Charity Profile: Fisher House Foundation
At first glance, the 76 Fisher Houses scattered across the United States and Europe look like welcoming hotels; their carefully kept gardens, professionally decorated rooms and thoughtful construction designed to match the regional style of the surrounding area might lead one to believe as much. However, on any given day, the more than 1,000 families staying free of charge in Fisher Houses haven’t made reservations and don’t have assigned check-out dates. That’s because, as the families of military service personnel being hospitalized away from home, these dates can be unpredictable. “Someone might come in for surgery and expect to be gone in four or five days, but there’s a complication and now they’re going to be there much longer,” says Gillian Gonzalez, who began as a volunteer with the Fisher House Foundation and now works as the organization’s director of peer to peer fundraising. “If their family is in a Fisher House, they will be there until that person is released from the hospital. That person doesn’t have to worry about where their family is going to sleep at night.”
Founded by Zachary Fisher and his wife Elizabeth Kenowsky Fisher in 1990, Fisher Houses are built adjacent to active duty and V.A. medical centers to provide long-term support and care for the family members of hospitalized service members, often putting up individuals who wouldn’t be covered by the government. “Fisher House is able to provide the person who’s going to make [the person receiving care] feel better, and that might not necessarily be who the military is going to send,” says Gonzalez.
The son of a Russian immigrant who worked as a bricklayer, Zachary Fisher learned masonry from his father before joining his two brothers in founding Fisher Brothers, where he worked as a contractor. Passionate about his work, Zachary was also fiercely committed to giving back to the U.S. military, and as Fisher Bros. grew, he used his wealth to assist military survivors and their families, even donating the funds required to open the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum before eventually cementing his philanthropic legacy with the Maryland-based Fisher House Foundation.
Last year, as an official Negroni Week charity partner, Fisher House’s mission resonated around the globe. The organization received support from many different states and countries, even in places where the organization does not have a physical presence. Gonzalez points to a New Jersey fundraiser for the foundation. “We don’t have a Fisher House in New Jersey, but you know for sure there’s a family from New Jersey staying in a Fisher House somewhere. It’s part of that community in the military where they really take care of each other, and for Negroni Week to be able to spread that message for us around the world is so impactful,” she says.
Since its founding, more than 335,000 families have benefitted from Fisher House Foundation’s services which grant them relative peace of mind. “One of the best stories I ever heard was somebody talking about being very pregnant when her husband was in the hospital. She said, ‘I could get from my room to him—being eight months pregnant and having to get dressed in the middle of the night—within six minutes,’ ” Gonzalez recalls. The foundation’s more recent initiatives, including their Hero Miles and Hotels for Heroes programs which receive donations of frequent flier miles and hotel points respectively, have helped save more than $360 million in travel costs for families to be bedside with their loved ones.
Though the organization receives some money from the government, individual donations help to keep its growing houses operational, providing families a true home away from home during challenging times. “There is a look of relief on somebody’s face when they walk into the house because it looks like a house, it doesn’t look like a hotel at all,” says Gonzalez. “When you come in, there’s this immediate sense of ‘It’s a home,’ and people take care of each other. It’s a very welcoming environment, and you see people sort of take a deep breath and know that they’re in a safe place.”
Story by Emma Mannheimer // Photo by Ashley Estill