Trudy Harsh Shows Us How One Person Can Make A Difference

FROM MY FILES FRIDAY:  I first wrote about Trudy Harsh more than three years ago and I’m happy to report that she still is working non-stop to help provide much needed housing in Fairfax County for persons with brain disorders. She is someone who I greatly admire, which is why I am thrilled to again share her story on my blog.

Trudy Harsh: One Person Who Is Making A Difference!

Trudy Harsh’s daughter, Laura, developed a brain tumor when she was eight years old. Doctors at Georgetown Hospital in Washington D.C. were able to remove it, but they warned Trudy that Laura would only live for six more years at best.

As often happens to persons who undergo traumatic brain injuries or have parts of their brain removed, Laura awoke from her surgery a completely different person. She was not the bright, sensitive and loving child that Trudy knew. The parts of her brain that controlled her emotions, especially anger, had been destroyed.
Doctors tried, of course, to use medications to help Laura control her moods, but she was unable to return to her old life. Laura was disruptive in school and got into fist-fights with other girls. With an uncontrollable urge to eat, she packed on weight. One day, she was caught at school digging through garbage cans for food. Her Individualized Education Program (IEP) noted that she could not pay attention for longer than three minutes in a classroom.
Laura did not die, as predicted, and when it became clear to Trudy that Laura could no longer attend public schools or live at home, she arranged for her daughter to enter a residential school near Atlanta, Georgia,  and later another cutting-edge school in Denver. At age 21, Laura returned home and was able to graduate from Chantilly High School here in Fairfax.
But brain injuries do not simply go away with time.
Laura continued having violent outbursts and emotional stability problems. Her obesity caused her a myriad of health problems.
Trudy wanted her daughter to live as full of a life as possible — despite her brain injury — so she got Laura enrolled in an apartment program in Fairfax County, overseen by the county’s mental health services board. Mother and daughter soon found themselves caught in a vicious circle. Trudy would fight to get Laura into an already overwhelmed and under-funded program, only to have her get expelled for violent behavior. When Trudy exhausted what Fairfax County had to offer, her mother paid to send her to other jurisdictions and even other states. Trudy was determined that her daughter would not become homeless.
Sadly, Laura never did find a suitable program and she died from health complications living at home with her mother. Laura was 38 years-old.
During her quest to help her daughter, Trudy became a tireless advocate. She served on local committees, went to public hearings, read report-after-report, and became totally frustrated with a bureaucratic process that seemed more interested in publishing studies, filing complaints, and talking endlessly about what to do, rather than actually doing anything.
So Trudy struck out on her own.
Luckily, she had her real estate license and understood mortgages, loans, and federal housing programs. Using her professional skills, Trudy founded “The Brain Foundation” and began hosting fund-raisers to get enough money to buy a house — just one house — to help persons who had mental illnesses.
Although a tumor caused Laura’s brain injury, her mother didn’t see any difference between brain damage caused by surgery and brain damage caused by mental illnesses. After all, she said, the brain was just another organ and what did it matter whether it got damaged during surgery or by disease.
Hosting parties in her home and asking friends for contributions did not raise enough cash for Trudy to buy a house in the Washington D.C. area market — one of the most expensive in the nation. Trudy did not give up — the need was too great. She knew that someone with a mental illness could wait up to 18 years before an apartment or group home had an opening in Fairfax. That was unacceptable.
Trudy approached Wilbur Dove, an entrepreneur who was running his own nonprofit housing group and he agreed to seed her project with $50,000. Trudy used that $50,000 to obtain a $450,000 loan from the Virginia Housing Development Authority, which she spent to buy a four-bedroom townhouse in Fairfax County. Once she had a house, Trudy cut through red-tape and got Pathway Homes, which provides residential care for persons with mental illness, to move four men into it. Pathway agreed to manage the property and keep track of its tenants, who pay 30 % of their income as rent.
Trudy named the facility “Laura’s House” in honor of her daughter.
For most people that might have been enough, but not for Trudy. She continued raising money through grants and donations, and buying houses. The Brain Foundation has opened five houses in 2010 and had two more in sight — all because of one determined mother who wanted to make a difference.
I often hear people say, “What can I do? I’m only one person.”
I’m glad that Trudy Harsh didn’t adopt that attitude.
Motherhood did not turn out to be an easy path for Trudy, but her love for her daughter and her unrelenting determination to make her daughter’s life better led to Trudy improving the lives of dozens of persons with mental illnesses. In the vast scheme of things, providing housing to a handful of persons may seem like an insignificant step. But not if one of those needy persons is your son or your daughter.
Trudy Harsh proves that Margaret Meade was correct when she said:
 “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.