'A domino effect'
American Legion Past National Commander Ronald F. Conley holds the ribbon as VAPHS Director/CEO Terry Gerigk Wolf and Fisher House Foundation CEO Ken Fisher cut it for the dedication of the new Pittsburgh Fisher House. (Photo by Scott Goldsmith)
On Dec. 4, during a ribbon cutting ceremony, the Fisher House Foundation dedicated its 58th home to the Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare System (VAPHS). And a few veterans’ families are already enjoying the comfort of the new home.
"It’s just so beautiful; I feel like a princess in a castle," said Rhonda Jarrells of Jerusalem, Ohio, whose husband is in the intensive care unit. "I am so very thankful to be here, and my husband can concentrate on getting better since I am safe and being taken care of."
Construction of the 9,500 square foot Pittsburgh Fisher House was supported by many organizations, but the largest contributor was The American Legion Department of Pennsylvania with a $225,000 donation.
"The house wouldn’t have been possible without the support of The American Legion," said Ken Fisher, Fisher House Foundation chairman and CEO. "For The American Legion to play such a big role for this house was really the catalyst behind the groundbreaking and completion of it."
The Department of Pennsylvania, as well as VAPHS, saw the dire need for a Fisher House as veterans from across the nation come to the hospital for its world-renowned liver and transplant program and specialty research programs. "The American Legion works really closely with the VA Pittsburgh; we have a great relationship," said Terry Gerigk Wolf, VAPHS director and CEO. "So we knew if we raised enough money for a Fisher House, that hopefully the foundation would take notice."
In 2008, the two organizations, as well as the Sons of The American Legion and the American Legion Auxiliary, began their fundraising efforts to see the first Pennsylvania Fisher House come to fruition.
"We went out and talked about it (Fisher House), preached about it and made connections with people," said Past National Commander Ronald F. Conley, currently manager of Allegheny County Veterans Affairs (ACVA). "And those people made connections with someone else. It’s a domino effect, and people want to be a part of the common good — supporting our nation’s veterans."
Between the department and ACVA, press releases were created and sent to Pittsburgh newspapers for publishing and all 800 Pennsylvania Legion posts received Fisher House flyers. Additionally, those who lost a loved one were asked in lieu of flowers to contribute to the Pittsburgh Fisher House, which raised thousands of dollars.
"There are no words that can express my gratitude for seeing a Fisher House built here," Conley said. "It gives an opportunity to families to connect with their loved ones during a critical time of their rehabilitation."
And through the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC), VAPHS employees have raised more than $325,000 for the Pittsburgh Fisher House by having deductions taken from their paychecks throughout the past four years. The CFC is the only authorized solicitor of employees in the federal workplace on behalf of charitable organizations.
"VA Pittsburgh employees are so enthused about the mission, which to me there is no greater mission than taking care of what I call America’s heroes," Wolf said. "What I love about the Fisher House and the whole concept is that it’s dependent upon the community and its volunteers. The community is what really makes a Fisher House work and be sustainable. It’s one thing to build a beautiful house; it’s another to perpetuate it."
The Pittsburgh Fisher House features 10 suites, each with a private bathroom. Common areas include a fully equipped kitchen, living, dining and family rooms, a library and a patio that overlooks the city. It also has a security system requiring a key card for access inside and into the individual suites. For a family to stay at the house free of charge, they must have a family member — veteran or active-duty servicemember — receiving inpatient care at VAPHS and reside 50 miles or more from the hospital.
"We have an obligation to our nation’s veterans to take care of them, and that’s what the Fisher House has helped us do," said Cindy Campbell, Fisher House Foundation vice president for community relations and media affairs. "I hope our partnership with The American Legion continues into other states because as a Legionnaire, we are the voice for our nation’s veterans. That’s what The American Legion does — they advocate, they tell our story, and they remind the American people that we’re here, we are veterans."
The Fisher House Foundation hosted a dinner on Dec. 3 for the completion of the Pittsburgh Fisher House, and Conley accepted an award on behalf of the Department of Pennsylvania for being the largest contributor.
"With 40-plus years of serving veterans, this is probably one of the most humbling acknowledgements that has been given to The American Legion and to myself for fundraising," he said to the dinner guests. "No greater pride do we have as an organization than to serve our veterans."
Stay tuned for the March 2013 issue of The American Legion Magazine for a more detailed story about the Pittsburgh Fisher House.