Tom Flowers joins us to talk about how the Fisher House is there to help support the veteran and military community in some of their most critical times of need.
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Scott DeLuzio: 00:03 Thanks for tuning in to the Drive On Podcast, where we talk about issues affecting Veterans after they get out of the military. Before we get started, I'd like to ask a favor if you haven't done so already, please rate and review the show on Apple podcast. If you've already done that, thank you. These ratings help the show get discovered so it can reach a wider audience. And while you're there, click the subscribe button so that you get notified of new episodes. As soon as they come out. If you don't use Apple podcasts, you can visit Drive On Podcast.com/subscribe to find other ways of subscribing, including our email list. I'm your host, Scott DeLuzio. And now let's get on with the show.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:44 Hey everyone. Today, my guest is Tom flowers. Tom spent 27 years in the Air Force and he's been working with the Fisher House for the last few years, which is what he's here to talk to us about today. Tom, welcome to the show. Why don't you tell us a little bit about who you are your background with the military and the Fisher House.
Tom Flowers: 01:04 Scott and thank you for having me. I enlisted in the Air Force in 1966 and I retired in 1993. I had many assignments, as you might imagine. I traveled all 50 States and I stopped counting countries at about 40. That was my military career. After that I joined the sales and marketing firm where our only customers were military installations. So, I kept on my association with the military for another 10 years after I retired. And after that I retired fully and I joined the Fisher House Foundation, if you will, specifically associated with the Fisher House in West Haven, Connecticut. And that was in 2010. I'm also immediate past commander of the American Legion for the State of Connecticut and our 18,000 members. And I'm the Chairman of the Veterans ceremony, Braid Commission for the City of Milford, where I live a city of 52,000 people. We plan and execute all the patriotic events for the City of Milford. So that's what I do.
Scott DeLuzio: 03:01 It sounds like you have your plate full of all of that stuff that you're doing there. So, today we're going to talk about the Fisher House. What I'd like to do is talk about how the Fisher House helps out Veterans and military families, and how it's a resource that they can rely on in their times of need. Obviously with the COVID situation, things have been thrown a little off course, but under normal circumstances, Fisher Houses can have several families. I think I read on the Fisher House website up to 21 rooms in some of the Fisher Houses and so at that point to me, it doesn't seem like it's a house anymore, in my mind, anyway, it's more like a hotel at that point, with the amount of families that could be in there. The benefit though is that these military and Veteran families can stay free of charge. So, tell us what it is that the Fisher House offers to military and Veteran families, and what kind of resource it is.
Tom Flowers: 04:17 Well, first, Scott, I'd like to start with how the Fisher House started, which is a very interesting story. It started in 1986 when Mrs. Pauline Trost, who was the wife of the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral William Trost. She was at Bethesda Naval hospital back in 1986. She saw a family get off of that chopper. She asked what they were doing, and they were there to visit the lady's husband who was hospitalized. And someone asked her where she wanted to stay. And she said, she didn't know, and hotels are expensive in that area. So that kind of started it; she mentioned that to her husband, Admiral Trost contacted Zachary Fisher, Zach; he was developer, philanthropist, and Patriot out of New York City and independently wealthy. Ma'am an Admiral Trost mentioned to him what the issue was and that public/private association started. We're both the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Administration came to an agreement that Fisher Houses could be built near Military installations with major medical facilities and VA hospital campuses across the country and overseas. Zachary, as a wealthy man and a Patriot, funded the first 15 or so Fisher Houses out of his own pocket. We opened up our first two Fisher Houses in 1991, Walter Reed army hospital in Washington, DC and one at Bethesda Naval hospital in Maryland.
