Leeza Gibbons Launches Caregiver Center With Winnings From Donald Trump's Final 'Celebrity Apprentice'

Leeza Gibbons Care Center Ribbon Cutting H 2016
Courtesy of Leeza Care Connection

The Emmy-winning talk show host, who opened the facility in her South Carolina hometown, expressed gratitude toward Trump — "our dad" on the show, she says — but won't be involved in his campaign: "Politically, we're not aligned on many things."

When Leeza Gibbons competed on Donald Trump’s final season as host of Celebrity Apprentice, which filmed in early 2014 and aired a year later, she had one goal: win enough money to create a place in her hometown to nurture caregivers and give them the support to thrive in an often unrelenting situation.

Her dream was realized Thursday when Leeza’s Care Connection in Columbia, S.C., welcomed visitors to its first stand-alone center, which happens to be in a historic home around the corner from where she grew up.

“I wouldn’t have won Celebrity Apprentice if I had not had this burning desire, and so many people are a part of that victory,” she told The Hollywood Reporter on Wednesday night at a VIP gathering at the facility. “We were able to take the spirit of winning, which is a really important dynamic in the psychology of disease, and it gave us some momentum coming into this community. It gave us a better story to tell. And so we were able to really use that for the cornerstone for galvanizing so much other support.”

When Gibbons’ mother, Jean, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, she told her daughter to tell the story as only she could. And for Gibbons that means reaching out to caregivers.

“I am very proud that from the get-go this was my target, this was my pledge, and my eye was on this prize,” she said. “Honestly, if you take anybody’s burning desire, that’s a strong motivator. I was best friends with my mom. She was really the impetus for the kind of woman I want to be, and so to honor her is something I really took seriously.”

The center is fueled by Gibbons’ $700,000 Apprentice prize money, a partnership with two hospital foundations and other local firms. It is located in the historic Michael J. and Mary Meech Mungo Home in Irmo, a suburb of Columbia where Gibbons’ father still lives.

The home aims to function much like a community center with a purpose, with wellness programs, a cafe, lounge and video journaling room. Gibbons’ father, Carlos, who wrote poetry to help process his grief over the loss of his wife, has Pop’s Poetry Corner, where he will share coping strategies and poetry with guests.

“We were thrilled that Leeza’s passion was caregivers and caregiving and celebrating those warriors that are doing so much to help the outcome of the patient,” said Barbara Willm, vp, development and community relations at Lexington Medical Center.

The programs at Leeza’s Care Connection, much like her similar center at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Los Angeles, are aimed at breaking down the barriers caregivers often face. Educational seminars, yoga, support groups and groups focused on handiwork such as knitting already are scheduled, as is a night out at a local minor league baseball park.

“In a political year when we’re talking a lot about walls and barriers, this is a real opportunity for us to use an environment like this to break those down and to demonstrate what happens when good people come together for the same cause and the same goal in mind,” said Gibbons.

She said that she will always be grateful to Trump for the opportunity to compete on Celebrity Apprentice and the attention it brought to caregivers. But that connection doesn’t extend to the presumptive presidential Republican nominee’s campaign. A few months after winning Celebrity Apprentice, Gibbons said, she was approached by Trump about getting involved in his new campaign or endorsing the New York billionaire. She asked if she could speak to his political strategist.

“His strategist called me and we realized that there probably wasn’t enough common ground,” Gibbons said. “Politically, we’re not aligned on many things.”

Gibbons said she and Trump are in agreement on some issues.

“He’s been very supportive of caregiving issues, especially with veterans.” she said. “We very much feel the same way about family and about loyalty and about creating change. That’s what’s a hallmark of this election year.”

Trump, who has been criticized for making derogatory comments about women, was “very appropriate” with the female contestants on Apprentice, Gibbons said. She believes that the Trump she met on the set is the same person running for president.

“I think how you do one thing is how you do everything,” she said. “I do believe his one thing is being bold. And being unapologetic, having an unapologetic stand, that’s consistent [with what he's exhibited on the campaign trail]. In 1987, I read [Trump’s book] The Art of the Deal. And that’s the same voice that we hear now on the campaign trail.”

Gibons' experience with Trump is only through Celebrity Apprentice, where she chose to see him as a dad to help her survive in the show’s boardroom. “Because that way I could break down the intimidation,” she said. “Whenever I went into the boardroom, my optics were, ‘Here’s the head of the family. He’s our dad, and dads want all their kids to do great.’

“And I got lucky because I stayed in that boardroom,” she said. “And this is to show for it.”