Veterans who need medical attention need more than just good doctors. They need the peace of mind to know their families are well cared for, and that's what the Milwaukee VA Fisher House provides.
Military medical centers and VA hospitals started building Fisher Houses in 1991, which are "homes away from home" for veterans' families when they are being treated at the medical facilities. The houses are built and maintained by funds raised from the community by the nonprofit Fisher House Foundation.
The Milwaukee Fisher House, at the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center, broke ground in June 2014 and officially opened earlier this year. The community has come out in force to support the endeavor, as Milwaukee's Fisher House has the distinction of being the only one in the nation that was able to raise all the required funds before groundbreaking.
When people think of the sacrifices service men and women make for their country, children may not be the first thing that comes to mind. But kids are deeply affected by their parents' deployments and injuries, something that veterans are well aware of. That's why Fisher House's focus on families is so important. "Fisher House is actually for families, and we welcome kids of all ages," says Milwaukee Fisher House manager Jennifer Kiefer.
Families whose veteran is being treated at the VA are able to stay free of charge in one of the house's 16 bedroom suites for as long as the treatment takes, and staff and volunteers at the Fisher House are happy to see the families make themselves at home in the 13,000-square-foot house's kitchens, living rooms and play areas.
Kiefer says the house has some younger families with kids, and that even though the majority of the house's inhabitants are older, there's no shortage of children. "Especially in the summer, the older people are bringing their grandkids. They're spending time with grandma in the house and visiting their grandpa. There's a lot of interacting between the kids who don't know each other. It's great to have the presence of kids in the house."
Although the medical needs of the veterans prevents them from being able to spend nights in the house, many of them take advantage of day passes to come visit with their families in a more relaxed, less sterile environment than a hospital.
"The veterans are able to enjoy the homey atmosphere, they go on the beautiful patio outside of the house, they play games with their families," says Kiefer. "It's good for the veterans to come over here with their family members to see how they will have to navigate life when they go home, how they can do dishes, fix things at home, everyday-living types of things."
Because families don't always realize ahead of time that their loved one will need to stay in the hospital overnight or longer, Fisher House staff work to make sure the home is outfitted with every possible necessity. "There's a huge portion of people who come and didn't anticipate having to stay here," says Kiefer. So their spouse may not have anything with them. So we're able to say things like, 'Here's a bathrobe.' It's very much like you can walk into a house and have everything you need."
Back when the house was first built, the staff was overwhelmed with gifts. The "housewarming" registries they had set up at Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, and The Container Store were sold out. But there are always things that are needed, including fun stuff for kids to do. Kiefer says the house has an Xbox, so video games as well as board games are always appreciated. And toys, books and outside activities are needed to keep the kids busy and happy.
For a lot of area families, this may be where their own kids come in. Knowing that other kids are affected by their loved ones' need for medical care can go a long way toward helping them understand the sacrifices that members of the military and their families make. And that empathy will likely cause many children to want to help those kids in some way.
Here are some ways for kids and parents to work together to help Fisher House fulfill its "home away from home" mission for military and veteran families.
1. Help to make Fisher House a home. Have your kids think about what they would want in a home away from home, and what kinds of things would make them feel comfortable in a strange environment. Then, log onto Fisher House's Amazon wish list at http://smile.amazon.com to pick out some things to donate.
2. Remember those who have sacrificed. Talk to your kids about veterans who have died in your own circle of family and friends, and discuss the sacrifices they made and ways to honor their memory. Then log onto Fisher House's memorial page, and make a donation in their name.
3. Warm the families' hearts ... through their stomachs. Talk to your kids about comfort food, about the tastes and smells that make them feel like they're at home, and how a home-cooked meal can make people feel better. Visit the Cream City Casseroles website to donate a home-cooked meal to Fisher House.
4. Have fun while raising funds. Have a discussion with your kids about philanthropy and what makes a good corporate citizen. Talk about how businesses and organizations often choose a worthwhile cause to donate some of their profits to. Check out the many fundraisers being given by different area businesses for Fisher House, and choose the one that looks the most fun for your family to attend.
Fisher House has additional opportunities for people who want to donate, including volunteer programs and the chance to work through partner airlines for veterans and their families who need to travel for medical treatment.
For more ideas of how to help, visit www.fisherhousewi.org.