Tom Flowers: 07:06 And for a number of years, Zachary just built those houses with permission of the host units or departments. In 1993, the Fisher Foundation was formed. And that was because we needed a vehicle to ensure that funding to build our Fisher Houses would continue in perpetuity. So that was the beginning of the Fisher foundation in 1993. And right now, we have 87 Fisher Houses that are active. We have served over 400,000 military and Veterans families over 9.5 million days of free lodging, which translates to $500 million in savings to our military families and Veteran's families. And on any given night in our 87 Fisher Houses, we're serving over 1100 military families free of charge. Totally. And you mentioned Scott, that it was something like the hotel. Well, Fisher House is a comfort house, right? Believe me, it is like a four- or five-star hotel.
Scott DeLuzio: 08:56 Give me the tour.
Tom Flowers: 08:59 We consider it a comfort house, a home away from home.
Scott DeLuzio: 09:03 Because the hotel aspect to me was just the sheer capacity. You know, you don't typically fit 21 rooms in any given house filled with families from all over the country and all over the place. You don't typically have that kind of situation in a normal house but how it is still a house in terms of the shared, common areas which are not typical in a hotel. There's the kitchen and things like that are common in the Fisher Houses that people can come together in a community atmosphere, and they can have that sense of togetherness, as they're staying in that place, which is great. Because there's so many people who might be going through difficult times, their loved ones are sick or injured or whatever the case may be. And having some people there who are going through something similar could help each other out.
Tom Flowers: 10:21 Oh, you're absolutely correct. In your statement, Scott, we consider our Fisher Houses to be comfort houses. We believe very firmly that a family's love is the best medicine. And our Fisher Houses come in different sizes. We have them in eight rooms, 12 rooms, 16 rooms. And in some cases, 21 rooms, as you mentioned, so they're not all the same size, it's all dependent upon the need at the installation, whether it be a DOD or VA.
Scott DeLuzio: 11:06 And I've imagined some of the larger facilities that these Fisher Houses are at, whether it's Walter Reed or something like that, those probably have the larger Fisher Houses nearby and some of the smaller installations throughout the country probably have the smaller eight or 12 room places too. So, that makes sense that based on the need of the location would justify the size of the house that comes through and looking just directly from the Fisher House website, I looked up some of the statistics, you mentioned that the daily capacity, there are 1100 families, which is amazing; but more than 32,000 families were served last year through Fisher Houses; you mentioned 400,000 families were served in total since it started.
Scott DeLuzio: 12:02 Even more interesting to me is all of those are really great numbers. And I'm very thankful that there's resources like the Fisher House out there that can help all of those families; but it's more than just that, there are scholarships, things like airline tickets that are provided to some of these families, 12,000 students have received $24 million in scholarships from the Fisher House foundation, and over 70,000 airline tickets were provided by hero miles to service members and their families with estimated cost of around $105 million, which is huge. When your loved one is sick or injured, they're in the hospital and you need to travel across the country to get there, figuring out how you're going to get there is probably the last thing on your mind. And so being able to have a program like the hero miles, that's a big benefit as well.
Tom Flowers: 13:12 Well, you've certainly done your homework, Scott, and thank you.
Scott DeLuzio: 13:16 Yeah, absolutely.
Tom Flowers: 13:19 All of this information is [email protected] It's FISHER.org. We have a miles for heroes’ program where people donate their frequent flyer or airline miles to that particular cause. It's just common sense. If a Veteran is hospitalized, the Fisher House, I'm Chairman of the Board of the community support group. No, I am Chairman of the Board. There's no reason to believe that the parents or the brothers or sisters or loved ones of that Veteran gets hospitalized at West Haven, Connecticut live in Connecticut, right? And oftentimes with some emergency situations, a medical crisis, those people have to drop everything wherever they're at in United States and get to a Walter Reed or Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, wherever they need get you.
Tom Flowers: 14:37 So we have hero miles that we can provide and they can have free transportation. We also have a hotel for heroes’ program where people donate their frequent stay credits to the Fisher foundation. And if we run into a situation where a Fisher House is at capacity, for example, we can use those hotel credits and put folks up in hotels, local hotels, while they're visiting their loved ones who are hospitalized. Those are just some of the programs that we have in place all meant to serve our Veterans, our active duty community as well as their family.
