Special lodging planned for local VA campus

Fisher House will provide rooms for families of vets, service members seeking care

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

Published:

 
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A home away from home in Vancouver for families of veterans receiving medical care is closer to reality. The National Fisher House Foundation has announced that it is moving forward with a facility for the Portland Veterans Affairs Medical Center, which includes a Vancouver campus.

The local Fisher House will be on the southeast corner of the Vancouver VA campus, just across Fort Vancouver Way from Clark College.

The house could serve 16 families at a time and provide free lodging for about 500 families a year.

About 60 Fisher Houses have been built and given to the VA or the Defense Department. The Portland VA would be responsible for operating the Fisher House in Vancouver.

The foundation and the Portland VA announced their intention to collaborate on a local Fisher House in October 2012. At that point, it looked like the partners wouldn't be able to firm up a plan until 2015, at the earliest.

"Because we have the resource available, we are able to move a Fisher House in Portland-Vancouver up on our schedule," said Derek Donovan, the foundation's vice president for community relations.

Once this sort of announcement is made, it's up to the federal partner to do site preparation. Those things are out of the foundation's control, Donovan said, so the construction timetable has not been determined.

However, the Fisher House Foundation hopes to start building in the latter part of this year, Donovan said. Once ground is broken, "It takes between nine to 12 months to construct, furnish and landscape a Fisher House and turn it over to the VA," Donovan said.

The Fisher House Foundation is budgeting $6 million for this project, he said. A 16-suite residence of about 13,400 square feet is proposed.

"The occupancy rate probably will be 80 to 90 percent at any given time," Donovan said.

The Fisher Houses serve families of veterans and active service members who must often travel great distances for specialized medical care.

"We've been needing this for veterans," said Debbie Bruns, who has been part of the local fundraising effort.

Bruns said she got involved through her volunteer work with patients at the Vancouver VA site.

"We see men who are lonely, who can't afford to have their family here," said Bruns, senior vice president of the Columbia River Marine Corps League Auxiliary. "You do what you can, give them phone cards, cheer them up around the holidays.

"And we talk to families, who are wishing they had a place to stay and join their spouses or fathers," Bruns said. "The families who come are the ones who can afford it."

The program is similar to the system of Ronald McDonald Houses, which provide housing for families of hospitalized children.

The local Fisher House will be intended to serve families that live more than 50 miles from the Vancouver-Portland VA sites, said Dan Herrigstad, spokesman for the Portland VA Medical Center.

Serves N.W., beyond

The medical center draws patients from much farther than that. The Portland VA medical center serves veterans from across the Pacific Northwest and it's a national referral center for veterans who need liver and kidney transplants.

Most of the medical treatment is done on the Portland VA campus, but regularly scheduled shuttle buses transport people between the two sites.

The foundation wants its houses to be welcoming, with designs that don't resemble commercial lodging or institutional housing.

"It will look like a really nice house," Donovan said. "The 16- to 20-suite houses all are two stories, and the rooms are all handicap accessible."

The design is pretty standard. As service members move from one military medical center to another, or transition into the VA health care system, their families will find a Fisher House that looks familiar, Donovan said.

The Fisher House is the second construction proposal under discussion this month for the Vancouver VA campus, although they are unrelated.

A 69-unit project along East Fourth Plain Boulevard to serve homeless and low-income veterans has been proposed. The project, called Freedom's Path, is still in the review process.