JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. –
As a young girl, Durbin Emerson's mother took her to see the movie, "Gone with the Wind." During the Atlanta rail yard scene with row upon row of maimed and wounded soldiers moaning and crying out, Durbin wept.
As a young business professional in the 1970's making his way in Washington, D.C., Trux Emerson was angered by the fact that his buddies, who were U.S. Naval Officers, had been instructed not to wear their uniforms outside of duty hours.
Approximately 40 years later, after a successful business career and raising a family together, the Emerson's were again upset. This time it wasn't a movie or uniforms, Durbin and Trux were frustrated by the direction the United States seemed to be taking. "We had to do something with all of this negative energy," Durbin said. Trux added, "We wanted to do something positive but we weren't sure what."
While seeking an appropriate outlet, the Emerson's recruited Medal of Honor recipient, U.S. Marine Corps, Major Gen. James Livingston (ret.), to assist them in their search. Livingston told them, "We need a Fisher House for veterans who are being treated by Charleston's Ralph H. Johnson Veterans Administration Medical Center and their families."
According to the Fisher House Foundation, homes are built on or near military and VA medical centers nationwide where military and veterans' families can stay at no cost while a loved one is receiving treatment.
Neither Emerson served in the military but they were intrigued by the opportunity to aid military veterans. "Once we looked into it and saw the need in Charleston, our interest was piqued," said Durbin. It wasn't long before the first stumbling block arose, however. "It turns out Fisher Houses can only be built on federal property," Trux explained, "And the VA Center didn't have any available land." Faced with an initial challenge, the Emerson's competitiveness came to the fore. Knowing Lowcountry veterans needed the facility, they began investigating other avenues to make the house a reality.
Eventually, they hit upon the idea of purchasing a separate piece of property close to the Johnson VA Medical Center and donating the land to the federal government. Thus, the Fisher House could be built on federal property.
After an aggressive real estate search, the Emerson's found 150 Wentworth Street in downtown Charleston and purchased the property for approximately $4 million in 2014. At this point, the Emerson's realized they had found their calling. Durbin said, "We knew we had to make this happen. The Fisher House Charleston would be the first in South Carolina and our veterans need it." She added, "It was almost by accident but Trux and I found ourselves financially, physically and emotionally invested in this project."
From that point on, the Emerson's have been working tirelessly to achieve the goal of a fully functioning Fisher House servicing the Johnson VA Medical Center. Thousands of individuals, corporations, foundations and organizations have joined their efforts over the past three years.
Sandy Morckel, President and Change Agent for Inspired Philanthropy of Solutions for the Greater Good, the consultant helping with the project, stated, "Fisher House Charleston would never be this close to becoming reality if it weren't for Trux and Durbin." She continued, "In over 30 years of fundraising and community involvement, I have never seen a couple devote the kind of energy, determination, personal sacrifice and leadership that the Emerson's have to this project - - attending to every detail to make sure the goal is reached!"
Thus far, about $8 million towards a goal of just over $10 million have been raised. The Emerson's also commented on the public support the project has generated. "The people of South Carolina, in general, and our neighbors in the Charleston area specifically, including Joint Base Charleston, have really been incredible in moving the project forward," said Durbin.
When construction is complete, Fisher House Charleston will have 14,425 square feet of living space with 16 bedroom suites and common kitchen, living and dining areas. The Fisher House Foundation reports that bedroom suites are normally in use 365 days of the year. In the Charleston area that could save veterans' families over $1.1 million per year in hotel expenses.
Teaming with the Fisher House Foundation and the Fisher House Charleston Board, the Emerson's continue to overcome obstacles including ensuring the property has been prepared properly for transfer to the federal government and is in appropriate condition to begin construction once the transfer is complete.
According to the Emerson's, groundbreaking and construction could begin as early as mid-2016 with Fisher House Charleston being fully operational by the end of 2017. "We are so close to the finish line, it is becoming real to us," commented Durbin.
When asked their plans after Fisher House Charleston opens both Emerson's agreed, "It will give us an opportunity to slow down a little bit and spend time with our children and grandchildren again." "However," Trux added, "Fisher House Charleston is part of us now. We will continue to support it, the staff and our veterans as long as we are able."
Much like Scarlett O'Hara who, in the closing scene of Gone with the Wind, proclaims, "Tomorrow is another day," it seems most of Trux and Durbin Emerson's "tomorrows" will be "another days" committed to the continuing mission of Fisher House Charleston.
For more information on the Fisher House Charleston, please visit: www.fisherhousecharleston.org.