That was almost 40 years ago, but it was a decision he said changed his life.
“For years I’ve been wanting to give back to the university, because my life has been totally transformed,” he said. “All of the blessings that God has given me came out of the life changes that happened while I was in Johnson City.”
Now, Sanders, who now lives in Greenville, South Carolina, and is the president and founder of K.B. Charitable Trust, is turning the old Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity house at 719 W. Maple St. into the Lodge Fraternity, a Christian ministry where college students to live, hang out and worship. K.B. Charitable Trust purchased the property for $175,000 in January 2018.
The house will serve as an all-male residence for 16 students, but the organization itself will be open to men and women. He anticipates that the renovations to the three-floor house should be complete this year.
Sanders believes the organization can create an environment where college students, who are in the process of discovering their place in the world, “can make right choices,” steering them away from things like pornography and alcohol.
"It’s an alternative to a world that’s pulling these kids in a direction they don’t need to go,” Sanders said.
Bedrooms are on the top two floors of the house, and the bottom floor will have a non-alcoholic smoothie bar, “the man cave of all man caves,” Sanders said. The house, which will be alcohol- and smoke-free, also has an entertainment area on the first floor for activities like Bible study and Super Bowl parties. In keeping with a hunting lodge theme, the house is full of animal trophies.
“It’s a guy’s residence, and what cooler architectural decor could you use than a hunting lodge?” Sanders said.
Sanders said the organization plans on redoing the hardwood floors in the lobby, replacing the wood wall in the back of the house with a brick wall and removing embellishments on the building’s exterior that identify it as a fraternity house.
“My goal would be that, when you ride down the street and when you look over, nobody would know that it is not a residence,” Sanders said. “It is a residential neighborhood, and we’re going to respect that.”
Sanders said K.B. Charitable Trust had originally attempted to partner with the Beta Upsilon Chi, a Christian fraternity, but he said the group did not fulfill an obligation included in their lease to fill the house.
“They committed to have 16 guys move in,” Sanders said. “They only had seven.”
Sanders’ organization did not renew the fraternity’s lease on the property and decided to start its own ministry, but he said the process has been slower than he would like.
“I’m not from Johnson City,” Sanders said. “If this project was going on in Greenville, South Carolina, it would already be finished and 80% of it would have been donated, but I don’t have the contacts in Johnson City, Tennessee, that I have in Greenville, South Carolina.”
He hopes the see the Johnson City community embrace the project. The organization is looking for fundraising support and people to help work on the house or serve on the fraternity’s board of directors.
After complaints from neighbors, the city launched a zoning code investigation in early 2018 into the former Sigma Phi Epsilon house and three other fraternity houses in the Tree Streets. In 2018, ETSU was formulating a plan to move all fraternities on campus by 2020.
ETSU spokesperson Joe Smith said Wednesday that four ETSU fraternities will have a presence on campus during the upcoming fall semester, but they will not be residential locations.
“Rather, these will be learning-community settings where members can visit, study and hold gatherings,” Smith said.
Sanders said the Lodge Fraternity, which will be its own 501(c)3 nonprofit entity, will strive to reach as many students as possible, but noted that the primary focus won’t be on growing the ranks of the organization. Instead, he said the group will try to make an impact.
“If one life gets changed the way my life was changed, all this will be worth it,” he said.