Along with her late husband Arnold “Bud” Fischer, Esther Fischer has provided San Diegans a view to a better future.
For more than 50 years, the Fischers worked to improve communities through their development business as well as their philanthropy. Without the Fischers, the revival of the Gaslamp Quarter and the renaissance of North Park might never have taken place. And without the Fischers, Serving Seniors may never have grown to serve millions of meals, provide badly needed social services, or developed housing for low-income and homeless older adults.
On Wednesday, the extended Fischer family joined the Serving Seniors family to dedicate the “Bud and Esther Fischer Family Walk of Hope” at the newly opened Harris Family Senior Residence in City Heights. The trellis entrance connects the Harris building with the adjacent Mid-City Family Housing, creating a multigenerational community bridge and gathering space.
Like many philanthropic San Diegans, the Fischers’ commitment to the wellbeing of our community’s older adults started more than 40 years ago. Their genuine love and caring for humanity represents the true meaning of philanthropy. Since Bud’s passing in 2013, Esther has carried on. At age 86 she is still deeply engaged in bettering the lives of older adults.
“Being charitable, is something that’s instilled in you,” said Fischer during a recent interview at her Del Mar home. “And we were always taught to give back. I think my husband had that same ethic. He felt very strongly that we were lucky and economically, he did well, and we had to give back.”
The Fischers are woven into the history of Serving Seniors, back to their purchase of a church property at 10th and B Street in downtown San Diego, where Serving Seniors provided lunch service in the 1970s. While the Fischers were deciding what to do with the property, they allowed the organization to continue serving meals. As they got to know what was then called Senior Community Centers, they became supporters, partnering with their friends Barbara and Arthur Bloom to provide Christmas dinner every year.
“There are some donations that give me nothing but pleasure. And this is one of them,” said Fischer. “There is joy in giving, there really is. When you see that your donation is helping, when you know that you’re feeding someone that’s hungry and doesn’t have money for food, providing them with a place to go. It just gives me so much pleasure, instant gratification.”
The Fischers have contributed through the years to capital campaigns, community education efforts, operational support, and played a role in ensuring clients still received meals during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
When I had the opportunity to share the City Heights housing project with Esther, she watched the virtual groundbreaking ceremony which took place during the coronavirus pandemic lockdown. She immediately wanted to be part of it.
“I tuned in virtually and saw this project happening. And I know (project architect) Rob Quigley very well because he designed three SRO hotels for us. I understand some of his philosophy when designing low-income projects. Rob designs lovely entrances with high ceilings which he feels give the residents a sense of worth.”
Fischer says she takes special delight in the pairing of older adult housing with another building providing affordable housing for families, and the spaces including the Walk of Hope which bring them together.
“So many of the seniors are living a narrow life, without family. I hope that that’s what’s going to happen with the younger families and the younger children. I think that is just wonderful,” said Fischer.
“The Jewish religion teaches you to take care of others. I love the (Serving Seniors) organization so much. It’s my honor to have my name attached to it any way. To have that legacy, you know, the legacy is wonderful. And I’m delighted with it. I don’t want my name up in lights — I want the organization to succeed. It kind of embarrasses me if the truth be known.”
Fischer recalls seeing long lines of cars at food banks during the pandemic. It disturbed her and motivated her to do more. “I will never get over that as long as I live. It makes me think, wow, I have the means. So, if you’re blessed as I am, you have to help those who are not.”
Fischer says she recognizes how someone’s life can take an unexpected turn through no fault of their own.
“One illness, one accident. When you talk to clients in the dining room, some of them had been at college, and were teachers or working in a store. They had full lives. They had worked all their lives,” said Fischer. She hopes her donation will become part of her effort to get younger generations involved in philanthropy.
Paul Downey is CEO of Serving Seniors, a San Diego-based nonprofit that helps seniors in poverty live healthy and fulfilling lives.