supplies and figuring out ways to shuttle families between the medical center and the Fisher House. Unlike other houses, Fisher House Charleston is one of the few houses off-campus from its accompanying medical center.

“While a mile is not very far, if you’re not used to driving in Charleston traffic or late at night, and a lot of our families are elderly,” Lobbestael said. “So we’ll be working through all of that just to make it the best experience for the families.”

Some of the options being considered are taxi vouchers, using ridesharing services such as Uber and Lyft, or public transportation.

The Emersons are also continuing to raise money to help support the Fisher House through their nonprofit, now called Friends of Fisher House Charleston. Johnson receives a budget from the VA to buy essentials for the Fisher House, such as food, but other comfort items need to be donated.

“Each of these houses need to be supported by their individual communities or military bases, so it’s not as if this is over and done with,” Emerson said. “The need to continue to raise money will always be there.”

Emerson said when the house is in full swing, Johnson plans to put together a wish list so people aren’t donating things the house doesn’t have use for or room to store.

“Our local Friends of Fisher House Charleston group is phenomenal,” Johnson said. “They have been amazing from the very beginning in helping make this become a reality and in the support they continue to provide and will continue to provide for us. It’s going to make all the difference in the world.”

Lobbestael agreed with Johnson, and said she hopes the community continues to support Lowcountry veterans and Fisher House Charleston for generations.

“There is so much that is said and done to honor veterans across Charleston and across the greater Lowcountry,” she said. “This is a military town, and it has a very rich heritage, and I firmly believe that we … as a community have a responsibility to do everything that we can to take care of these families. And so if we can do that by taking care of them here in this Fisher House with the community’s support, that’s just one more wraparound service that we can provide to them.”

This story originally appeared in the Jan. 8, 2018, print edition of the Charleston Regional Business Journal.