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After ribbon cutting, the Fisher House will still need community support

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 25, 2010 - The community can pat itself on the back for a job well done at Saturday’s ribbon cutting at the Fisher House at Jefferson Barracks, but the need for local contributions and volunteers will be ongoing, says Jim Donahoe, president of the board of Fisher House in St. Louis.

Earlier this summer the facility began welcoming its first guests -- family members of veterans undergoing treatment at St. Louis VA medical facilities -- and is now about half full, Donahoe said. While the national Fisher House Foundation has closed the books on local contributions toward building the facility, he estimates that $50,000 to $100,000 a year will be needed to assist the families who stay there.

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 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.

Hundreds of veterans and service organizations throughout the St. Louis region raised about $2.2 million to meet a community challenge to help offset construction costs, Donahoe said. The Fisher House Foundation funded the balance of the construction costs, originally estimated at about $5 million. The VA will pay for staff salaries, utilities, maintenance and housekeeping but is restricted from buying food, clothing and toiletry items often needed by the families.

Donahoe said a current resident of the house told him that she is from northern Arkansas and traveled to St. Louis with her husband for VA medical treatment. He expected a three- to four-day hospital stay and has been told that he won’t be released for at least another two weeks.

“She was just crying, and she said, ‘I don’t know what I would have done. There is no way I could have afforded to stay in a hotel that long',’’ Donohoe said. “That made it all worthwhile.’’

David Coker, president of the Fisher House Foundation, will attend the 10 a.m. ceremony Saturday, handing over the keys to the VA. The house will be open for touring, and Donahoe expects to see many members of local veterans and service organizations who held fish fries, motorcycle rides, bingo games and chicken dinners to raise funds for the house.

The colonial-style house is perched on the bluffs above the Mississippi River and offers spectacular views, along with spacious and comfortable accommodations for up to 40 guests. Though it is on the grounds of the Jefferson Barracks VA Medical Center, it will also serve families of veterans treated at the John Cochran facility.

The home has 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.

Zachary Fisher, a New York real estate developer and philanthropist, started the Fisher House program in 1990 to provide comfort homes 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.

Donahoe, who spearheaded the local fundraising effort, will stay on as president of the St. Louis Fisher House board. He is a retired Air Force colonel who worked for the Veterans Administration for 15 years and understands the need for such a facility because he saw firsthand the financial and emotional pressures felt by families of veterans who couldn’t afford hotel lodging.

“When they first offered me this position they said, ‘This is a volunteer position, and there is no compensation.’ But they were wrong,’’ Donahoe said. “The compensation was in meeting so many people who really care about veterans and wanted to help.”

For more information: www.fisherhouseinstl.org   

To volunteer or make a donation, contact Rachael Fernandez, manger of the Fisher House at 314-894-6145 or Rachael.fernandez@va.gov. 

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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