Fisher House Program Still Growing After 20 Years
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
BETHESDA, Md., Jan. 4, 2011 The Fisher House Foundation isn’t basking in past achievements as it prepares to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the opening of its first home on the grounds of the National Naval Medical Center here.
Dave Coker, president of the Fisher House Foundation, stands in front of one of three new Fisher Houses at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. DOD photo by Donna Miles
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
As the first military families move this week into one of three new Fisher Houses just across the street from the original, the foundation is moving full steam ahead on nine more being built nationwide, many to be completed by the year’s end.
The Fisher House program started as a relatively modest endeavor, with Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher donating a home to provide free temporary lodging for military families while their loved ones received care at the Navy’s flagship medical center, foundation president Dave Coker told American Forces Press Service. That original Fisher House, perched on a hillside overlooking the towering hospital, opened its doors June 24, 1991.
Soon the Fishers presented the second Fisher House, which opened a month later on the grounds of the Army’s Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. Within a few short months, the third opened at the Air Force’s Wilford Hall Medical Center in San Antonio.
The project snowballed, Coker said. Three Fisher Houses led to five, then 10. By the time of Zachary Fisher’s death in 1999, he and his wife had personally financed more than 20 Fisher Houses.
The Fisher House Foundation, led by the Fishers’ grandnephew, Ken Fisher, is keeping their vision alive.
Today, 53 Fisher Houses grace the grounds of dozens of major military and Veterans Affairs medical facilities in the United States and in Landstuhl, Germany. Collectively, they have served more than 142,000 families since the program’s inception. During 2010, their 651 guest suites accommodated 12,000 families.
With the last of 10 Fisher Houses donated in late 2010 about to begin receiving families, and more houses under construction, Coker said, he hopes to see capacity increase to 16,000 families this year.
Among the newest Fisher Houses is one at Dover Air Force Base, Del. Coker called it “one of our greatest achievements,” because of its impact on families of the fallen. Unlike other Fisher Houses that accommodate families of hospitalized service members and veterans, the Dover house serves grieving families as they prepare to witness the dignified transfer of their loved ones.
“Having the house there lets us how these families how much we appreciate their loved one’s sacrifice. That’s No. 1,” Coker said. “Hopefully, it provides an environment where they can receive a little bit of comfort.”
Loving comfort always has been at the heart of the Fisher House mission.
“When you have a loved one who is catastrophically injured or has died, your world turns upside down,” Coker said. “So if we can help provide a little stability during that time, something to make these families’ loads a little lighter, that’s our priority.
“This isn’t charity,” Coker said, borrowing Ken Fisher’s mantra. “It’s our duty, our way of giving back for all that the military has enabled us to do, and for protecting our freedoms.”
For the Fisher House Foundation, that mission requires always looking ahead so it’s ready to respond to military families’ needs. For example, three new Fisher Houses were built here to accommodate an expected surge in demand as the hospital merges with Walter Reed Army Medical Center later this year.
“It was very important for us to have these open before Walter Reed closed,” Coker said. “[Washington] D.C. has always been underserved, and we wanted to get ahead of the game.”
One of the new Bethesda houses already is accommodating families, and another is expected to accept its first families this week. The third, to be dedicated to families whose loved ones are being treated at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence for Traumatic Brain Injuries and Psychological Health Problems, will house its first families soon.
Meanwhile, a new Fisher House is being built at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. The foundation will be laid as soon as the weather allows so the project can be completed by year’s end, Coker said.
Another new Fisher House, under construction at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, will replace the Nightingale House, which is scheduled to be torn down along with the aging family housing that surrounds it. Coker said he hopes to see the new house finished by late March and dedicated in April.
In addition, several Fisher House projects are under way at VA medical facilities. While they weren’t part of the Fisher House Foundation’s original vision, Coker said, he called the VA houses a natural extension of the support provided at military hospitals.
“What we didn’t foresee in the beginning was the continuity that exists between DOD and the VA,” he said. “DOD focuses on saving the lives, and VA is rehabbing, giving these veterans back their life and regaining and optimizing their potential for recovery.
“These young people getting hurt are going to need care throughout their lives,” he continued. “And so we have a chance to support them through the VA health care system.”
The Minneapolis VA Medical Center in Minnesota will receive its second Fisher House in the spring to accommodate families whose loved ones are receiving Level 1 polytrauma care.
