by Yoon Joung Lee
The founder of the Brain Foundation and a real estate agent, Trudy Harsh, lost her daughter in 2006. Her daughter, Laura, developed a brain tumor when she was 8. Laura had a surgery to remove her tumor at Georgetown hospital, and the doctor warned her family that Laura can only live about 6 more years. After the surgery, she was never the same again. However, with years of hospitalizations and various treatment programs, she survived for 30 more years until she died at age 38 in 2006.
With her daughter’s experiences, Harsh became an advocate and involved in the issue of the mentally disabled by brain injury and disease by serving as a member of various boards and committees at the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Service Board. While she was working for the various community services, she realized that the government wasn’t solving the problems fast enough to fill the needs of disabled people. Especially the large housing need in Fairfax County. She founded the Brain Foundation in 2003 to raise funds for buying, furnishing and keeping up homes for those in need.
In 2006, the Brain Foundation was able to obtain a $450,000 loan from the Virginia Housing Development Authority as Wilbur Dove, an entrepreneur who was running his own nonprofit housing group, agreed to seed her project with $50,000. The foundation bought a four-bedroom townhouse furnished by donations. Harsh named the facility “Laura’s House” in honor of her daughter. This first Laura’s House opened in 2006.
The Brain Foundation now has a total of 5 Laura’s Houses and 20 residents are living there. The tenants only pay part of the cost of the houses and utilities and the Brain Foundation pays the rest. A local mental-health agency manages the properties and provides counseling.
Ron Wilensky in Orlando, Florida, a former Marriott executive, was inspired by Harsh’s model and founded the Brain Foundation of Florida. Ron Wilensky’s brother-in-law, Dave Jeffreys, also had a mental illness for 40 years. The Brain Foundation of Florida is raising their funds the same way Harsh did, and their houses are helping so many disabled in Florida. They named those houses “Dave’s House.” The Brain Foundation is successful, however, what true success means to Trudy Harsh is helping people with disabilities stand up by themselves and live independently.