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Having faced the struggles of providing services for a mentally ill adult child, local realtor Trudy Harsh founded The Brain Foundation, a nonprofit helping to reduce homelessness among the mentally ill in Fairfax County.

In the decade since the foundation began work in 2003, Harsh has opened her heart and seven houses to this adult population. During that time, the foundation has endured despite the housing crisis, financial crisis, and years of government funding cutbacks to social policy programs.

For her indomitable spirit, which has driven an effort to address the needs of those underrepresented and often voiceless in our community, Centreville resident Trudy Harsh is the 2012 Fairfax County Times Citizen of the Year.

“She is the Mother Teresa for housing of those who are mentally impaired [in Fairfax City and County],” said George Mason University’s Jack Censer, dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. Censer serves on The Brain Foundation’s Board of Directors. The board includes several Ph.D. holders and former-Del. Chuck Caputo (D-Dist. 67).

Censer said Harsh’s drive to help the mentally ill is an example of “what informed, intelligent, sophisticated, hardworking individuals can do to link together a high level of talent with public and private funding to help disadvantaged individuals and their families with services.”

Harsh’s Inspiration

Harsh’s efforts are compelled by her own story of struggling to provide services for her daughter Laura once she had matriculated out of eligibility for public provided services.

“She’s the one who opened my eyes,” said the 70-year-old Harsh. “When she was 8, we found out she had a brain tumor.”

Laura underwent surgery the next year. Without the surgery, doctors told Harsh her daughter could die. But the results of the surgery left Laura with a different, more hostile personality.

“She was really just a caricature of herself,” Harsh said. “Personality-wise, she was never herself after that.”

Laura developed Prader-Willi syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes those afflicted to stop physically developing and have an ever-present hunger that can result in obesity.

“We had to lock her in her room because she would go out at night [looking for food],” Harsh said. “When she got to age 15, she got to be so difficult.”

By age 21, Laura had matriculated out of the ability to receive state-provided services. The Harsh family tried placing Laura in a group center and letting her live alone, but these options failed.

“Living alone was not good for her because she would just eat. And she developed diabetes and had more and more medical issues. She was in the hospital more and more,” Harsh said. Laura moved to Minnesota to live at the Laura Baker Service Association facility, which provides care and services for mentally ill adults.

She died in 2006 at the age of 38, around the same time The Brain Foundation’s efforts were beginning to gain ground.

“I couldn’t really solve her problems. But this was something I could do,” Harsh said. “It’s given me such a reward. It’s become more successful than I ever dreamed. We really did take a risk hoping this would work out.”

The seven townhomes are known as “Laura’s Houses.” Three are located in Fairfax City, two in Annandale, one in Reston and one in the Fair Lakes area.

“Following my daughter and trying to get services for her… Just seeing the need, I always thought the county should provide houses. But they didn’t want the mortgages,” Harsh said. “Right now we have to subsidize the rents of our tenants. They pay about a third [of the rent].”

Tenant income is estimated at $698 a month, a figure provided by the county.

Each townhouse is four bedrooms with four tenants. All are within walking distance of public transportation and grocery stores. Furnishings for the homes are provided through local donations, much of which comes from area churches.

The first home was bought in Fairfax City in 2006 for $417,000.

“The housing crisis [which hit in summer 2007] really helped us because the next two [houses] were $325,000 and they were foreclosures,” Harsh said. “That really lessened our expenses.”

The goal is to increase the number of houses from seven to ten, said Harsh, who said she is planning for the day when a successor will take the reins of her efforts.

“We’d be nowhere without her,” said Centreville resident Ted Moriak, who is a board member for The Brain Foundation. “She’s a real entrepreneur. She was the one who brought in lawyer friends to get the nonprofits incorporated… She got me to come in. I’m a retired economist-program and budget analyst [for the U.S. Department of Agriculture]… She attracts highly talented people.”

Community and board members attribute The Brain Foundation’s success to Harsh’s efforts to capitalize on public and private donations and partnerships.

“In many respects, she’s sort of single-handedly taken the bull by the horns. And she’s been able to convince people this is what they need to be focused on,” said Jeannie Cummins Eisenhour, investment and development manager for the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board. “She’s done an excellent job at leveraging public and private donations and that’s what really sets this nonprofit apart.”

Eisenhour said there are other area nonprofits with a similar goal of providing group homes, which struggle because they are all reliant on the same single pot of public funding.

While The Brain Foundation does receive local public funds to offset the cost of purchasing homes, the group is able to exceed its fundraising goal of $75,000-plus each year, Harsh said. Most of the foundation’s donations come from individual donors. One benefactor gives $25,000 and another $5,000. These are the largest donations, Harsh said. However, the foundation’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. Recently, the National Association of Realtors chose Harsh to be one of five Good Neighbor Award recipients, a prize that came with a $10,000 grant and a $2,000 Lowe’s gift card. Centreville United Methodist Church has also agreed to donate $1,500 each year for ten years.

In 2010, Washingtonian magazine recognized Harsh as its “Washingtonian of the Year.”

In the November edition of Catalogue for Philanthropy, which identifies and vets small, local charities for donors, The Brain Foundation was selected as one of the best nonprofits in the Washington, D.C., area.

In September, the county Board of Supervisors recognized Harsh for her efforts to house residents with brain disorders.

“She has been a very strong voice for those with mental illness. There hasn’t been as much willingness to go public as with other efforts,” Supervisor Michael Frey (Sully District) said. Harsh served as Frey’s appointee to the Community Services Board from 2001 to 2010.

“Mental illness has certainly risen in visibility, but we still need advocates like Trudy,” Frey said. The CSB estimates almost 800 people with mental illnesses are in need of affordable housing. “She’s a great lady. She comes at this from personal experience. She’s not a mental-health professional. She’s a mom.”

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com