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Fisher House planned for Jefferson Barracks

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The Fisher House Foundation plans to break ground in late summer or fall for a 21-bedroom facility at Jefferson Barracks that will provide free lodging for veterans who must travel great distances for medical treatment at the St. Louis VA Medical Center, said foundation spokesman Jim Weiskopf.

Fisher Houses provide comfortable short-term accommodations — private bedrooms, kitchen and laundry facilities — for families of wounded soldiers and veterans being treated at the nation's military and veterans hospitals. Since 1990, the foundation has built 38 houses in17 states — and plans to keep building, Weiskopf said.

"There is a huge need for these houses because of the growing needs of combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan,'' he said.

The homes 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 assume responsibility for maintaining them.

For the past year, the Fisher House in St. Louis campaign has been working to raise $2.5 million — a challenge from the Fisher House Foundation to meet half of the $5 million construction costs.

Jim Donahoe, a retired Air Force colonel who is spearheading local fundraising efforts, said the campaign has raised $1.25 million, mostly by determined veterans groups and service organizations from Missouri and Southern Illinois. This is fundraising at the grassroots level —golf tournaments, chicken and beer dances and motorcycle shows.

Donahoe said the response has been overwhelming because people recognize the hardships faced by military families and veterans who must often seek medical care far from home. Hotel and transportation costs can make it impossible for families to be together during crucial times.

"A slogan of the Fisher House Foundation is 'Because a family's love is good medicine,' '' Donahoe said. "People see that this is something that is really needed. They want to help.''

The group's tally sheet tells the story: $5,000 from the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association of Camdenton, Mo., $3,400 from a Welcome Wagon Club, a pledge from the VFW in Collinsville to raise $10,000, a challenge from a local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution to match a $7,500 contribution.

Donahoe said he was particularly moved by efforts in Festus that raised $10,000in memorials to Army Pfc. Andy Habsieger who was killed in Iraq on March 23. His family requested that donations be made to the St. Louis Fisher House.

Weiskopf said the response from area community organizations has been telling.

"That tells us their heart is in it – and that's more impressive than the dollars raised,'' he said.

The Fisher House Foundation has committed funding to complete the St. Louis project, whether or not the local group meets its $2.5 million challenge because of the proven need for the facility, Weiskopf said. However, if a community's fund-raising efforts fall short, funding for future Fisher Houses in other communities could be delayed.

The St. Louis medical center was selected because it is a Level 2 polytrauma center with specialized treatment facilities for spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries and mental health and rehabilitation therapy.

Olivia Stallings, assistant director of the St. Louis VA Medical Center, said a Fisher House will provide a welcome refuge for outpatients and family members of patients facing long-term care or rehabilitation. The VA estimates that 123,000 veterans could potentially benefit from the facility. The center serves eastern Missouri and southern Illinois, and spinal cord patients from an eight-state region.

Stallings said it is not uncommon for the VA to get calls from family members of patients asking for assistance because they have no place to stay. Sometimes, they sleep overnight in waiting rooms because they can't afford hotel rooms, even at discounted rates.

"A lot of our veterans are low-income – and even $50 a night is more than they can afford for a hotel room,'' Stallings said.

In March, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced its acceptance of the project, and Weiskopf said the next step will be a site visit to determine the actual size and location of the St. Louis facility. Preliminary plans call for the house to be built overlooking the Mississippi River at Jefferson Barracks. Shuttle service would be provided to the John Cochran VA hospital on North Grand.

About Fisher House Foundation

  • Zachary Fisher, a partner in a family New York construction firm, started the Fisher House program in 1990 to construct comfort homes for families of hospitalized military personnel. The nonprofit foundation is now run by his grand nephew Ken Fisher.
  • The foundation has built 38 homes, with dozens more under construction or in the planning stages.
  • Homes include private bedrooms, well-stocked community kitchens, living rooms, libraries, laundries, computers and phones.
  • The typical length of stay for combat casualties is 60 to 90 days.
  • More than 8,000 families are served every year.

For more information

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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