Toby’s Place, located in an impressive, new, state-of-the art building on Two Notch Road, is a welcoming haven — a long-term shelter and more for women and their children. Greeting residents and visitors alike is a large portrait of the shelter’s namesake. The structure and what is transpiring within its walls are proof that a positive, life-altering legacy can materialize from terrible loss.
Toby’s Place is meeting a mostly unaddressed need. A surprising number of families in the Midlands struggle with homelessness; a typical homeless family consists of a single mother and at least two children. The statistics from The National Center on Family Homelessness are staggering:
- 6,500 families need housing in Richland County;
- close to 12,000 South Carolina children experience homelessness annually;
- 60 percent of homeless women have children under 18 years of age; and,
- women and children are the fastest rising homeless population.
When Pat and Tobin Cassels considered attaching their deceased son’s name to a cause, it was statistics like these that impelled them. Prior to William Tobin “Toby” IV’s death May 22, 2014, the couple had already been involved as donors to Oliver Gospel Mission, a 126-year-old homeless men’s shelter and ministry in the heart of downtown Columbia. Then, during the organization of a Christian leadership program, Tobin met and worked closely with Oliver Gospel Mission President and CEO Wayne Fields, who was the brainchild of the leadership program.
Although countless men have been helped by Oliver Gospel’s rehabilitation programs, women and children were daily turned away from limited services in Columbia. No comprehensive opportunities existed for homeless women and their children under the Oliver Gospel umbrella until Wayne and the Oliver Gospel Mission board determined in 2011 to begin planning a facility. When the University of South Carolina senior died suddenly in 2014, the Cassels family gradually decided to establish a legacy to honor the loss of Toby.
“I have always felt that a big part of the reason that God had Wayne and me work together on the leadership progam was for us to develop our friendship so that once my son died, I would have that connection that ultimately led our family to invest in Toby’s Place,” says Tobin, the third generation president of Southeastern Freight Lines. “Had we never worked together on the leadership program and developed that relationship, I don’t know if we would have invested in a women and children’s shelter. God works in mysterious ways.”
Indeed. Toby’s Place, which opened this past June, was a three-year fundraising initiative and a more than one-year building project that required $11 million in funds. The shelter is not just a legacy in Toby’s name only; his passing established the project’s financial springboard.
“Our extended family owns a privately held company, and part of our estate planning is for each member of our family to have life insurance policies in place so that when someone dies, we can use life insurance monies to be able to pay the taxes owed so that we won’t have to sell the company to pay estate taxes,” Tobin shares. “When our 21-year-old son died, we knew we had more insurance money that would be paid to us than what was needed to pay off his estate at the time. Together with Pat and Rustin, my daughter, who was two years older than Toby, we decided immediately that we wanted all of the excess insurance money to go to Christian charities. And we wanted to pick one significant charity where we could name something in memory of Toby. Well, it didn’t take us long to figure out which charity.”
The Oliver Gospel women and children’s shelter was in the very early stages of fundraising when the Cassels initially pledged a generous gift. “We were sold on the project before my son died,” says Tobin. However, after Toby passed, the Cassels conveyed that they would greatly increase the gift, but desired that the facility be named for their son.
“The seed gift for the project was the donation by Jim Hudson of the piece of land, but the lead gift was that of the Cassels,” says Wayne. “With a gift like that, it really got the fundraising rolling. They are truly generous people — no-strings-attached kind of people. They just wanted to carry on Toby’s name and honor him, and they wanted to have his portrait at the facility. We feel privileged that they picked this ministry.”
Toby’s Place includes both residential and programming space, as well as a dining facility where three nutritious meals are served daily. Also in the works is a pre-school, a counseling center, a medical center due to a partnership with Eau Claire Cooperative, a gym, and workstations with computers and Wi-Fi access. The goal, according to Wayne, is for the women to become independent and working — to learn the tools to survive, thrive, and nurture.
“The vision is to see women’s lives transformed, and the centerpiece of that is the Gospel. They don’t have to be Christians to be helped by Toby’s Place, but they know they will be taught from the Bible as well as be presented with a holistic approach that includes their educational, vocational, emotional, and even physical needs.”
