By Jenai Engelhard
Some of us have moved far away from family members and understand the inherent difficulties—missing birthdays and holidays, affording airfare. It’s especially hard during pivotal times such as an illness in the family. I was reminded of this as I spoke to Dave Coker, President of the Fisher House, an organization that provides “comfort homes” for military family members to be near loved ones during hospitalizations for illness, disease or injury.
Dave explains the origins of the Fisher House. “Zach Fisher was made aware of an unmet need within the military,” he says. Because members of the military and their families are stationed worldwide, they often must travel long distances for specialized medical care. “The families had nowhere to stay while their loved one recovered.
“When Zach was told there was a need for these homes, he said, ‘I am a builder; I can help fix that.’ He started out by offering up two houses, one for the Army at Walter Reed and one for the Navy at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.” Eventually, Zach said that although he had accomplished something for the Army and the Navy, he asked, What about the Air Force? He found an ideal location: San Antonio, Texas. “The concept proved to be invaluable,” says Dave. Zach personally financed the first 20 of the Fisher Houses.
The Fisher House has at least one house at every major military medical center, and some places have more than one. “With our knowledge of the military heath care system and consultation with the Surgeon General, we are able to identify the right communities to invest in,” says Dave.
The Fisher House just opened up their 58th house in Pittsburg earlier this month with a special ceremony (shown here). “When we thought about dedicating a house in Pittsburg in December, we were wondering how much snow there would be,” says Dave. “But it was a gorgeous day: 60 degrees and sunny. Once the ceremony was finished, the clouds rolled in.”
Dave tells me about a couple of the former guests of the Fisher House, one who was recently elected to congress. Tammy Duckworth was a helicopter pilot, and her helicopter was hit by an RPG. Duckworth lost both legs and partial use of one of her arms, and while she recovered, her husband lived at the Fisher House at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Once Duckworth was released from the hospital, they lived together at the Fisher House for nine months.
“One of the things that she remembers as a pivotal point in her recovery was when she could make dinner for her husband again,” says Dave. “Now granted, it was a peanut butter sandwich, but it was gaining independence and the ability to take care of herself.”
Dave tells me another story of a family with a two-year-old girl. When her father was discharged from the hospital, the family moved to Georgetown for him to pursue higher education. “They took their daughter through and showed them their new house. The little girl went around and checked everything, and she said: ‘But where are the other families?’ Fisher House had become home to her. It just doesn’t get better than that.”
Dave says that his favorite part of being president of the Fisher House is meeting the families. “We got to help over 18,000 families this year. But as for the support you provide, you do it one family at a time and you meet their needs where they are,” he says. “You can get lost in the numbers but every family has such a remarkable story.” Dave says that he gets to be a part of these families’ lives at a critical time, which is a tremendous privilege.
“One of the neat things that I have found is that the American public is only too willing to support the military and the families that have stood by their side,” says Dave. “They have always been extremely generous with us, whether it is helping at a Fisher House or meeting needs through airfare or alternative lodging, and that is a tangible symbol of America’s support. We have to thank those people who are generous with their resources to let us do what we do.”
How to Help Military Families and the Fisher House
Does this sound like an organization you’d like to support? I asked Dave how to get involved. He said that although each house is built using the same design, they operate based on the unique needs of each community. Dave says that if someone wants to get involved in a particular house, the manager is the right person to contact. “The best thing to do is go to the website, contact the manager, and ask what their needs are and what opportunities they may have.”
For those who do not live near one of the 58 Fisher Houses, the Hero Miles program is an excellent way to give. For those who travel often, it can be easy to share a few points.
“Hero Miles has allowed us to provide over 32,000 airline tickets to reunite families,” says Dave. “32,000 equates to $50 million.” Dave says that the military does a great job of everything they are authorized to do, yet what they are authorized to do and what a family’s needs are can be two different things. For example, the military may be authorized to purchase three plane tickets for each family, but if you have a family of six, that is only getting you halfway. “Through Hero Miles, we can fly the entire family.”
You can also give hotel points, which can go a long way in housing the family members near hospitals or medical centers where there are no Fisher Houses. For example, someone may need specialized care in a university medical center or children’s hospital, locations not on a military, naval, or air force base.
Dave says that there are some people who face a year’s treatment and recovery, which is a long time to be away from family members. “We can issue an airline ticket or a nice lodging for people in need."
Dave says that ultimately, when families walk through the door of a Fisher House, they know that there are people who care about them. Visit the Fisher House website to learn more and to donate.
"Holidays, birthdays & anniversaries have been celebrated with tears and smiles with people who truly understand what the other person is experiencing."
- Kamryn Jaroszewski