Since it opened its doors in April, Ft. Bragg’s newest house has welcomed more than 67 families. It’s a special residence, part of the Fisher House Foundation’s program, and the second such residence the Fayetteville Army base has hosted in 23 years. It’s one of two program homes in North Carolina – the other is aboard Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville. Chris Thomas has this.
How do you deal with a life permanently altered – by a disease, a traumatic injury, or the sudden, premature, and violent death of a loved one?
Often, it’s going about your daily routine.
“My mom had, you know, her own little space…so she could get up in the morning and get her own little cup of coffee and sit outside and do her devotional and all that.”
Lori Sutherland of Fayetteville, mother of Michael Rodriguez – killed in action in 2007. Ms. Sutherland said he’d long dreamt of a soldier’s life. When it came to an end over the battlefields in Iraq, her family – primarily from Galveston, TX – was referred to the Fisher House at Ft. Bragg.
Nearly a decade later, Ms. Sutherland is now manager of the base’s new Fisher House, the latest of 70. The former house – the house where her family stayed in the days following Specialist Rodriguez’s death – is set to be demolished.
“When they come to tear the house down, I’m (going to) get a window to keep – just a little piece of the house. I’m (going to) have the guys that are tearing down the house to save me a window.”
The Fisher House Foundation is a philanthropic organization started in 1990 by a Brooklyn born builder Zachary Fisher.
Fisher Houses are residences built on military installations – usually near a hospital – and donated to the U.S. Government. They are temporary living spaces for visiting families of service people wounded, sick, or killed in action.
Its founding, according to Josie Callahan of the Camp Lejeune Fisher House, can be traced back to a conversation he had with Pauline Trost, wife of, then, Chief of Naval Operations: Admiral Carlisle Trost.
“During the course of that friendship, Mrs. Trost brought to Zach’s attention that there were these family members who were coming for their service member who was receiving treatment at the hospital and had no place to stay. They were staying their cars. And he very simply said that he could build something for them because that was his line of work and that’s what he could do.
Ms. Callahan has been manager of the Camp Lejeune Fisher House since it opened in 2010. She says she still remembers the first family that stayed there – a Marine Corps Master Sergeant, his wife, and their two children.
“And it was so neat to see – and really, to be honest, it’s so neat today to see – the families come in and, you know, and their face lights up, they’re looking around, they can’t believe that this gorgeous home is going to be their coming to stay.”
Since its founding 6 years ago, the Camp Lejeune Fisher House has hosted 1,800 individuals for 5,600 nights. The house has 11 suites.
“We have a family room, a dining room, kitchen, laundry room, business center, quiet room, and unisex bathroom that our families share together – those are our common spaces. And then each family is given their own room and their own bathroom.
Among the family members welcomed by the new house in Fayetteville Trica Leake, mother of Spc. Drew Ruiz, who was diagnosed with cancer this past winter.
“When we first got there, it was like coming home. I’d never felt so welcome in any place in my entire life. You’re immediately brought in, treated like family.”
She stayed from January to June and made the transition from the old house to the new. The old house, according to Ms. Sutherland, was roughly half the size of the current one.
“There was a couple of times I had to get help as far as being able to provide food for myself and that was immediately provided because there’s so many volunteers that would come through there and donations of food and pretty much everything that you would need to run a home.”
Along with helping out around the house, Ms. Leake said she spent her free time exploring Fayetteville and contributing to the local economy.
That’s an under-examined aspect of a Fisher House’s presence in a community, Ms. Callahan said.
“So they’re really no different than the folks that stay in a hotels, except they’re not paying the occupancy tax affiliated with the hotels. But, they’re still needing to grocery shop, purchase clothing.”
Though families usually arrive at the Fisher House under unpleasant circumstances, Ms. Callahan says some families will turn up while on vacation for a friendly visit.
“One of our families had come – the last time they’d come to us, their son had been hurt in Afghanistan – and so, fast forward 2-and-a-half years later, they were sitting the rocking chair on the porch when I came into work one morning and…I said ‘hey guys, what are you doing here?’ and they said ‘he deployed today. He went back over and we just wanted to see our friends that helped make that happen.”
Some have been hesitant to donate to veteran-focused charities after multiple, high profile cases of alleged fraud were uncovered this year.
But the Fisher House Foundation’s record is, more or less, squeaky clean. They received the highest marks available from two, major, charity watch dogs – Charity Navigator and the American Institute of Philanthropy’s “Charity Watch” database.
“You know, we can’t speak for any other organization, we don’t work for them, so they’re responsible to their donors, to their boards, to their folks for what they do and we’re responsible to ours, but we’ve kept that transparency so when people say to us ‘what about these other things happening?’ we can’t speak to that, but let us show you what we’ve done, what we’ve raised, what we’ve done with it, how we’re doing it and what our future plans our and let you make that decision, and by having all of that information available, and by time and time again doing exactly what we said we were going to do, we’ve been able to keep that public trust which is so important to us.”
Like most charities, Fisher House Foundation takes donations – including hotel points, frequent flyer miles, and unwanted vehicles. But Lori Sutherland said the things individual houses need most aren’t that different from what you may get at the store.
“We need things like cleaning products. We need food, you know, groceries. Gift cards are always welcomed. That way we can run to the story and get what we need.”
Items like new toys for the houses’ younger visitors are also welcomed.
For more information, go to publicradioeast.org.
I’m Chris Thomas.