When veterans and active service members need care at a Veterans Administration hospital, their loved ones will often want to be near. But the logistics can be overwhelming and the cost prohibitive–particularly if the patient needs services beyond the scope of nearby VA hospitals. Because the Ann Arbor VA has a partnership with Michigan Medicine, it can treat those who battle unusual and complex illnesses, and it attracts vets from distant states.
Enter the new Fisher House Michigan, a home-style residence on the Ann Arbor VA grounds. Everything is free. And with necessities on hand, families don’t have to shop, park, or leave the hospital area for anything else.
The goal is to create a home away from home and an instant community. “The moment you set foot in Fisher House, you see it is not a government building. It is not a hotel. It’s the nicest home many have stayed in,” says Kate Melcher, executive director of Fisher House Michigan.
Melcher, an Army vet, discovered Fisher House when her then-husband returned from service requiring treatment at Eglin Air Force Base Hospital on Florida’s Emerald Coast. They lived too close to the base for her to be eligible for a stay at the Fisher House there, but when she knocked on the door, “a woman with a thick Southern accent hugged me and asked if I take cream or sugar.” After visiting for just an hour, Melcher says she experienced the impact of Fisher House. She subsequently moved to Michigan and became involved as plans developed for houses in Ann Arbor, then Detroit.
The first two Fisher Houses opened in 1990 in Bethesda, MD, and Washington, D.C. Today there are eighty-eight at VA medical centers throughout the United States and in Germany. They have something in common with Ronald McDonald Houses, family housing near children’s hospitals, but they are smaller. “Fisher Houses have from eight to twenty-one private family suites, with common areas so that families can get to know each other as they did in the service when they lived on bases,” says Melcher.
There are sixteen suites in the Ann Arbor facility, plus common kitchen, laundry, dining, and family rooms. In better days, guests at Fisher Houses often favored time in the family room. But Ann Arbor Fisher House opened in June 2020, in the middle of the pandemic. Instead of family style meals, guests distance in the spacious dining room and wear masks in common areas.
Melcher is quick to point out that the couple who initiated the project, Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher, were unrelated to the Detroit auto family. “Zachary Fisher built and managed millions of square feet of New York City real estate,” she says. Unable to serve in WWII because of an injury sustained in a construction accident, “he adopted the military” to make up for it. The Fishers, now both deceased, donated more than $20 million to the construction of these homes.
Formed in 2016, Fisher House Michigan has raised over $7.5 million toward its $27.5 million goal. The Ann Arbor house cost $7 million to build. Private gifts and grants are used to fund the construction of houses, which are then gifted to the VA, which promises to maintain them at the original quality. “If we have 800 thread count sheets when a house opens, we have to replace them with 800 thread count when the sheets wear out,” says Melcher. They keep administrative costs low, relying on volunteers for much of the operations, so all donations can meet the needs of families.
Donations come from large corporations and private individuals. “A donor from Clinton township sends a dollar a month every month. The Ugly Dog Distillery in Chelsea retooled to make hand sanitizer for every bedroom. Jiffy Mix from Chelsea makes sure pancakes are always available. Individuals, corporations, and veteran groups and auxiliaries provide essential financial support. Our community built this house and continues to take care of the families,” says Melcher. “It takes a village.”