Scott DeLuzio: 15:32 A couple of years ago I got an email from one of the airlines that I fly on. I forget which one it was, but it said that some of my miles were coming up to expire, that I had frequent flyer miles, and I had no trips planned. I had no place really to go, I wasn't going to use them. So, I was like, I didn't want them to just go to waste either. So, they had some options of what things that you can do with the miles. And one of them was the hero miles, and I decided to donate those miles to the hero miles; so, that they could be used by someone, some family, to go see their loved ones.
Scott DeLuzio: 16:13 It just made sense to me that we would use those miles for something good, as opposed to just letting them go to waste. So, if anyone else is out there and they have some frequent flyer miles, no trips coming up and they know that they might be coming up on expiring; you might as well, donate those to the hero miles program so that some families can get to see their loved ones and not have to worry about the cost to get there.
Tom Flowers: Well, thank you very much for doing that.
Scott DeLuzio: Yeah, absolutely. Now your current role with the Fisher House is you're involved more with the community support group. I believe you mentioned last time we spoke off air. Can you tell me what that's all about and what it is that you do with that?
Tom Flowers: 17:05 Well, when we started, which was actually 2009, raising funds to build a Fisher House on the campus of the West Haven, Connecticut VA hospital. Our goal was to raise $3 million. At that time, the total cost of construction, $6 million, we agreed to raise $3 million and the Fisher Foundation would pick on the other $3 million. And we would build a 16-room house. We started out believe me back in 2010, sitting in malls, with tables going to County fairs and any kind of event where we could set up a table, distribute literature, because at that time in Connecticut, there were no Fisher Houses. If you asked anybody in Connecticut, what's a Fisher, they wouldn't know the answer. They think they have something more to do with fishing more than the military. The reason I got involved in 2010 was when the then leader of our community's work group came to my American Legion.
Tom Flowers: 18:32 And so all the Fisher House story to enlighten our members on what a Fisher House was and what its purpose was. I was the only one in the room. My American Legion post at our general membership meeting knew what a Fisher House was because I had been in Fisher Houses, when I had visited both Walter Reed with another charitable organization. So, I volunteered to represent our post with the community support group. And next thing, you know, I was an officer, second in command, and I did that. I took over leadership in November of 2018. So, we still continue to fundraise because we have to provide funding for the sustainment of the Fisher House. It's one thing to build it and furnish it and everything. But over the years we have to sustain it.
Tom Flowers: 19:44 I think anyone who owns a house can probably sympathize with that right now, we have a list of when it needs to be replaced, the bedding, the mattresses, the furniture, you name it, so we can do that, but anything that Veterans administration can't provide, we are the resource that the Fisher House goes to, to ask if we can provide that particular service or that product or whatever it might be to sustain the house. I mean, right now our community support group is paying for the maintenance of the property or mowing the lawn, taking care of the sprinkler system, trimming the hedges. We pay it right from the community support group, because the VA didn't have the capability to do that.
Tom Flowers: 20:56 When we opened up, we provided the Fisher House with over $20,000 in gift cards, not everybody who comes to Fisher House has time to do all of the preparations before they travel. So, we have people show up that don't have enough clothing or need to buy food or whatever the case may be. So, we have gift cards and we give those to our guests and they're welcome to use those to get whatever they may need to get. So yeah, there's definitely a need for our community support groups. So I'll also mention that when we build a Fisher House, we gift it, as soon as it's completed, we gift it to the military installation or the Veterans affairs healthcare system where the hospital's located, and it belongs to them. And they staff it because we're in the building business. We're not the human resource, right? So, the employees, the manager of our Fisher House are VA employees, that is the manager and reception. That's our, that's our compliment of employees.
