AUGUSTA — After a year’s delay, the Fisher House on the Maine VA’s Togus campus finally had its official opening celebration.

The Maine VA and Fisher House Foundation conducted a dedication ceremony for the building Wednesday morning.

The Fisher House Foundation specializes in building large homes next to major military and VA medical centers across the United States and Europe, where military and veterans’ families and caretakers can stay, free of charge, while a relative receives treatment.

The dedication ceremony was originally scheduled for April 3, 2020, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was significantly delayed.

“Everything changed,” said Jonathan Barczyk, VA Maine Healthcare System public affairs specialist. “We stayed open during that time. We didn’t shut down or anything at Togus or VA Maine, but we did have more restrictions on the face-to-face appointments.”

In order to receive one of these homes, a military organization needs to apply through the Fisher House Foundation, according to Barczyk. Once the foundation accepted VA Maine’s application, they handled all aspects of construction.

“They pay for the entire cost of construction of the house,” Barczyk said. “They’re technically leasing a part of our property, and once they hand it back to us it becomes VA property.

“It’s literally a gift, and there are a number of donors in the background who contribute to help cover those costs,” he added, “so it’s a pretty extraordinary gift — to all of Maine, not just our veterans.”

Patrick Crowley is manager of the Fisher House on the Togus campus in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Barczyk was unable to say how much the Maine VA Fisher House cost to build, but estimated that it was “several million dollars.”

The Fisher House Foundation gifted the building to the VA in December 2019, and the building officially opened on Feb. 17, 2020.

Since first opening its doors, VA Maine Fisher House Manager Patrick Crowley said the facility has served 550 guests. He estimated that has saved Maine veterans and their families approximately $86,000 in that time.

“Juggling the care of a loved one can be a bit of a heavy lift,” said Crowley. “The cost of a hotel, food and transportation comes at a time when families are often already feeling overwhelmed. This can make it almost impossible to focus on just the health of the patient.

“The beauty of the Fisher House is that we can remove many of these stressors,” he added.

The house is just 200 feet from the front door of the VA Medical Center, ensuring relatives and loved ones are always nearby.

The house is 13,500 square feet and includes 16 suites with a private, handicapped-accessible bathroom. It also includes large common areas such as the kitchen, a communal living room, a family room, a dining room, a laundry room and patio.

“It’s a home away from home,” said Barczyk. “It’s not like a hotel. It has a very communal feeling.”

He said the feedback from guests so far has been incredibly positive.

“Prior to this, there had been hurdles for some individuals going to certain appointments,” he said. “It posed logistical challenges, but now they don’t have to worry about their family members. They can stay right outside while the veteran is getting their care.”

Due to COVID-19 precautions, Wednesday’s dedication ceremony event was invite-only and featured several guests who had stayed at the Fisher House in the past.

The double kitchen in the Fisher House, a new addition to the Veterans Affairs Medical and Regional Office Center at Togus, offers a more communal than hotel feeling for families staying at the Augusta facility. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“They’re the main people we’re really there to serve,” said Barczyk, “because it’s their home. We wanted them to play a part in the dedication ceremony.”

Since the Fisher House first opened on the Maine VA campus, Barczyk said it has been a privilege to see the reactions of family members and caretakers staying at the facility.

Crowley said the house provides people with a sanctuary to rest and recuperate, and the common areas allow families to bond over shared experiences and support one another.

“While first-class medical care is essential, so is the presence and support of a patient’s loved one,” said Crowley. “Fisher Houses are important ‘because a family’s love is good medicine.'”

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