The Young Man in Life
Just a few months shy of Toby’s death, a USC student’s video project featured him and his dog, “Millie,” on the campus. Toby expresses his love for the animal: “She’s just my best friend. I love taking her everywhere, and she’s so smart.”
The interview, treasured by the Cassels family, shows a happy Toby playing with Millie, which the Cassels still have, and their other dogs in their backyard. It also reflects Toby’s heart. Pat describes her son as “always a sweet child with a heart of gold, an intense athlete, and people-oriented.”
Toby was also a member of Shandon Baptist Church and of the Kappa Alpha fraternity at USC, as well as an athlete excelling in soccer, tennis, football, and basketball at Heathwood Hall, where he attended through ninth grade. He then played basketball and tennis at A.C. Flora High School from 10th through 12th grade.
The phone call that no family member wants to receive left a “dagger in the heart,” shares Pat after learning of Toby’s passing.
But the family’s strong faith has carried them. They cherish the words of Romans 8:28 that God can work all things for good. “We try to be thankful for the 21 years we had with him rather than dwelling on the fact he isn’t with us anymore,” Pat says. “Sometimes that’s easier said than done. To take that money and invest in something that will be eternal for God’s kingdom is powerful. We think Toby would have wanted to be a part of what’s happening at Toby’s Place. It’s not about Toby; it’s about women and children. We need to break the cycle of poverty and homelessness.”
In fact, Toby’s Place eased the grieving process somewhat. “It allowed Pat, Rustin, and me to focus on something positive in the midst of a tragedy, which was very helpful to us,” Tobin says. “Sometimes it is healthy for us not to just focus on the pain we’re going through but to lift our heads and try to help others as a result of our pain. I realize that most people won’t have significant life insurance monies after a child dies like we did, but the amount of money is not the point. I think the main principle is to try and focus energy on something that will be helpful in our world that you wouldn’t otherwise be doing absent from the tragedy you are going through. If losing a child gets you engaged in volunteering at a children’s hospital, for example, or helping organize a fundraiser, it can help focus your energy and thoughts in a positive way as you honor the memories of your child and navigate the grieving process.”
Also healing has been the opportunity for the Cassels and even employees at Southeastern Freight Lines to volunteer at Toby’s Place. They have a program called Southeastern Serves where they serve those in need in our community. “A group of us, including Rustin and myself, did a project at Toby’s Place this past December. We spent the evening with the residents, had dinner as a group, and then we made Christmas decorations together and decorated the building for Christmas,” Tobin shares.
Having Toby’s Place has been especially cathartic for Rustin, points out Tobin. She reads every social media post, watches every video about Toby’s Place, and has been to every event, such as the groundbreaking and grand opening. “It really excites her, and this will only increase as Toby’s Place gets more residents and children, which will provide more opportunities to volunteer.”
For display at Toby’s Place, the Cassels had commissioned by artist Leslie Pratt Thomas of Mount Pleasant a painting of Toby that shows him playing with Millie and her puppies. Artist John Herrel of Columbia painted a portrait of Toby for their home. “We also have a special area in our house where we keep memories of him, including various pictures, old sport trophies, and things like that,” says Tobin.
The Cassels are overwhelmed by the legacy from loss Toby’s Place has become. “We love the aspect that Toby’s Place is a Christ-centered program,” he says. “Second, we love that it is not an overnight emergency shelter but instead a more long-term program designed to truly transform the residents who come through it.”
At the ribbon-cutting, musician and philanthropist Jim (Soni) Sonefeld, of 1990s popular Columbia-based band Hootie & the Blowfish, honored Toby’s memory and celebrated the facility’s grand opening by singing a song, “Hold My Hand,” that includes these lyrics:
With a little love and some tenderness
We’ll walk upon the water
We’ll rise above the mess
With a little peace and some harmony
We’ll take the world together
We’ll take them by the hand
Jim, whom Wayne says has become a friend to Oliver Gospel Mission and Toby’s Place, expressed at the opening that “love is an action verb” and that the facility that bears Toby Cassels’ name is all about providing love in action for women and children in desperate need.