Washingtonian of the Year 2010: Trudy Harsh

Putting out a welcome mat

By: Leslie Milk

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Trudy Harsh became an expert on “brain diseases” the way all too many people do: Her daughter, Laura, had surgery for a brain tumor at age eight and was never the same again. What followed were years of hospitalizations, placements in treatment programs, and spells when Laura languished at home. She died at age 38.

As a result of Laura’s experiences, Trudy Harsh became an advocate. She fought for more services; she also took on one of the major problems herself—the lack of affordable housing in Fairfax County that’s appropriate for people with brain diseases.

A real-estate agent, Harsh began looking for houses she could turn into group homes. She created the Brain Foundation to raise funds to buy, furnish, and keep up the homes. She held parties in her back yard to raise money. Then a local philanthropist, Wilbur Dove, gave Harsh a $50,000 seed grant, and the Virginia Housing Development Authority offered a low-interest loan.

The first Laura’s House opened in November 2006. There are now five houses, with a total of 20 residents, and a sixth is under contract. The rent from tenants covers only part of the cost of the houses and utilities. The Brain Foundation pays the rest.

The foundation arranges for a local mental-health agency to manage the properties and provide counseling.

A tenant of one Laura’s House had been waiting 17 years for a place to live. A resident of another had been living at home with her 81-year-old father. A third arrived straight from jail—no other residential program would take him.

The Brain Foundation has what others would call “success” stories. Two of its tenants got full-time jobs and were able to leave for regular housing. But for Harsh, success is simpler than that—it’s the chance for a person with a disability to live independently.

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