EXCLUSIVE: Leeza Gibbons hopes to give new life to landmark Mungo home in St. Andrews area

08/07/2014 8:24 PM

03/12/2015 5:57 PM

Television personality Leeza Gibbons unexpectedly found the perfect place for a caregiver facility – right in her former backyard.

Gibbons was in the Columbia area on a tour with local developer Stewart Mungo about a month ago, when the pair stopped by the home of his late father to take a break.

Gibbons instead was immediately entranced at the thought of transforming the 59-year-old home, whose gardens she remembered as a child growing up in the St. Andrews area.

“It truly is one of those destiny things,” Gibbons said this week. “It’s like we won the lottery.”

So now, the landmark home – the residence of the late University of South Carolina trustee and Midlands philanthropist Michael Mungo – could become a center aiding caregivers of people with major diseases. The house, on its 1.7-acre site at St. Andrews and Bush River roads, has been largely empty since Mungo’s death in 2010.

A nonprofit organization created by Gibbons is seeking the go-ahead from Lexington County officials to make the change that would allow the home site to become the second Leeza’s Care Connection center in the nation.

Leeza’s Care Connection offers free services for those coping with the stress of any chronic or terminal disease that a relative or friend is suffering.

“We’re a community resource center, a hub of information connecting people to the services they need and to others who have ‘been there, done that,’” she said.

Gibbons’ commitment to assist caregivers of those with major illnesses came after memory-robbing Alzheimer’s disease claimed the lives of her grandmother and mother.

Mungo’s family foundation will retain ownership of the home site, leasing it to Gibbons’ operation for $1 a year.

Stewart Mungo said the family considers the proposal an “ideal way” to commemorate the public service legacy of their parents.

Making Gibbons’ dream happen will require Lexington County Council to rezone the site in the Whitehall neighborhood from residential to recreational/agricultural use.

That change is “the most restrictive category to allow this activity” without opening the door to commercial operations sprouting around it, county planning director Charlie Compton said.

The center would fill a gap in local health care as “a one-stop shop” for caregivers to learn how to cope with challenges ahead, said Sheila Lewis, Midlands program director for the Alzheimer’s Association.

The change has received initial council approval, with a public hearing on the proposal set for Aug. 26.

“It’ll be be good for the community,” said retiring Councilman Brad Matthews, who represents the neighborhood.

Neighborhood leaders and nearby homeowners are comfortable with the idea.

Chester Sansbury – who lives in Gibbons’ former childhood home a few blocks away – said it isn’t a radical break with the residential character of the area.

“There are a lot of things that could go there that aren’t as neighborhood-friendly as this,” said Ernie Bell, who lives across the street from the Mungo home.

Gibbons promises the facility will be a good neighbor.

“We’re just going to blend in,” she said. “We’re going to be inconspicuous.”

Plans call for minor interior renovation of the home that Mungo built in 1955, along with the addition of a small parking area.

No more than two dozen people are likely to be at the center simultaneously, and it will operate only during the day, she said. No medical care or overnight stays for the ill will be offered, she said.

Plans call for her father Carlos, 85, to provide poetry lessons at the site.

Gibbons, 57, who lives in Los Angeles now, promises the home will remain a garden spot.

The azaleas, camellias and tulips on the grounds will continue to blossom, she said

“I’m like everyone else who loved to see the kaleidoscope of color in full bloom,” she said of the gardens. “I intend to see that the circle goes unbroken.”

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