Washtenaw United: Fisher House in Ann Arbor provides care and support for veterans and their families
ABOUT KATE MELCHER:
Kate Melcher began her career in a research and speech writing position with the Supreme Court of the United States. Later, she would serve in the US Senate, as senior staff to three different US Senators.
After September 11, she left the Senate to enlist in the Army. She became an Apache Helicopter pilot, and a Legislative Liaison Officer for the US Army National Guard. Ms. Melcher is a seasoned military, non-profit, and private sector professional, with a passion for public service.
Since moving home to Michigan in 2017, she has had the privilege of serving as Executive Director for Fisher House Michigan. In this role, she and the FHM Board of Directors are responsible for raising funds and awareness to support Fisher Houses in Michigan. Additionally, she serves in leadership roles in other organizations promoting Veteran welfare, including Region 9 Veteran Community Action Team, Association of the United States Army, Women in Defense - Michigan, and Veterans Radio America.
Among her awards and accolades for her service, Governor Snyder named Kate the 2018 Michigan Veteran of the Year. In 2022, the Daughters of the American Revolution named her an Outstanding Woman in American History.
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and welcome to a Memorial Day edition of Washtenaw United. I'm David Fair, and today, we do take occasion to remember and honor the fallen men and women who have served our country in the military. As we do, we also want to remind ourselves of the many veterans and their families right here in our area who have served honorably and remain in need of help and support. When veterans require service at the Ann Arbor VA Hospital, one of the comforts can be the presence and support of family. But that can be very expensive, particularly if the stay is extended. That's where Fisher House comes in. It provides free lodging and services to family members while their veteran is in the hospital. Our guest this morning is a distinguished Army veteran, was named 2018 Michigan veteran of the year, and, in 2022, was named Outstanding Woman in American History by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Kate Melcher returned to her home state of Michigan in 2017 when she took over as executive director of Fisher House Michigan. Kate, thank you so much for making time today. I do appreciate it.
Kate Melcher: It's an absolute pleasure. Thanks for having me.
David Fair: Well, prior to your military service, you worked in research and as a speechwriter with the U.S. Supreme Court, then served as senior staff for three different U.S. senators. You had a strong career and built a foundation for future successes in the political arena. What made you decide to join the Army?
Kate Melcher: 9/11 is the short answer. I was working in the Senate at the time, and when the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq kicked off, I found that my role was more akin to drafting letters to Gold Star Mothers than actually affecting change to reduce the number of letters that we ever needed. So, I left the Senate and raised my right hand and served about 15 years, both on active duty and in the Reserves.
David Fair: While in the Army, you became an Apache helicopter pilot. How acquainted did you personally become with loss of life?
Kate Melcher: Most of my active duty time was back in Washington as a legislative liaison officer. But in that role and, you know, watching my unit go downrange and and see not everybody come back. It's part of life. It's part of service in the military. It's something that you somehow expect but are also not ready for at the same time. So, I see my role now as a way to continue my service in a different way, even though I'm not in uniform any longer.
David Fair: When we come to Memorial Day each year because of having to write letters to Gold Star Mothers, of having to experience the loss in the ways that you did throughout your service, what does Memorial Day mean to you?
Kate Melcher: It's the most difficult day of the year when you lose people that are close to you, especially those that you served with. You feel the loss daily, and it's highlighted on Memorial Day. I love that the nation takes time to pause on that day to remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. But the losses are absolutely with us every single day. I appreciate that the nation mourns with us that one day a year.
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and you are listening to Washtenaw United. While we lower our flags and reflect upon and remember the men and women who lost their lives in service to country, we're also going to discuss care and service to our surviving veterans who need our help and support. Our guest is Kate Melcher, the executive director of Fisher House in Michigan. What made Fisher House Michigan the right fit for you and your ongoing sense of service?
Kate Melcher: You know, I actually came back to Michigan because I had family members who needed medical attention and who needed an advocate to be with them. And I couldn't imagine being any other place on the planet. And so, Fisher House was just a natural role. It allows me to create that space for others to be with their hospitalized loved one.
David Fair: Well, let's talk a little bit specifically about Fisher House in Ann Arbor. It's located in the 2200 block of Fuller Road. How many family members can it house at one time?
Kate Melcher: The Fisher House in Ann Arbor can house up to 15 families on any given night. That's actually capacity for 40 individuals. And the Fisher House in Ann Arbor opened three years ago, as of June 1st, and it's already hosted about 7200 individuals. That is a busy, busy Fisher House. And the beauty of the public private partnership between the VA and Fisher House Michigan is that we get to make sure that eligible families get to hear yes. Even if that house is full, Fisher House Michigan is going to put them up in a hotel nearby until they can get into a Fisher House. We love to say yes. We make it possible because of donations from Michiganders.
David Fair: And so, when a family is staying there, obviously, this is a time of family crisis. So, what services are provided in support of the families of veterans that are utilizing Fisher House?
Kate Melcher: You know, every Fisher House around the world is going to provide lodging, and it's a brick-and-mortar support system where you sort of have an extended family that's comprised of 15 other families. But what Fisher House Michigan does here in Ann Arbor and eventually in Detroit is that we feel even more gaps. We make sure the refrigerators are stocked, that the pantries are full. We run a meal train, so that volunteers can come in and make home-cooked meals for the families that are staying there. There's laundry facilities onsite. My charter from the board of directors at Fisher House Michigan is that when a veteran family stays at a Fisher House, they shouldn't have to reach into their pocket for anything.
