Groundbreaking caps seven years of work to build Fisher Houses here for families of ailing veterans

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Groundbreaking caps seven years of work to build Fisher Houses here for families of ailing veterans

March 23, 2018 [Brian Albrecht, The Plain Dealer]

CLEVELAND, Ohio – After nearly seven years of grassroots fundraising, the first shovels of dirt were turned Friday for construction of two Greater Cleveland Fisher Houses. The $12 million project is being constructed on a site on East 105th Street, two blocks north of the Louis Stokes Cleveland Veterans Affairs Medical Center. It will provide 32 suites for out-of-town families to stay here at no cost while a veteran/family member is being treated by the VA. About 30-40 such families are currently staying in local hotels each week, supporting an estimated 500 veterans referred here each year from outside the area for treatment in open heart surgery, spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injury and long-term care. Officials of the campaign to get a Fisher House here said it has been a long, but rewarding effort, and one that tapped the resources of everything from local corporations and foundations, to veterans’ posts and schoolchildren. That community support was repeatedly praised by city and federal officials, and veterans among the nearly 100 people who attended the groundbreaking. Tom Sweeney, president of Greater Cleveland Fisher House, said the $3.4 million raised for the local contribution to the project “came from every corner, every facet of life in our community. 

“It is you, each and every one of you, and for that reason we succeeded,” he added. “This event today honors you.” 

Ralph Bittler, 85, of Canton, a Korean War Army vet, said Fisher House is “a very good idea. I use the VA frequently so I understand how being with your family can help.” Murray Altose, chief of staff at the Cleveland VA Medical Center, also commended the Fisher House concept. “It’s fantastic,” he said. “Part of what we view as the mission of the VA is to care for and accommodate not just patients but also their families. This will do it.” Thomas Bowman, VA Deputy Secretary, echoed those sentiments when he said a Fisher House is “part of the DNA of VA health care.” The Greater Cleveland Fisher Houses, which could open early next year, are part of a 78-facility national network created by the nonprofit Fisher House Foundation, of Rockville, Maryland. In Ohio, there is a Fisher House in Cincinnati, and two in Dayton (where a third is also being built). The foundation responds to requests submitted by the Department of Veterans Affairs medical facilities, and the Department of Defense, according to Kerri Childress, vice president of communications. 

“We get a list of hospitals that have a need for a Fisher House, that have a lot veterans coming in long distances [50 miles or more] for treatment,” she said. 

Childress said local community groups are involved in about 75 percent of their projects, and play a vital role in raising funds and awareness for the Fisher House mission. Originally, Cleveland was slated to get one facility, and a Greater Cleveland Fisher House group was formed in 2011 to raise half of the $6 million cost from local contributors. Last year the national group announced it would build a second Fisher House here, with no additional local contribution required. Rick DeChant, executive director of veterans services and programs at Cuyahoga Community College, remembered how the local campaign began when Susan Fuehrer, director of the Cleveland VA Medical Center, called together a group of people in the veterans community. DeChant recalled, “She said we have a wonderful mosaic of veterans care in Northeast Ohio, including partnerships with private hospitals, but we’re missing one tile in that mosaic. We are the largest VA medical center in the nation that does not have a Fisher House, and we need your help.” A fundraising campaign that eventually involved the efforts of several dozen volunteers was launched, with sometime surprising results, according to DeChant, who became secretary/treasurer of Greater Cleveland Fisher House. 

“It’s been a long journey, but the exciting part of it has been who stepped up — who you never suspected would step up — and did it,” he said. 

Although the list of donors reads like a who’s who of notable local corporations and foundations, DeChant said a third of the more than $3 million that the campaign raised came from small, grassroots donors. These include: 

* A couple in Amherst who staged a country music concert and raised $25,000. 

* Woody Calleri, of Burning River Lacrosse, who organized lacrosse tournaments of high school teams, and in six years brought in $350,000 for the Fisher House project. 

* Students of Dentzler Elementary School in Parma, who have held bake sales and neighborhood walks, raising more than $10,000 in the past five years. 

* Members of the Riders Group of 

AMVETS Post 176, of Richfield, who contributed $20,000 to the campaign in the past two years through the Gunnery Sgt. Robert Gilbert Memorial Poker Run. DeChant said the campaign largely relied on public talks by campaign members and word of mouth to get the Fisher House message out. 

“We did not do big TV advertising or radio campaigns. We made a commitment to make sure that as much as possible of every dollar went to the capital campaign,” he said. “An average of 87-89 cents of every dollar [donated] has gone directly to that fund.” 

There were civic contributions as well. 

The site of the two Greater Cleveland Fisher Houses was assembled from eight parcels owned owned by the city of Cleveland, the Cuyahoga County Land Bank, and the Famicos Foundation (a nonprofit community development corporation). The land was transferred last year to the VA, which will operate and maintain the Fisher Houses after they are built. At the groundbreaking, Mayor Frank Jackson said, “Everything we do in Cleveland and were successful at, we do it as a community. 

“And this was one thing I don’t think anybody said no to. It was just a matter of what do I do? Or, how do I participate?” he added. “And that was because people wanted to honor those who have served, and thank them for their service. And this is how we do it.” 

Childress said a Fisher House not only aids veterans who might otherwise have not sought medical treatment without family support nearby, but also helps their families. 

“This is not just a free place to stay. It’s also a place where families heal as well,” she said. “When a veteran is injured or ill, the whole family suffers, the whole family needs to heal together and be there together. 

“That’s what Fisher House offers. They can meet another family and give advice and encouragement,” she added. 

Brian Gawne, Fisher House Foundation vice president of community relations, noted at the groundbreaking that these facilities represent love, “a family’s love. And as our motto goes, a family’s love is the best medicine.” DeChant said Greater Cleveland Fisher House will be transitioning from fundraising for construction to program support. Donations will continue to be accepted to purchase discount airline tickets for Fisher House families, and also provide passes for them to enjoy local entertainment and attractions during their stay here. 

“For any one of us who has been involved [in the campaign], especially those who are veterans, we know our families have served as much and sacrificed as much if not more than we have,” he said. 

“To put that final tile in mosaic of military family care is a great punctuation mark,” he added. “Now we have a legacy project here that military families can come touch, feel and experience for years to come. We have completed that circle of care.”