TOGUS — Gary Burns knows how long it takes to get from Aroostook County to the VA Maine Healthcare System-Togus.
It’s a good four-hour drive.
So the addition of a Fisher House at the Togus campus on the Augusta-Chelsea line is welcome news for Burns, an advocate for veterans through his position as national service officer for Disabled American Veterans.
“It’s a big deal,” Burns said. “I traveled Maine one end to the other for years. I know how far it is to travel here.”
Fisher Houses, built by the Fisher House Foundation at Veterans Affairs’ facilities across the country and donated to the U.S. government, provide free lodging to families of veterans seeking medical treatment.
On Wednesday, more than 150 people gathered at Togus at the site where the Fisher House will be built.
As envisioned, Maine’s 13,500-square-foot Fisher House will contain 16 suites and common areas including kitchen, dining, living and laundry facilities, and will be directly across from the VA’s main hospital building. Togus is a 67-bed facility with general medical, surgical, intermediate and mental health beds, as well as a 100-bed nursing home.
As part of the groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday at the Togus campus, Burns led the 150 or so people gathered near the site of the future Fisher House in the Pledge of Allegiance before inviting speakers, including U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, and representatives from the offices of U.S. Sen. Angus King and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree. Lawrence Connell, chief of staff for the Veterans Health Administration, also spoke.
“This house will serve as a tangible symbol of our support, our love and respect for all those who have selflessly served our country,” David Coker, president of the Fisher House Foundation, said in the comments he delivered.
“It is this foundation’s goal — in fact, we believe it’s our duty — to help provide an environment where families can focus solely on the healing process, free from the financial worry of finding a place to stay in what may be an unfamiliar city or town while a loved one is receiving necessary medical care,” Coker said. “They quickly learn they are not alone.”
Coker said that was the goal of Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher when they completed the first Fisher Houses 27 years ago at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Fisher Houses have opened in more than 70 locations in the United States and Europe nearly every year since then.
Foundation officials say the Maine Fisher House, which is expected to cost about $6 million, will be open in about a year. Construction could start within about a month.
Burns said the Fisher House will add to the facilities offered through the Beals House, which provides three rooms for visiting caregivers but cannot accommodate children.
“The VA did a tremendous job providing bedrooms and showers. They did the best they could over at the Beals House,” he said. “Capacity wise, they can’t provide what the Fisher House can.”
The Fisher House Foundation has earned high marks as a charity, according to Charity Navigator, which evaluates organizations based on financial health and accountability and transparency.
The Fisher House project is the second project by an entity outside the VA to launch on the Togus campus in recent years.
Groundbreaking for Cabin in the Woods, a project of Volunteers of America Northern New England to provide permanent housing for homeless veterans at Togus took place 15 months ago, and a ceremony to open the cabins has been scheduled for September.
Vietnam veterans Dennis Gagne, left, and Gary Burns with VA Togus Director Ryan Lilly attend a groundbreaking of the Fisher House at Togus on Wednesday. The facility will house veterans’ family members while the veterans receive treatment at Togus. (Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal)