Fisher House Michigan plans to build temporary stay houses in Ann Arbor and Detroit for families of military members receiving medical treatment.
By Allison Jacobs
For military families traveling long distances to support a soldier or veteran seeking medical attention, securing affordable lodging can be a challenge.
In the early 1990s, Brooklyn native Zachary Fisher, philanthropist and advocate for the U.S. armed forces, noticed the scarcity of temporary housing options for relatives and friends of military patients. In 1990, he and his wife, Elizabeth, dedicated the remainder of their lives to building what they call Fisher Houses.
As a result of the Fisher family’s passion, there are over 70 Fisher Houses throughout the U.S. and Europe, conveniently located on military installations and VA medical centers. All Fisher Houses are state-of-the-art facilities that provide free lodging for roughly 8 million families to date.
Generally, families must reside at least 50 miles away from a Fisher House to qualify. Each house has an on-site VA house manager who accepts residents on a case-by-case basis.
Sharon Lewinski of Southgate became familiar with Fisher Houses unexpectedly in 1996. Her son, Michael, was diagnosed with cancer while aboard the USS Tarawa in the Persian Gulf region and had to be transported immediately to the naval hospital in Bethesda, Maryland.
“Fisher House gave us a place to call home, with all the support any family would need,” Lewinski says.
In Southeast Michigan, the VA medical centers receive over 500 requests for lodging each month.
In 2016, an Ann Arbor-based rotary group, Build It For the Brave, began lobbying for a Fisher House. As they gained momentum through fundraising efforts, they sent a request to the Fisher House Foundation. In November 2016, an Ann Arbor Fisher House was approved.
Soon after, Build It For the Brave shifted its title to Fisher House Michigan and became an official nonprofit.
With 39-year-old U.S. Army veteran Kate Melcher of Saline taking on the role of executive director of Fisher House Michigan in 2017, she and her team pushed for a second location near the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center in Detroit. In March 2018, their wish was granted.
“A Fisher House is meant to create a family support network,” Melcher says. “Just like vets, families have the same language, they have the same challenges — they ‘get’ each other’s experience.”
The Ann Arbor site will be located on Fuller Court on the VA campus; the building process can take 18 to 24 months. For Detroit, the search for a location is underway.
Both the Ann Arbor and Detroit locations will be 13,000 to 14,000 square feet, with 16 private family suites and shared common spaces.
“Fisher House Foundation found that 16 is that perfect sweet spot, because it addresses enough of the need, but it’s not so big that the families don’t know each other,” Melcher says.
Fisher House Foundation typically raises $7 million to build a Fisher House. While Fisher House Michigan appreciates the financial support, it has chosen to fundraise on its own, allowing Fisher House Foundation to create houses in other locales.
“We have a passionate and active board, and we want to be the only ones who pay for these houses,” Melcher says. “We want to do it because not only is it good for Ann Arbor and Detroit, but it’s good for veterans all over the country.”
With a fundraising goal of $20 million, Fisher House Michigan is allocating $7 million to each house, and $6 million for VA house managers to cater to guests’ needs.
Fisher House Michigan hosts charitable golf outings and outreach events, but the major annual fundraiser is Stories of Service, an evening when veterans share their story at Hill Auditorium. This year’s event will be held Nov. 5.
To spread the word about Fisher House Michigan, staff travel far to share their story. Leslie resident Daniel Patrick, director of outreach and communications, educates local government agencies, VFW members and American Legions.
“I’m getting to build the community around what we are doing,” says Patrick, who served as an Infantry Marine in 2006. His military career was cut short after he was injured in Fallujah, Iraq, but he continues to support his military brothers and sisters through his work at Fisher House Michigan.
Patrick and his family have stayed in Fisher Houses on numerous occasions — yet, a favorite moment was cooking and sharing a meal with a family while visiting a Florida Fisher House. “When a family is in that situation, to them, it means everything in the moment,” Patrick says. “It just changes your whole perspective on what’s important.”
Stories of Service
Monday, Nov. 5
825 N. University Ave., Ann Arbor