JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas –
For most, this time of year is filled with love, happiness and peace. But, for families facing life-changing challenges like medical emergencies or the loss of a loved one, those feelings are hard to come by.
The Department of the Air Force Fisher House Program serves as a beacon of hope and provides comforts of a home during those difficult times.
“The 14 DAF houses at eight installations offer families a place to rest their head, a place to come together or even a place to grieve,” said Mary McLean, DAF Fisher House Program manager at the Air Force Services Center at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland.
Ivana Jordovic, manager for the two Fisher Houses at Travis Air Force Base, California, recalls how right before the holiday season in 2019, the Travis Fisher Houses provided hope for a father and retired service member who stayed by his daughter’s bedside while she went through medical treatments at the base. While there, the family home was destroyed by wildfires that ravaged the state.
“They lost everything,” Jordovic said. “The Travis Fisher House meant so much to this family as they were going through all of this. It became their only home and it was our job to support them as they were not only dealing with their daughter’s treatments, but also trying to rebuild a life ravaged by wildfires.”
From the foundation’s inception in 1990 until recently, each Air Force Fisher House operated independently. In 2020, AFSVC, a primary subordinate unit of the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center, began program management and oversight responsibilities to provide consistency of care for families.
McLean, as program manager, oversees the homes to ensure they receive the resources and support they need to take care of Airmen, Guardians and their families when they need it the most.
Each Fisher House provides up to 21 suites, including private bedrooms and baths, with a shared kitchen, laundry facilities, dining room and living room common areas. Families traveling to be near loved ones receiving medical treatment or to receive their fallen loved ones during a dignified transfer at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, stay at no cost.
All Fisher Houses are furnished, operated and staffed using nonappropriated funds with the exception of Dover AFB’s Fisher House for Families of the Fallen which is staffed by military members through Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations.
From helping house managers create and execute realistic nonappropriated fund budgets and accomplish renovation projects, to developing manager guidance and compliance standards across DAF Fisher House locations, McLean sees her role as the go-to person for answers and solutions – like when Winter Storm Uri damaged the JBSA-Lackland Fisher House about two years ago.
“We had just realigned under AFSVC and were under a maintenance contract transition when the winter storm hit,” said Philip Harralson, Lackland Fisher House manager. “With leadership support, we worked with our base civil engineer to get the work completed as quickly as possible.”
“I’m an advocate for our house managers and help them find solutions to problems so they can remain focused on the families,” McLean said.
With leadership support being a critical component for success, the program manager conducts regular site visits and tours homes with installation leadership and civil engineers, sharing stories of families and the Fisher House mission along the way.
After a tour of the Lackland Fisher House campus, for example, the JBSA-Lackland leadership team pledged to do everything they could to support the mission.
“Without their support after Winter Storm Uri, we never would have been able to get our operation back up and running, as we had broken pipes and fire suppression issues in multiple houses,” McLean said. “Base leadership was amazing.”
Over the past three decades, the Fisher House Foundation has served more than 430,000 families across the Department of Defense, saving families an estimated $547 million in out-of-pocket costs for transportation and lodging.
In fiscal year 2022 alone, the DAF program assisted more than 3,800 families for a total of 22,778 bed nights. Volunteers also supported the Fisher Houses with more than 3,700 hours.
Keeping the houses up and running to Air Force standards sometimes requires additional funds and support. This is where AFSVC’s management support comes in.
As McLean builds relationships at each house, she works as the conduit for managers to request funding from the Fisher House Board, or in the case of Dover’s Fisher House for Families of the Fallen, from Headquarters Air Force.
“In the past, only medical professionals interacted with the Fisher House teams,” McLean said. “Now I meet with the wing, mission support group, civil engineering, force support squadrons and others, to stress the importance of the mission and the role of their respective agencies.”
“Going through a devastating illness or losing a loved one is traumatic and lifechanging. Mary and our Fisher House teams are dedicated to being there for our military members and their families at these most difficult times,” said Col. Carolyn Ammons, AFSVC commander.
“They make our Fisher Houses so much more than just four walls where families lay their heads,” the commander said. “They’re a ‘home away from home’ where they can breathe, relax and recharge in a comfortable, welcoming space.”
While hope and peace of mind for families dealing with crisis can be fleeting, AFSVC and Fisher House teams are doing their part to provide it where they can.