Scott DeLuzio: 22:24 Let's say you have a family who has a loved one who's unexpectedly in the hospital. They need to travel across the country and they need to find these arrangements. What's the process like for them? I imagine in this case, it is somewhat like a hotel where you'd probably have to call ahead and find out if there's going to be a spot available that you can come to as opposed to just knocking on the door and saying, Hey, I'm here. Give me a room. So, what's that process? What is it that the families need to do in order to be able to use the services of the Fisher House?
Tom Flowers: 23:02 Well, the actual responsibility for providing the information on our Fisher House rests with the social workers and the medical personnel in the hospital. So, if a Veteran or an active duty member, whoever is admitted to the hospital, they're briefed that a Fisher House exists and that their loved ones can stay at that house while the individual was undergoing medical care. Then those folks, they have the resources to contact the Fisher foundation or the Fisher House, or even me, and we can get with the Fisher foundation and we can arrange, very quickly, plane tickets or whatever might be necessary for that family, so the business, the social worker, is the primary resource.
Scott DeLuzio: 24:09 Okay. It's wonderful that that's not one more thing for the family has to figure out; it's not, now I have to go and try to figure out how to get in touch with the Fisher House and see if they have a spot available for me and that type of thing. It's one of those things where it seems to me anyways, like it's a turnkey operation where everything is just being taken care of for the families. And all they have to do is show up essentially.
Tom Flowers: 24:43 And that's exactly the way we want it to be.
Scott DeLuzio: 24:46 Exactly. And that sounds like a wonderful way to do it too. One other thing I wanted to mention where I rattle off some statistics about the Fisher House before, but one thing I failed to mention
Scott DeLuzio: 24:59 how good the Fisher House is with the donations that they get in terms of the money that comes in. On the Fisher House website, it says 93% of each dollar directly helps the military, Veterans and their families. That means for every dollar that you donate, 93 cents of that is going directly to the families of the military Veterans. The benefit is going to them, it's not going to overhead costs like a lot of other military charities and other charities tend to go to advertising and promotions and salaries and that type of thing. If it's really going into the program where you want the money to go to, which is to me a tremendous percentage of the money that's going into it.
Tom Flowers: 25:54 Correct. The Fisher foundation, which is located in Rockville, Maryland, very close to the Walter Reed national medical center at the Festo, they have about 25 full-time employees. That's all. So that kind of accounts for administrative costs if you will. We draw donations from major corporations. That's where they get the money to build all these houses, in addition to the funds that are raised by the community support group, the foundation has a partnership with Newman's Own. We get funds from the combined federal campaign, just from all kinds of sources, our Veterans service organizations, especially from the community support point of view, the money that I've been able to raise over a period of years, a great deal of that funding was provided by the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, disabled American Veterans, and all the other Veteran service organizations that totally understand the need for a Fisher House. So, we received hundreds, thousands of dollars for most organizations, and they continue to contribute to this day.
Scott DeLuzio: 27:42 And they're contributing more than just money, when you said that they came in to talk to your American Legion post, they’re recruiting members to come in and volunteer their time to be able to help out at the Fisher House site, in the community support group, like what you're involved with and things like that as well. Which is a great, great thing, a great Testament to the American Legion, VFW and all these other organizations, how much those people really want to help out the military community, through volunteering with the Fisher House.
Tom Flowers: 28:27 Well, we have volunteers that are available to the Fisher House. They may not be members of the board or directors of our community support group. They're just Veterans, patriotic citizens. It could be a rotary club, comes in and says, okay, we're going to have a picnic weekend, and we're going to have a picnic for all the folks that are staying, that kind of thing happens often as American Legion post, VFW posts do that kind of thing, but other organizations, chambers of commerce, everybody kind of pitches in and does their thing. I might also mention as you brought it up. The Fisher foundation is the highest rating Veteran's charity in the United States. Only 1% of the over 2000 charities as rated by charity navigator. I have received a four-star rating for 14 consecutive years, and we are one. So, when you said 93 cents, and that varies from a year 93 cents, 5 cents, whatever, the situation may be, but that earns us and we protect it very judiciously. We're all saving.
