Some couples support causes by opening their checkbooks. Other couples do it by opening their homes to fundraising events. Vic and Mary Frances Emerson are the second kind.
Fifteen years ago, back when Mary Frances Emerson was still working long hours at a New York City-area investment firm, she found herself carrying a load all too familiar to baby boomers: caring for an aging loved one while holding down a full-time job.
Then a Westport, Conn., resident, Emerson, along with her daughter and son-in-law, had committed to taking care of her 90-year-old aunt, with whom she had been close since childhood. The aunt — a brassy, New England spitfire who in her old age had taken to nagging her niece for not adding enough salt to her food — had made it known she wanted to live out her days at home.
Honoring her aunt’s wishes, Emerson divided the lion’s share of the work among herself, her daughter, her son-in-law and a student nurse, who held down the fort during the day while the trio was at work.
They cooked for the aunt, bathed the aunt, did the aunt’s laundry and sat with her for hours. At night when she was restless or confused, Emerson would lie in bed next to the aunt until she was sure she was finally asleep. This routine went on for a year, until one day Emerson realized her aunt might qualify for in-home hospice care.
The first time the hospice nurses arrived at the door, Emerson greeted them with her coat still on, even though she had been inside the house for quite some time. They told her to go home and sleep, that she looked exhausted.
“I just stood there with my mouth open, like, ‘Who are these angels?’” she says. “It was a labor of love, taking care of my aunt, but once you live it, and you know there are people out there … and this is what they do … it’s a godsend and such a relief.”
She has had a soft spot for hospice ever since.
Now retired, remarried and living in Lakewood Ranch’s Esplanade Golf & Country Club, Emerson found the ultimate way to give back. Over the past two years, the self-described workaholic has devoted much of her newfound free time to two endeavors: golf and raising thousands of dollars for Tidewell Hospice.
During their first two years as Lakewood Ranch residents, Emerson and her husband, Vic, the former senior vice president and chief financial officer of Amerifit Brands, have raised more than $30,000 for Tidewell’s new Lakewood Ranch Hospice House.
Spurred by their shared love of entertaining and a vested interest in hospice (Vic served on the board of the Visiting Nurses Association of Central Connecticut), the Emersons approached Tidewell with an idea for an intimate cocktail party.
“They were more than taken aback when we said we wanted to do it in our home,” Emerson says.
Mostly, they couldn’t believe how quickly the couple hit the ground running after having just moved from Connecticut.
“To just jump into the community and embrace a local hospice organization is a spectacular gift,” says Debbie Mason, Tidewell’s chief philanthropy officer. “You can tell they’ve been personally touched by it. They understand the beauty of what hospice brings not only to patients but also to family members.”
For this year’s event, the Emersons tripled the number of invites, bumped up the ticket price and added two tents, two bars and a red carpet, where guests were handed champagne flutes upon arrival. They also expanded their fundraising committee to include three other Esplanade couples: Frank and Dory Fitzgerald, Art and Rena Jacoby, and Ron Rippo and Lorraine Krepfle. They even moved their furniture into storage to make room for more tables and chairs.
Thanks to a clever invite-a-friend initiative, the Nov. 6 fundraiser exceeded its $20,000 fundraising goal months ahead of the actual event.
The Emersons are bowled over by the generosity of their guests, many of whom they never met prior to their parties. In an effort to maintain this momentum, they have already cooked up more ways to raise money next year. Next on their to-do list: a charity golf tournament.
They already discussed it with the golf pro at Esplanade. He said he would love to make it happen.
“They’re all in,” says interior designer Scott Velez, whose custom Christmas trees were on display and later donated after both parties. “In the 20 years I’ve been doing this work, I’ve never come across a more giving or big-hearted couple. You don’t find people like that anymore.”