'A prayer answered'

No one cared more than Jerry Seffens about donating money to a Fisher House being built at the St. Louis VA Medical Center. But it wasn't until Seffens, a member of Post 400 in Fenton, Mo., passed away from cancer last year that Jim Donahoe - who serves as the St. Louis Fisher House board president - learned why.

Last year, Seffens played a big part in Post 400's gift of $25,000 to the facility, which will provide free overnight lodging in a comfortable, homelike setting to the families of patients being cared for at the nearby hospital. After Seffens died, Donahoe placed a call to his widow, Jeanne, and heard why the project meant so much to him.

"Just before we had our first child, we were in an automobile accident in Maryland," recalls Jeanne, holding a picture of her late husband. Seffens ended up in the hospital but was transferred to Fort Meade without his family being notified.

"It took us over a day to figure out where he was, and by the time we went to see him at Fort Meade, they had moved him to Walter Reed, which was probably a 100-mile trip for me. I didn't have a car, didn't drive, and it was difficult for me to visit him. It was a hard trip to make in one day, especially with a baby." Seffens was there about nine months.

As a result, Seffens knew how much affordable lodging would mean for military families in similar circumstances.

Donahoe, who served 31 years in the Air Force and another 15 years at the Department of Veterans Affairs, was moved by Jeanne's account.

"I understood what he was trying to do," Donahoe says. "And I certainly wish he were around for this. He would love this facility."

Seffens convinced other members of Post 400 that supporting a local Fisher House was something they needed to do - and significantly, not just with a small donation.

"They had enough money to do it, and he felt they needed to do it," Jeanne says.

Jim Merx, who served as Post 400's commander at the time, said the motion passed without debate. "This is something that's a must-have for the veterans and their families," he says.

Last December, Post 400 donated another $25,000 in Seffens' memory, says Doug Hawkins, post commander for 2009-2010. Like Seffens, he has a personal interest in the project.

"I had a cousin who was wounded in Vietnam," Hawkins says. "He was in a hospital in Chicago. My aunt and uncle had to sleep on floors to be with him."

Raising funds for the St. Louis Fisher House has been the job of Morris Cox, a member of Thoman-Boothe Post 338 in Overland and Missouri's District 10 commander from 2008-2009. After Post 400 made its first donation, "news got around the district pretty quick," Cox says. "I was receiving checks at district meetings from other posts, anywhere from $100 to $1,000." He collected nearly $46,000 for the St. Louis home.

Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher founded Fisher House in 1990. Currently, there are 45 houses at 18 military installations and 15 VA medical centers. They range in size from 5,000 to 16,000 square feet and have community kitchen and dining facilities, entertainment areas and spacious rooms. The houses feel exactly like that: houses, not hotels.

In 2009, more than 11,000 families stayed at Fisher Houses for an average of 15 days each, saving them more than $15 million in lodging costs. With a dedication planned around Labor Day, the St. Louis Fisher House is greatly needed.

"We get veterans from all across Missouri and southern Illinois, and if you expand it to some of the other programs, all the way from western Kansas to central Kentucky," Donahoe says. "Those families simply cannot afford commercial lodging for any length of time.

"During my time with VA, I visited almost every hospital in the system. In that time, there were major improvements in health care. But there was always the issue of what you do for the families. Until Fisher House, we didn't have an answer. This is like a prayer answered. There aren't a lot of Fisher Houses in the Midwest. Finally, we will have a place where families can stay at the bedside."

He continues, "When I took this job, they said, ‘You are a volunteer, there is no compensation.' They were wrong. I have met so many people who care for veterans so much, and I'd put The American Legion and other veterans service organizations right at the top."

When the St. Louis home is dedicated, members of Post 400 will be there. Jeanne, who remains active in the post's Auxiliary unit, says she's proud her husband spearheaded the effort to get this particular Fisher House built.

"I know he would be there to see the opening," she says. "I think he will be there."

Steve B. Brooks is multimedia editor for The American Legion.