The idea for Florian Villa came to them during a vacation on a lush Caribbean island that they couldn't quite enjoy. Deborah Bernstein and Scott Wahlen had just visited wounded soldiers recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, delivering T-shirts and hats and other presents from Massachusetts. Not long after, the Hyde Park couple flew to St. John for a week of relaxation.
But they found the proximity of the two trips last year hard to bear. Walking on glorious beaches of the Virgin Islands, they kept thinking about the injured young men they'd just seen.
By the end of their vacation, they had an idea: The firefighter and the former management consultant would use their savings to buy a house on St. John where wounded soldiers and the families of firefighters killed in action could take some time to heal. They'd rent out the house part of the time and host yoga retreats to support their volunteer work.
"We cashed in our life savings, our 401(k) plans," Bernstein said. "We figured we could talk about this for the next 15 years. We figured why not throw it all in?"
They persuaded a bank to give them a mortgage and bought the house they'd name Florian Villa, after the patron saint of firefighters. Paying guests have started booking yoga retreats and vacations at the four-bedroom house on a hill above the Caribbean, paying as much as $800 a night. This summer, some widows and other family members of firefighters killed on the job will stay there for free. For every five paid weeks booked at the villa, the couple plans to donate a week's vacation.
Bernstein, 39, and Wahlen, 36, started dating in 2004, after they met in the South End, near her condo and his firehouse. When Bernstein got in late, she tried to park in view of the firehouse, feeling safer if the firefighters could see her get out of her car.
As they got to know each other, the couple often talked about their connections to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Bernstein, then a management consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers, was supposed to be on one of the LA-bound planes. Her meeting was canceled and she stayed in Boston. In 2005, she made a dramatic career switch: She quit her job and opened a yoga studio in Roslindale.
As a firefighter, Wahlen went to more than 50 funerals for firefighters killed on 9/11.
"It just seemed like a lot of them had little kids, a lot of them had families," said Wahlen, now a lieutenant in the Boston Fire Department.
Bernstein, who has an MBA from Boston University, now runs Florian Villa full-time, and leads yoga retreats there. Wahlen, a former Marine, will lead adventure tours on the island during his vacations. They're raising money, beginning to advertise, and looking for families to help.