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South Texas Veterans Health Care System (STVHCS)

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Fisher House: now even more like home

An image of several individuals standing in front of a ribbon for the new Fisher House outdoor pavilion and kitchen.

The ribbon on the new outdoor pavilion and kitchen is cut by Army Staff Sgt. Edward Matayka. Mr. Robert Walton, Director of the South Texas Veterans Health Care System, is on the immediate left, and Mr. David Coker, President of the Fisher House Foundation is on the right. (VA photo by Lupe Hernandez)

By Steven Goetsch
Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Under the sweltering heat of a July Texas sun, 200 patients, visitors, volunteers and staff gathered for the ribbon cutting of a new Fisher House pavilion and outdoor kitchen. They were coincidentally spared from the heat by the shade cast by the new 400 square foot structure.

The outdoor space was a project conceived two years prior by South Texas VA Fisher House Program Manager Erik Zielinski.

The project was truly a community effort between the fundraising efforts of Veterans groups like Vets Fishing with Vets, corporate and private donors like Amazon and Texas First Lady Cecilia Abbott who raised the $63,000 required for the project. Once they reached their funding goals, South Texas VA Engineering Service created an initial design and collaborated with Mike Hermes Construction.

The sum total of their efforts was laser focused on Veterans, like guest of honor and ribbon cutter, Army Staff Sgt. Edward Matayka, whose family spent several months at Fisher House.
Also joining Matayka at the ceremony was David Coker, President of the Fisher House Foundation and a Veteran himself, and South Texas VA leadership and its director Mr. Robert Walton.

Naturally, with such a Veteran-centric crowd, the pomp and circumstance of a military ceremony was in order. Patriotic music was provided by the United States Automobile Association (USAA), and the American Legion 336 posted the Colors prior to singing of the National Anthem.

Two women are facing each other, smiling and talking.

Marine Staff Sgt. Christina Salas, right, talks to one of her former nurses on the South Texas VA Polytrauma unit. Salas was at the South Texas VA for a period of time. During that period, her aunt, Ruth Sigala, stayed at the Fisher House and they returned to see the finished product and meet up with the staff that took care of her. (VA photo by Steve Goetsch)

The South Texas VA Fisher House was open for business in 2013, and since then, Walton said it has served over 2000 families from all over the country. “The South Texas VA Fisher House has saved these families hundreds of thousands of dollars in lodging,” Walton said. “We are proud the program continues to help our families when they need us the most.”

Coker, who was the keynote speaker, and the Fisher House Program’s first employee, has seen the Fisher House Program grow exponentially, and said it is due to dedicated employees and volunteers. “The way they care for the houses, and care for the families, let’s us move forward and build the next group of houses, Coker exclaimed.”

“The Fisher House wouldn’t enjoy the reputation it does if it weren’t people like Erik [Zielinski], Coker added.”  “He is the hands, the heart, and together with the volunteers, they’re the ones that provide the care and compassion the Fisher Houses are known for.”

Coker personally recognized one of those dedicated volunteers, Joe Dominguez, who amassed an impressive 1000 service hours in two years at the Fisher House. He was selected as the VA Fisher House Volunteer of the Year for 2015.

The ceremony and ribbon cutting also served as a homecoming and reunion for several former guests. They met and caught up with the nurses, doctors and social workers they came to know and build relationships with during their care at the South Texas VA.
Coker alluded to just how difficult and stressful those times can be, and how important it is to have the VA and Fisher Houses working together assisting families in crisis.
“When you get that call, and you learn that a loved one has been injured, you want two things… you want the best medical care possible, and Mr. Walton and his team do a great job of that, and the second thing is you want to be there, “Coker emphasized. “That is the gap that the Fisher House fills.”

The Salas and Sigala families returned to not only see the completed project, but to reunite with the staff that helped them during their recovery. Ruth Sigala stayed at the house for some time when her niece, Marine Staff Sgt. Christina Salas was receiving treatment at the South Texas VA Polytrauma unit. “Everybody was so great to us,” Sigala said. “We felt protected, secure and respected.”

She considers the Fisher Houses to be a blessing.

An image of the outdoor pavilion on the grounds of the Fisher House. Several people are relaxing under its shade.

The $63,000 dollar project included finer touches like LCD televisions, an intercom system, fully functional kitchen complete with granite countertops and ventilation. (VA photo by Lupe Hernandez)

Coker had no shortage of words describing how important Fisher Houses are to not only military families, but entire communities and the Nation as a whole. The 13,000 square foot houses are built from private and corporate donations.

“Fisher Houses become the catalyst for support for Veterans in general. People want to do things to honor the men and women who serve, Coker said.”

The support comes in the form of financial support, but also volunteering. Southwest Airlines brought a platoon of volunteers to prepare the meal and make the guests feel comfortable.

Texas First Lady Cecelia Abbott, was so impressed by Fisher House’s impact, she made a considerable donation that helped see the project to fruition. "When I had the pleasure of visiting the South Texas Veterans Health Care System Fisher House last summer, I was blown away by your amazing facilities, and I remember thinking how fortunate our soldiers and veterans are to have a place like Fisher House,” the First Lady said.

“I know these new outdoor amenities will be a wonderful addition for the families who call the South Texas Veterans Health Care System Fisher House home. Thank you for taking such good care of those who have sacrificed so much to protect and defend our country and our freedoms."

Now, the South Texas VA Fisher House is a little more like home.
If you have a service member or Veteran who is receiving care at the South Texas VA, contact your social worker to see if you meet guest eligibility requirements.


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