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Fisher House near completion; will offer comfort to families of veterans being treated at VA centers

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 11, 2010 - Sometime this summer the Fisher House being built on the bluffs high above the Mississippi River at Jefferson Barracks will welcome its first guests: the visiting family members of veterans undergoing treatment at St. Louis VA medical facilities.

But even now, as construction workers put the finishing touches on the spacious and comfortable house that can accommodate up to 40 guests, veterans, social and community groups are still holding fish fries and motorcycle rides, bingo games and chicken dinners to pay for it.

So far, hundreds of organizations from throughout the region have worked to meet the $2.5 million challenge from the Fisher House Foundation to fund half of the $5 million in construction costs, and they're determined to raise the remaining $300,000, said Jim Donahoe, who has spearheaded the drive.

Since 1990, the Fisher House Foundation has built 45 such facilities in the United States and in Europe. The homes -- think of them as Ronald McDonald Houses for the military -- provide free short-term lodging for families of veterans undergoing treatment. The houses are built with foundation funds on government property at military or VA hospital sites and then donated to the Departments of the Army, Navy, Air Force or VA, which then assume responsibility for maintaining them.

"The wonderful thing about the Fisher House Foundation is they do not hold us hostage to that number so if we fail to raise it, they'll make up the difference," said Donahoe. "But there's no free lunch. They're building five Fisher Houses this year, and next year they'll be building five more. So if we're really short, that means one of those houses will be delayed until they can come up with the money."

The home will have 20 bedroom suites, plus kitchen and laundry facilities, to serve families who live at least 50 miles from St. Louis. Veterans admitted to St. Louis VA facilities come from throughout Missouri, southern Illinois, Kansas and Indiana.

Donahoe, a retired Air Force colonel who worked for the Veterans Administration for 15 years, said he used to visit 10 VA medical centers a month and saw the financial and emotional pressures on visiting families who couldn't afford hotel lodging.

"We have really made major improvements in the level of health care for veterans, but there was always that issue of what do you do with the families. We didn't have an answer," he said. "You see so many of these veterans going through really tough times, and they're doing it alone without family."

A room with a view

With the exterior of the house nearly complete, workers are landscaping the grounds and finishing a large, private patio that offers a splendid panorama of the river and Illinois countryside. The spacious well-equipped kitchen offers two of everything -- stoves, sinks, dishwashers -- so families can prepare their own meals and avoid the cost of dining out. A large laundry room has two sets of washers and dryers.

Bedrooms suites feature large windows and ceiling fans, plus private, handicapped-accessible bathrooms. Hardwood floors are ready to be installed, and furniture will be delivered later this month, Donahoe said.

Construction is ahead of schedule, and some time this summer the first families will be welcomed in a "soft opening." A grand opening celebration in late August or September will be open to the public.

The staff is already putting together plans for volunteers who want to help once the home opens. At other Fisher Houses, volunteer groups provide services for families, including cooking meals or donating food and toiletries.

Even after the home opens, Donohoe estimates that $50,000 to $100,000 a year will need to be raised to buy items that the VA can't provide, such as food, clothing or gift cards for emergency purchases.

"People will show up with nothing. They may be coming from Evansville, Ind., thinking it's for an outpatient visit and then the doctor finds out there's something more severe and the veteran winds up staying in the hospital and the family may be here without a toothbrush," Donahoe said. "If they stay in the Fisher House, we want to do everything we can to take care of them."

A grass-roots effort

Zachary Fisher, a New York real estate developer and philanthropist, started the Fisher House program in 1990 to provide comfortable lodging for families of hospitalized military personnel. The foundation provides half of the construction costs of the houses, with the other half met by local contributions. In March, President Barack Obama donated $250,000 of his Nobel Peace Prize award to the foundation.

Donahoe is quick to tell the stories of people who have joined in the St. Louis effort -- from military service groups in Farmington, Mo., who have raised thousands of dollars to a retired nun from the Sisters of Mercy who sent a $5 check and a prayer card.

"I really appreciate those who have the least to give who still try to help," Donahoe said.

He also notes that the project would never have come this far so fast without a $400,000 contribution from Dennis and Judith Jones whose charitable foundation provided the "kick-start that got us going."

Donahoe, who has traveled the region to accept checks from organizations, chokes up when he tells the story of the Habsieger family of Festus who have raised more than $20,000 in honor of their son Andy who was killed in Iraq. Or an American Legion member in Fenton named Jerry Steffens who convinced his post to back the effort. Donahoe met Steffens, who had terminal cancer, when he accepted a $25,000 check for the Fisher House.

"He told, me, 'Well, I probably won't be around to see it open,' " Donahoe said.

After Steffens died, his post members kept working for the cause.

Donahoe said Steffens' wife explained that after they were first married, her husband had been injured in an accident and spent three months in Walter Reed Hospital in Washington. Because they lived so far away, it was difficult for her to visit him in the hospital.

"And he never wanted another veteran or military member go through that," Donahoe said.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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