The initial Fisher House there has eight suites. “But we understand that on any given night, there are 30 families making do in hotels,” Coker said. “So getting a house like this one will better allow them to meet the needs of the community. We’re going to open it as soon as we get it furnished.”
Also in the April-May time frame, other Fisher Houses are expected to open at VA medical centers in Washington, D.C., and Augusta, Ga.
As these houses take shape, construction is expected to begin on new Fisher Houses at VA medical centers in Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, San Antonio, and Murfreesboro, Tenn.
The Fisher House Foundation also is looking into building a replacement house in the fall at Fort Bragg, N.C.
While numbers tell the story of the Fisher House Foundation’s growth, one has to step inside a Fisher House to appreciate fully just how well it delivers on its pledge to support military families in their time of need.
Fisher Houses aren’t simply cozy. They’re upscale. When you open the door, your eyes go in every direction trying to take it all in: the magazine-quality décor, the gleaming stainless-steel-and-granite kitchens, the attention to detail in every nook and cranny.
“When somebody walks through the door, we want them to know there are others who care about them in their time of need, and we think we achieve that,” Coker said as walked through one of the new Bethesda houses. “If they walk in and they can inhale twice, it is going to hopefully make it a little more manageable when life starts beating them down. And if there is one thing we have learned, it’s that life happens.”
Each new Fisher House incorporates lessons learned from other houses. Coker remembers visiting one facility and overhearing several wives discussing using a sheet to carry a husband who had been released from the hospital to his wife’s upstairs room just long enough to see where she had been staying.
“You hear that once and you recognize that we can do better,” Coker said, “and that the right thing is to put in an elevator and make all the rooms handicapped-accessible.”
Today, all new Fisher Houses now have elevators as well as wheelchair-accessible rooms and kitchen facilities. The military services and VA, who manage the facilities after the Fisher House Foundation turns them over, have renovated many of the original Fisher Houses to accommodate wheelchairs.
Coker called their dedicated staffs, along with armies of volunteers, the unsung heroes who maintain what the Fisher House Foundation set out to accomplish. They ensure the pantries and refrigerators are stocked, the rooms are clean and the washing machines are in working order, complete with complimentary laundry soap.
And as families gather to share morning coffee or a quick dinner between hospital visits, they’re close at hand, ready to provide an understanding ear or, when needed, a shoulder to cry on.
Even after passing control of the Fisher Houses at the dedication ceremonies, the Fisher House Foundation quietly maintains contact with its houses by picking up the $10 per night fee the services must charge by regulation for families to stay in a Fisher House. This year alone, the foundation will pay more than $1 million to cover that cost.
The idea, Coker said, is to enable families to forget everything else and focus on what’s most important: their loved one’s recovery.
“I believe Fisher House is something that improved the quality of health care,” he said. “And the reason it improves it is you [as a patient] are not concerned about your family. [Patients] are getting the same world-class health care, but because they know their families are being taken care of, the quality of care, in the eye of the patient and the family, has just increased.”
As the Fisher House Foundation looks ahead to future projects, Coker said it’s working closely with the military surgeons general and VA to ensure it builds where the long-term need is greatest.
And as many charities have struggled since the economic downturn, Coker reports that the Fisher House Foundation has weathered the storm intact. The foundation doesn’t do direct-mail marketing, yet receives more than $40 million a year in donations. Last month, its online donations averaged $400 to $500.
“The American public has been phenomenal,” Coker said. “Part of it is the model. We are always going to new communities and bringing something exciting to town. That inspires giving.
“But the other thing is the tremendous respect that the American people have for those who serve,” he continued. “We have a program that focuses on helping people when they need to most, when their world is turned upside down. And people appreciate the opportunity to be able to support people at that point.”
Becky Wood, manager of the five Bethesda Fisher Houses, sees the families’ appreciation firsthand every day.
“Over and over, I have heard families say, ‘I can’t believe somebody who doesn’t know us has done this for us’ – from the Fisher House itself, to the bakery items and home-cooked meals volunteers bring to the families,” Wood said.
“They just can’t believe that they are staying here, at no cost to themselves,” she said. “They’re overwhelmed by the beauty of the home and the spirit of generosity that’s here.”
Wood said she gets tremendous gratification knowing that Fisher House Foundation and the Fisher House staff and volunteers are helping fulfill Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher’s dream.
“There’s great satisfaction in knowing that we have provided these families comfort at what might for many of them be the hardest time they will every have in their life, and hearing them say thank you over and over again, and know that in some way, we’ve made a difference,” she said.