By Jean Lotus
Tucked away on the campus of the Hines VA Hospital in Maywood is Fisher House, a "home away from home" for family members of veterans being treated at the hospital.
"It's like a Ronald McDonald House for veterans' families," said house manager Holly Wright, who worked as a social worker at Hines for 14 years before helping to open Fisher House in 2010.
"We have 20 bedroom suites with bathrooms, but then there are common areas: a kitchen, family room dining room, a laundry room," Wright said. "It gives veterans' families a place to stay nearby during treatment, so they don't have to rent a hotel room."
Although Wright occasionally sees families of some younger veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, most Fisher House guests are family members of veterans of the Vietnam War era, who are starting to develop health problems as they age.
Wright said she's had guests from 30 states, as well as Canada, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, most visiting veterans who reside in the Midwest. However, sometimes patients come from elsewhere to be treated at the Hines Spinal Cord Injury and Blind Veteran Rehabilitation programs.
Families can also stay here when a family member is in hospice.
"We get vets who are in the ICU sometimes where it's touch-and-go," said Wright. "If they get that phone call in the middle of the night to come to the hospital, all they have to do is walk across the street and they're there in five minutes.
"It's peace of mind," Wright added, "for the vets, too, to know their loved ones are right there, knowing they can get to them." Guests stay for anywhere from a few days to months.
The Fisher Foundation, created by New York contractors and developers Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher, started by building family residences at Walter Reed and Bethesda VA hospitals, Wright said. Since then, they've constructed 58 other facilities, "with more in the works." The foundation gives the property to the hospital or Department of Defense facilities, which are tasked with maintaining and stocking the group house.
That maintenance is done by three housekeepers plus volunteers, said Wright.
"Everything we use in the house, from toilet paper to cleaning supplies in the kitchen is 100 percent from donations," she said. The house also keeps a well-stocked refrigerator in the common kitchen with staples such as milk, frozen pizzas, bread, lunch meat.
"Families will talk to each other while they're making breakfast or lunch. They'll support one another while they're congregating in the community areas," Wright said. "They become one big family."
Wright said primary support comes from nonprofits, such as the Friends of Fisher House and Illinois Support Our Troops and local posts of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars. Chicago's Kronos Foods distributes food, she said.
Guests also get child-decorated gift bags filled with toiletries from Forest Park's Grant-White Elementary School, where students have been donating the gift bags for three years.
More than 75 families have stayed at Hines Fisher House, according to their website.
Volunteers donate gift cards for restaurants or local shops. "Sometimes families rush up here from a warmer climate to be with a vet, and they aren't prepared for a Chicago winter," said Wright. "I go over to Target with a gift card and buy them a coat. We get things they need while staying with us."
Other volunteers make home-cooked meals or bake for families.
"There's a group to host a meal or bring food in," she noted, "because people can be tired after going through everything and watching their loved one's care all day."
Although Fisher House has been active for three years, Wright said they're seeking volunteers and donations.
"We're still getting our name out there."
Wishlist items are on the Fisher House website: www.hines.va.gov/voluntary/docs/fisher_house_wll2012.pdf
The house does not accept clothing or used items. Individuals or groups can call to arrange a drop-off time for items at 708-202-7154.
Wright loves to host tours of the house, which she said features a high-end kitchen with stainless-steel appliances and granite kitchens. "It's all decorated for the holidays now."
She's happy that guests feel comfortable while they focus on the care of their family member.
"I hear guests talking and they'll say, 'When I get home…' and they're talking about Fisher House. That makes me feel good, that we've done our job.
"When we opened we were a house. We've transitioned into a home."