About two dozen members of The American Legion's Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Commission toured a brand-new Fisher House in Houston on Aug. 24 during the Legion's 95th national convention. During the visit, Legionnaires delivered thousands of dollars worth of comfort items, gift cards and many household items – including laundry detergent, soap, pajamas and doormats – to the new building that includes 20 resident rooms.
The Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in Houston, which serves a veterans population of 1.4 million, is the first such facility in the world to have a second Fisher House on its premises. The first one, built in 2005, logged an average occupancy rate of 98 percent and has opened its 21 rooms to more than 7,400 families.
Fisher Houses are free, extended-stay facilities for the families of hospitalized active-duty or retired military members and veterans who live more than 100 miles (50 miles for patients receiving radiation treatments) from the nearest military hospital or VA medical center. Started by Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher in 1990, the Fisher House Foundation has saved military families about $200 million in out-of-pocket costs for lodging and transportation.
Frank Kelley, manager of both Fisher Houses in Houston, says that most family members stay an average of about 12 days while their loved ones receive medical care at the DeBakey facility. "Sometimes a veteran can stay here in the house before they go into the hospital," Kelley said. But it's usually the caregivers who stay here: wives, husbands, mothers, sisters, brothers, (ex-spouses)."
"To us, it's more than just saying thanks and meeting with the families during our visit to the Fisher House," said Verna Jones, director of The American Legion's Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission (VA&R). "The Legion realizes family members sacrifice a great deal in supporting their loved ones who have defended our country. Anything we can do to help make their visit and stay at the Fisher House more comfortable, we are honored to do."
Besides the 20 resident rooms, the new Fisher House has a spacious kitchen with four large refrigerators, dining room, living room/library, family room and a laundry facility.
While the homes are built by local donations and the Fisher House Foundation, and maintained by VA, Kelly said that donations of household goods are greatly appreciated, as are monetary donations. The more Kelly gets from The American Legion and other organizations to support a combined total of 41 resident rooms, the less he has to request from VA.
"We try to supply as much of the basics as possible," Kelley said. "Coffee, cream, sugar, laundry detergent, dish washing detergent. All those types of things we supply. If you need it in your house, I need it in my house – times 41."
Each resident room is designed for three adults, and the entire house was built to accommodate disabled individuals. "To stay in the Fisher House, you do not have to have a service-connected disability," Kelley says. "If you're eligible for treatment at VA, then you're eligible to stay at the house." Residents stay for free at Fisher Houses. "They've already paid more than enough with their service," Kelley said.
Fisher Houses have no hard-and-fast rules for how long people can stay. Kelley mentioned a woman, eight and a half months pregnant, who arrived at the house in Tampa, Fla. Her husband had been seriously injured in Iraq. By the time he was released, their son had already celebrated his fifth birthday.
Family members are eligible to stay in Fisher Houses if their loved one is receiving care at the local VA medical center, or has been referred there by another VA facility. In addition, Kelley said that a resident has to "be of sound mind and body, not have any communicable diseases, and have to be able to take care of yourself. If you bring a child with you, you have to be able to maintain that child. We do not have baby-sitting services, we do not have any sort of medical service. If you have an emergency in here, I've got to call 911 and an ambulance has to come off-campus to take you."
Residents must follow a few rules during their stay: no smoking in the house or on the grounds, eat in the dining room or kitchen, and observe quiet hours after 9 p.m. "No shouting, the TV is turned down, even bingo games have to be quieter," Kelley said. House keys are given to residents, and they are the only ones who have them, except for Kelley and the housekeeper. The local police have pass keys in case someone gets locked out.
Volunteers help keep the house running smoothly in a variety of ways: driving guests to and from the medical center (about a half-mile away) in golf carts, taking guests to stores and supermarkets, helping out in the office, preparing meals in advance and freezing them – and bringing in homemade cookies.
Getting a Fisher House into a community starts with a $1 million donation from local sources, said Ralph Bozella, chairman of the Legion's VA&R Commission. "We're doing that in Denver now, getting a new Fisher House to go with the new VA hospital. And that's where the community gets involved. The American Legion, the Sons of The American Legion, the American Legion Auxiliary have all raised money for the effort in Denver."
Once $1 million is raised, Denver can then apply to the foundation for a new Fisher House. The fundraising drive goes far beyond Denver, Bozella says. American Legion posts, squadrons and units are contributing throughout the state. ozella says The American Legion has long-supported the Fisher House program because it takes care of military families in a time of great need. "When your loved one is under the stress of trauma and they have to be hospitalized, the family's at peace here," he said. "They're right next door, they're close, they see their loved one on a daily basis and they live in a beautiful place, in comfort. It's peaceful. You don't have all the stress of life around you. You've got enough stress going on."
Fisher Houses serve more than 19,000 military families per year. Inside the new house in Houston is a statue of the Fishers, with this inscription: "This gift is dedicated to our greatest national treasure, our military servicemen and women, and their loved ones."
Click here  to find out more about the Fisher House Foundation.