By Theresa Agovino
There were some touch-and-go moments for Matthew Zajac as he lay in a hospital bed, his back badly burned, one arm mangled and both legs shattered by a bomb that tore through the Humvee he was driving in Iraq in 2007.
“I promised him I'd stay with him until he got better,” said his father, Mike Zajac, who conceded he had no idea how he'd actually fulfill that pledge, since he lived an 11-hour drive from his son's San Antonio hospital and had no money for a hotel. “I figured I'd pitch a tent in front of the hospital if I had to,” he said.
That wasn't necessary. He ended up spending 14 months in a home built to offer free lodging to loved ones visiting hospitalized retired and active military personnel. That home in Texas is one of 56 around the country built by the Fisher House Foundation, a nonprofit founded by a member of one of New York's most influential real estate families. Their company, Fisher Brothers, owns 6 million square feet of Manhattan office space, including the 50-story Alliance Capital tower on Sixth Avenue and a big construction firm.
Since 1980, the family has put its for-profit skills honed over 97 years in real estate to great effect building homes near veterans' and military hospitals that are then given for free to the government to run. Along the way, the Fisher House Foundation has achieved an outstanding level of efficiency, devoting 95 cents out of every dollar raised to fulfilling its mission of building housing. In recognition, Charity Navigator, which monitors nonprofits' performance, recently ranked the foundation as the country's “best social-service agency.”
The family's dedication to the military stems from the late Zachary Fisher, one of the three brothers who founded the family firm. He led the charge in the 1970s to save the U.S.S. Intrepid aircraft carrier and turn it into a museum. A decade later, he started Fisher House with a $20 million donation, after hearing about relatives forced to sleep in their cars when visiting their loved ones in military hospitals.
Today, his nephew Ken Fisher chairs an organization that has a $7 million budget, a staff of 16 and a growing war-fed demand for what it does. Last year, it built a record 12 houses as the number of its guests soared 44%, to 17,000.
“It is a family legacy that has become my passion,” said Ken Fisher, who is a partner at Fisher Brothers.
The foundation receives some funds from the government, but most donations come via its website. To build the homes, which cost between $4.5 million and $6 million, the foundation asks that the surrounding community raise half that amount. If it falls short, the foundation will make up the difference.
To keep costs down, the foundation bases its homes, which range from 12 to 20 bedrooms, on a common, scalable blueprint.
“We have a developer's skill of getting the best material for the best price, and we know how to eliminate waste,” Mr. Fisher said.
Decisions regarding where and when to build new homes are reached in close consultation with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Defense Department.
“The Fishers are one of the most generous families I've ever seen toward the veterans,” said Dr. Robert Petzel, the VA's undersecretary for health.
One of the newest Fisher houses opened in September at the Washington, D.C., VA Medical Center. The two-story property looks like a model home in an upscale development, except this one has 20 bedrooms. Families get their own bedroom with bath and share a living room, a dining room, a big airy kitchen and a comfy family room.
Sipping coffee in the den there late last month, Alberta Brown described her free monthlong stay—while she visited her veteran husband, William, next door at the hospital—as a huge help. She noted it not only gave her a place to relax, but also provided a haven where “you can sit with the other families and they understand what you are going through.”
The biggest beneficiaries, though, are undoubtedly the patients, like wounded Iraq vet Matthew Zajac, who now walks with prosthetics and is studying engineering.
“I know I would have been in the hospital so much longer if it wasn't for my dad,” he said.
"Holidays, birthdays & anniversaries have been celebrated with tears and smiles with people who truly understand what the other person is experiencing."
- Kamryn Jaroszewski