Scott DeLuzio: 30:17 And that makes you feel good too, when you're donating, that your money is going to where you want it to go, to support the people in the organization, the way you want it to, and not just lining somebody's pockets and big billboards and advertisements and things like that, that some other organizations are doing, it seems like that that money goes to some other causes that maybe you're not so supportive of.
Tom Flowers: 30:47 Well, we don't advertise. We do have a partnership with radio and they do public service announcements for us from time to time, and we certainly got some attention,
Tom Flowers: 31:08 All of his new shows, presidents have donated significant amounts of money to the Fisher foundation.
Tom Flowers: 31:20 We, also went on Bill O’Riley was on TV, on Fox news, he donated all the proceeds from his best-selling books and coffee cups and things to the Fisher House. So we have some pretty big ears. Have you thought about the president of the United States? That's a pretty big hitter, donating to the Fisher House.
Scott DeLuzio: 31:54 Yeah, no, absolutely. Yeah. And when you get that kind of publicity from bigger names like that it really helps. And those people too, they want to know that their money is going to the right place too. So, when you have these numbers, like 93%, 95%, whatever it is of each dollar going to the actual program itself, that's only going to encourage more people, like those people that you mentioned, to donate more and also use their platform to help raise awareness for the organization and the foundation for all the good that it does and use that platform to spread the word.
Tom Flowers: 32:36 Oh, that's absolutely true. Absolutely true. Because every Fisher House that we built, with the possible exception of Texas or Florida, California, where we have multiple Fisher Houses; here in Connecticut, nobody knew what Fisher House was when we started. So, awareness was a big part of what we had to do. We go to the supermarkets and set up tables, and generated a lot of dollars; in fact, ShopRite supermarkets, here in Connecticut, actually the six-state region in the Northeast, a friend of mine owns six ShopRite supermarkets. From Memorial day to the 4th of July at six ShopRite supermarkets, I have volunteers come in three days a week, set up a table. Some people just drop a dollar or two into a bucket, but the cashiers ask if the folks want to make donations when they check out. And if they want to donate a dollar. So, it actually rings that up on their grocery bill. And, so from those six ShopRite stores, we generate almost a hundred thousand dollars a year. So that's pretty important.
Scott DeLuzio: 34:09 And that just goes to show that every dollar counts, because if those volunteers were not there with those tables set up and the cashiers weren't asking the customers to be able to support the organization, a hundred thousand dollars would not have been ending up in the Fisher House foundation and every dollar counts. So it's really a great thing.
Tom Flowers: 34:36 We have to have volunteers in those supermarkets because if that supermarket is raising funds for the local food bank, for example, the customers don't need an explanation of what the local food bank is, but they certainly need an explanation of what a Fisher House is.
Scott DeLuzio: Yes, exactly.
Tom Flowers: And those folks don't have volunteers in the stores. They just collect the money. Whether it be the food bank or the boys and girls club or whatever it might be. But we have volunteers in the stores explaining to the customers when they engage us, as to exactly what a Fisher House is and where their money is going. And when somebody drops a dollar in a jar or something like that, I stop and I say, don't you want to know where your dollar is going? And I explained it to him.
Scott DeLuzio: 35:39 Yeah. That's a great thing too. I think for anybody who might be interested in the Fisher House and what it does, whether or not they can contribute financially to the Fisher House, there's probably always a need for volunteers. And so, that's just one way that you can give back and help out the Fisher House and all the military and Veteran families who are using the resource that are available. That's another way that you can give back and help others and provide that service to others by being a volunteer.
Tom Flowers: 36:22 Well, that's true. I know the thing I would want to mention is one of the great things about Fisher House is when our guests assemble and stay at our Fisher Houses, they all have something in common. All of them have a loved one, that's going through a medical crisis. So, they have that support that's right there with them while they stay at the Fisher House. We had one gentleman stay in a Fisher House for two years. No, there's no length of time, but somebody could stay in a Fisher House as long as they need to. That comradery, that sense of being surrounded by folks who feel the same as you do is very important. We find that our families that stay there for even just three, four or five days, whatever, they form a bond between them and they stay in touch, communicate with each other.
