A bronze bust of Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher sits at the bottom of the staircase. In most other homes, it might look extravagant, but it actually goes pretty well with the serene, rustic charm of this one. Besides, this is no ordinary home.
The Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center’s new Fisher House may not be a “home” in a traditional sense, but it certainly feels like one. The calm, welcoming atmosphere it offers makes it a perfect environment for families of veterans receiving treatment at the Medical Center.
“We feel that a family’s love is good medicine,” says Curtiss S. Peck, executive director of Fisher House Wisconsin, the state branch of the Fisher House Foundation. “So we’re trying to create a comfort home for the families. You’ll notice that this is not like a hotel. We want people, when they come in the front door, to feel as though they’re walking into our house.”
After the April 23 ribbon cutting ceremony, the Milwaukee Fisher House will join the rest of the Fisher House Foundation in providing free lodging to families of veterans being treated in VA medical centers.
“In order to qualify to stay here,” says Peck, “people have to live more than 50 miles away, and then what they do is apply through the VA hospital, through the Social Work Department, and say that their loved one is being treated and they have need and want to be near their loved one.”
Fundraising for the house began in 2011. As with other Fisher Houses, the Foundation provided half of the necessary funds. The Milwaukee community then raised more than the other half before groundbreaking in June of 2014. The building ended up costing approximately $6.2 million.
“Milwaukee did a phenomenal job,” says Jennifer Kiefer, the Milwaukee Fisher House’s temporary lodging manager. “They were the quickest, I believe, to raise that half to build that house.”
The enthusiasm and speed with which the public helped pay for the Fisher House speaks to the need in Wisconsin. Roughly 58 percent of Wisconsin veterans live more 80 miles from Milwaukee, says Peck, and the only other Fisher Homes nearby are in Minneapolis, MN and Hines, IL.
“The need is astronomical,” says Dr. Kenneth Lee, head spinal cord injury specialist at the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center. “Just in spinal cord injury alone, we have a significant number of patients that bring family members while they’re beginning their care, and they really don’t have a place to go. And Spinal Cord Injury is a small part of the Milwaukee VA. You multiply that by maybe 400, and then you have a huge need here.”
Dr. Lee and his family have received help from the Fisher House Foundation in the past. A veteran himself, Lee earned a Purple Heart after surviving a car bombing while commanding a medical unit in Iraq in 2004.
“I spent three months in Walter Reed (National Military Medical Center) getting surgeries and rehab done,” he says, “and that’s when my family came and experienced the Fisher House.”
Fisher House Wisconsin has worked hard to create a home-like environment where families of veterans can find comfort not only in the security of staying in the house, but in bonding with other families.
“The point of the Fisher House is communal living,” says Kiefer. “I encourage them to be together whether they’re eating or cooking or just supporting each other.”
The house is meant to foster this mentality – everything from the dining room to the living room to the patio seems to have been built with it in mind. Even the laundry room is equipped with enough washers and dryers to turn the simple act of doing laundry into a group activity. Fisher House Wisconsin also hopes to someday add a children’s playground and a healing garden to the house’s already growing list of amenities.
For many veterans at the VA Medical Center, the road to recovery is long and difficult. With the new Fisher House, there is hope that loved ones will be able to join them on that road.
“We have no idea how long people are going to stay here,” Kiefer says. “There is absolutely no time limit. We might have people here one night, we might have them here a year. It just depends on the need of the veteran in the hospital.”