David Fair: What kind of funding are you able to secure each year to invest in these families?
Kate Melcher: So, every single Fisher House is built with private gifts and grants, and that allowed Zach Fisher and the Fisher House Foundation to build these beautiful homes. That's unlike any federal building you've ever seen. He wanted to make sure that a Fisher House was worthy of our men and women in uniform. So, with private gifts and grants from individuals that give $5 a year to corporations like Masco that are running a $500,000 Memorial Day match for us right now and everybody in between, that's what builds a $10 million Fisher House. And then, sustaining gifts from all around the community and local companies, you know, they provide the meals, the catered events when we have special holiday festivals and things, Target gift cards for folks who came in on LifeFlight and left their purse on the kitchen counter. It's the individuals, the local companies, the major corporations that are making it possible with private gifts and grants.
David Fair: Our Washtenaw United conversation with Fisher House Michigan Executive Director Kate Melcher continues on 89 one WEMU. What have you encountered when you run into the volunteers that have decided to dedicate their personal time to this kind of service?
Kate Melcher: Well, the Fisher House, once it's constructed, is actually given to the VA. So, it's federal employees at the VA that run the Fisher House and volunteers supplement their efforts. And we hear from volunteers that the most special part about being involved is getting to have a conversation with a family that's staying there. There was one veteran who stayed there with his wife before he had a medical procedure, and, you know, he talked about how he'd served in Vietnam and learned very quickly that he shouldn't talk about his service, that he shouldn't be proud to be a veteran. And it wasn't until his wife finally made him come to the VA because she heard about the Fisher House, she said, "I can come with you. Don't even worry about it. We won't have to pay a dime. I'll be there." He got the medical treatment that he needed. The VA was taking care of his body. But the moment that he came into the Fisher House, he said he felt the gratitude and the honor that he had earned 50 years ago. That started healing his soul. The fellowship with the other veterans and their families in the kitchen over dinner--that was healing his soul. Fisher House is changing lives.
David Fair: I was going to say that is truly a goosebump kind of story. I fear that sometimes veterans are not made completely aware of all that is available to them and, as such, end up underserved. How does Fisher House help connect veterans and their families to all available services?
Kate Melcher: Well, absolutely, you know, and that's why I so appreciate your invitation to be on here today. Awareness is hugely important to us. And while financial gifts are important, so is the gift of gab. So, I hope that when your listeners hear this and they learn about Fisher House, they tell everyone they know because they probably have a veteran in their circle. The Fisher House removes a lot of those logistical barriers to receiving a specialty care that they can get at VA Ann Arbor. And through the community care program, several veterans are referred out to Michigan Medicine. So, there are services that are available here in Ann Arbor that just might not be available in in other parts of the state. So, we've seen families from nearly every county in the state of Michigan, 18 surrounding states, and we've had family members come in from Canada to support their veteran.
David Fair: We have Fisher House in Ann Arbor and now Fisher House Michigan is looking to expand in Detroit, and that process is underway. And I guess the Upper Peninsula as well at some point. I think responsibility to our veterans and their families extends beyond government. The service they've provided the country warrants more attention and commitment from all of us. So, what do you ask us to consider as individual members of the collective American public?
Kate Melcher: You know, I'm happy to say I'm part of the generation where we remembered to honor veterans. But it's not the Vietnam era where being a veteran was a bad word. I'm of the "thank you for your service" generation. But I think today we need to go beyond saying "thank you for your service." It's showing up with your own personal gifts and graces to be a part of the solution, be a part of honoring our veterans in a tangible way. If you love to cook, come make a meal at the Fisher House. If you are an artist, come bring some tools and supplies and do some art therapy with some of the families. You know, if you like to garden, we're considering putting portable raised beds, so that families can tinker in their gardens when they're away from home. There's so many ways that you can get involved beyond writing a check or clicking "donate" on the website. All of you have your own gifts and graces, and if you show up in a tangible way for these veterans, they will truly feel that gratitude, like that veteran had been waiting for for 50 years. "Thank you for your service" becomes more meaningful when you actually show up and put that thanks into action.
David Fair: Okay. Thank you for showing up. Thank you for your service and the service you continue to provide to our veterans. And thank you for sharing your time with us today.
Kate Melcher: My pleasure. Thank you so much.
David Fair: That is Kate Melcher. She is executive director of Fisher House Michigan--Ann Arbor Fisher House--to celebrate its third anniversary on June 1st. Kate Melcher has been our guest on Washtenaw United. And for more information about Fisher House Michigan, visit our website at WEMU dot org. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County. We bring it to you every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community. NPR station, 89 one WEMU-FM Ypsilanti.
United Way of Washtenaw County is excited to feature Fisher House Michigan as an organization that promotes equity and creates opportunity for military families in Washtenaw County.
Fisher House Michigan is a not-for-profit organization formed to improve the quality of life of our military members, retirees, Veterans, and their families and caregivers.
FHM supports the construction and operations of comfort homes built near VA Medical Centers in Michigan, called “Zachary and Elizabeth M. Fisher Houses.”
FHM works to inform the Veteran community, their families, and the general public about Fisher Houses, and provides necessary support to Fisher House operations as needed.
Fisher House Michigan presently supports operations at the Fisher House at VAAAHS in Ann Arbor, and is raising capital and program funds for the future Fisher House at the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center in Detroi
WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw County to explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'
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