Tom Flowers: 37:42 I might have mentioned that we have what we call the home for our fallen heroes at Dover Air Force base in Delaware. I'm sure you and your viewers know that.
Tom Flowers: 38:01 Folks, pay the ultimate sacrifice, those remains get shipped into Dover Air Force base,
Tom Flowers: 38:13 where they're processed and then ultimately shipped to wherever that family wants the remain ship to. But there are no major medical facilities built there. That's strictly for the folks that are being transported with full military arms back to Dover Air Force base. And that becomes a central location where the casualty assistance folks, the chaplains, the grief counselors, the social security administration unit, they can all come and they can meet with the families of the loved one and take care of the business that needs to be taken care of and do it in a very efficient, in a very caring fashion.
Scott DeLuzio: 39:08 Yeah, well, I do have a personal experience with a loved one going through Dover. Our family did not go down to Dover when my brother was brought back from Afghanistan; we didn't go down there, but I can say with absolute certainty that the process that has to take place, all the people that you have to talk to and the paperwork that is done and all that kind of stuff is done with the absolute most care and concern for the family. I can only imagine that the same thing is done down in Dover, when the families go down there and it's really a comfort that you don't have to, in that time of grief and the loss and everything, you don't have to worry about all of these little details that just come up through this whole process, a lot of it is just being taken care of for you, and they walk you through everything.
Scott DeLuzio: 40:21 The decisions that you have to make are pretty simple decisions and it's not an overly burdensome process. And so, they do a great job with that; so, that's a great service as well, speaking from personal experience.
Tom Flowers: 40:43 Well, Scott when your brother, Steven, made the ultimate sacrifice, the Dover Fisher House had not yet been built. It was built in the mid 2000s. So, that's the reason that your mom and dad didn't go, uh, to Dover.
Scott DeLuzio: 41:03 Right. We had the opportunity to go, we would have had to figure out lodging and things like that on our own. And, and so, it's a great benefit to have for those families who maybe don't want to have to figure that type of stuff out and still want to travel there to receive their loved one when they come in. Tom, time flies when we have these conversations, but it's been a pleasure speaking with you. I know you briefly spoke earlier about the Fisher House website. Where can people go to find out more about the Fisher House? I know their website; do they have other places that people can go to find out more about the Fisher House?
Tom Flowers: 41:57 Well, there's a website for virtually every Fisher House. So, if your viewers or listeners, if they want to know something about a Fisher House near where they live, you can just Google Fisher House, St. Louis or whatever the case may be, and learn about the Fisher House, or you go to the, the main website for the Fisher House. That's a very extensive website that has a lot of great information. And it also lists where all of our Fisher Houses are located. So, FisherHouse.org.
Scott DeLuzio: 42:50 Yeah. And I read it right at the top of the website. They have the three probably most common things that you might want to look for, how to donate, the locations and how to help fundraise for the Fisher House. So those are all right up at the top of the website on fisherhouse.org. So anyone who's looking to donate, find out locations that are near you to help, maybe even volunteer, with those locations and help support them in that way, or if you're in need of a Fisher House and you want to know whether or not the installation that your loved one is at has a Fisher House nearby, you can find that there, and you can also help fundraise for the Fisher House as well. So, Tom, thank you again for joining us. It's been a pleasure and we look forward to hearing more about the Fisher House in the future.
Tom Flowers: 43:41 Thank you so much for having me on and talking about a program I feel very strongly about and so do a whole lot of people. Thanks.
Scott DeLuzio: Great. Thank you.
Scott DeLuzio: 44:01 Thanks for listening to the Drive On Podcast. If you want to check out more episodes or learn more about the show, you can visit our website DriveOnPodcast.com. We're on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at DriveOnPodcast.