Today is the 72nd observance of Veteran’s Day in the United States, an occasion to honor the millions of military heroes who have served our country since its founding. In many quarters, this legal holiday is celebrated with mattress sales and restaurant coupons. For Ken Fisher and his family, honoring our nation’s service members has taken on a far more meaningful, enduring form.
Fisher is a partner with Fisher Brothers, a successful New York-based family-owned real estate development company, and the CEO of the eponymous Fisher House Foundation. The foundation was created by his uncle Zachary Fisher 30 years ago to house families while their relative undergoes medical care at a nearby VA or base hospital. Think of it as the military’s version of the Ronald McDonald House network with never a charge for a stay.
Zachary Fisher was not a veteran, but felt a deep sense of gratitude to those who defended our nation. ““It’s a privilege to live in this great country of ours,” the elder Fisher, whose father was a Lithuanian immigrant, said in an interview, according to The Philanthropy Roundtable. “I owe them,” he added.
The inspiration for creating the “comfort houses,” as they were initially called, was Fisher learning about a spouse forced to sleep in his car during his veteran wife’s treatment because he couldn’t afford a hotel. “Fisher was shocked to learn that the military made no provision for the families of hospitalized veterans and service members—and he decided to do something about it,” reports TPR.
By then a successful real estate developer and builder, the philanthropist donated $20 million to create the first Fisher Houses. By the time he died in 2000, there were 26 of them.
Today, under his nephew’s leadership, there are 90 of these homes around the world serving more than 32,000 families a year. In these highly productive decades, the nonprofit has provided more than 10 million lodging days to more than 400,000 families. Each Fisher House has been built with wellness design features to shelter between 16 and 42 family members.
Fisher takes the opportunity of 2020’s Veteran’s Day observance to share his thoughts about his family foundation’s commitment to caring for America’s active duty and veteran families.
Jamie Gold: What are the most important lessons learned over three decades of building Fisher Houses about planning and building them?
Ken Fisher: In the beginning, we weren’t sure what would happen when you put a group of people together who were under stress, but starting with the first house up to today, a support system formed where families lean on each other during their stay. This makes a huge difference. So, we put our emphasis on the common areas [kitchens, dining rooms, living rooms, laundry areas]. As the houses grew in size, so did the common areas. If a family wants privacy for a time, they can go to their rooms, but more often than not, you’ll find them sitting and talking or cooking and eating together. Making the houses feel like a home was so important because a family could be living there longer than a year.
[JG: Among the long-stay families was the Carpenters, parents of Medal of Honor recipient Kyle Carpenter, who had covered a grenade with his body in Afghanistan to save the life of a fellow service member.]
Gold: Fisher Houses host families at particularly difficult times in their lives. Is there a consciousness on the part of the architectural team to include wellness design features for the benefit of guests? If so, what are they?
Fisher: Our partners at the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs have helped us find locations that allow each house to have a back patio with seating, a barbecue, and maybe even a swing set for children. Much of that is donated by the local community. Each house is landscaped to further mimic a home, but sometimes it has to be compact.
The one exception was the Fisher House to the Fallen at Dover Air Force Base; there was enough land available to build a spiritual center and meditation garden. That house is special because of who it serves: families of those who gave their lives in defense of our nation.
Gold: What are some wellness design features being considered for upcoming Houses?
Fisher: Fisher House design features focus on creating a healing, restful environment, and it is important to make these houses feel as close to home as possible. We are conscious of colors and art selection conducive to relaxation. And we receive quite a bit of feedback from families on how the Fisher House contributed to their overall well-being.
Gold: Are there any plans to upgrade Fisher Houses’ ventilation systems to incorporate antiviral filtration to address Covid-19 – or to incorporate that into future properties?
Fisher: We will be employing the same technologies in the new Fisher Houses that I am using in all our commercial buildings – a photo/hydro ionization system – UV light that also incorporates a peroxide gas that has a 99% kill rate of those microbes. We are also doing due diligence to see if we can retrofit the older houses as well.
Gold: I understand that the newest houses are 100% handicap accessible. Are the older homes being upgraded to partial or full accessibility?
Fisher: The houses have grown over 30 years – the original houses were 5,000 square feet, and today we actually have three different designs based on the size and type of patient care offered at different hospitals. The two-story design allowed us to install elevators. This was important because we are building mostly for the VA, which sees veterans of all conflicts, including World War II. The new designs allowed us to make every room wheelchair accessible. Unfortunately, we can’t go back and retrofit all the earlier houses, but they do have a limited number of accessible suites. We work closely with the hospital engineers to do what we can to make the best accommodations.