Each year in late May, America pauses to honor its veterans. We recognize the sacrifices of those President Lincoln observed “gave the last full measure of devotion” in service to their country as well as those who currently protect and defend our nation.
This Memorial Day, as we reflect on and appreciate those who serve, we should also take time to consider the ongoing, independent efforts across the country taken on behalf of veterans and their families. What we fight for might be the surest indicator of our priorities, but how we rebuild, care for, and honor those who step into the breach is the most poignant illustration of our values.
Zachary Fisher was unable to join the battlefield himself, so he built homes for those who did. In doing so, he gave comfort and shelter to thousands of families and opened a floodgate of philanthropy.
The story of Fisher House Foundation (link to: http://www.fisherhouse.org/) started 20 years ago when Pauline Trost stumbled onto a sailor sleeping in his vehicle while his wife recovered at Bethesda Naval Hospital. Trost, wife of the then-Chief of Naval Operations, began hunting for ways to address the lack of low-cost housing for military families visiting hospitalized soldiers. She soon approached Zach Fisher, a successful real estate developer and a fierce supporter of the armed forces. Fisher was stunned that military families were unable to afford nearby hotels. After meeting with Pauline, Zach made it his mission to construct apartments and homes for family members visiting hospitalized soldiers.
Zach Fisher passed away in 1999, but his legacy lives on. Today, the Fisher House serves 12,000 families a year all over the United States, providing “a home away from home” for military families, ensuring they can be close as their loved one receives treatment for an illness, disease or injury.
But Fisher was not unique in his decision to give to those who serve our country. Founded in 1994, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) (link to: www.taps.org) is another example of philanthropy dedicated to assisting members of the military and their families. TAPS is supported by charitable donations and provides an array of services to families, loved ones, friends, and anyone trying to be made whole again after the death of a soldier. The program has helped guide more than 30,000 family members, casualty officers and caregivers through the grieving process. TAPS promises assistance 24 hours a day, seven days a week, offering information, support, resources and understanding.
“Vets helping vets” is an approach practiced by the San Francisco-based Swords to Plowshares (Swords), (link to: www.swords-to-plowshares.org) which dedicates itself to helping Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. Founded in 1974 by a group of Vietnam veterans and VISTA volunteers, the group provides vets with supportive housing, health and social services, employment and training, and benefits advocacy.
Swords helps with legal assistance to guide veterans in obtaining medical care and compensation for service-connected disabilities. Case managers also work to address mental health and substance abuse issues. More recently, it has enhanced its outreach among the increasing number of female veterans whose usage of health services is expected to double within 10 years.
Another organization helping military families focuses on the youngest members: children. The nonprofit United Through Reading (link to: http://www.unitedthroughreading.org/) seeks to help alleviate the stress of separation for military families (particularly parents serving in the armed forces, deployed to war zones many thousands of miles away from their children) by having deployed parents read books aloud to their children. A DVD of the parents reading is presented to the children, who can then watch it at home.
These are just a few examples of the individuals and organizations that are dedicated to aiding members of the military and their families. There are many more, and, together, they represent a small slice of American philanthropy. As a nation and as individuals, Americans are generous with their time, money and passion. We give to a variety of issues, causes and organizations: from arts and cultural institutions, to environmental organizations, to programs dedicated to addressing hunger, homelessness, disease and literacy. And there are countless other examples. In every town, community and city across the country, there are libraries, schools and museums built and maintained through philanthropy. There are individuals giving their time, talent and resources on behalf of issues that they care about.
Voices for Philanthropy is a campaign to tell the positive story of American philanthropy. The national, nonpartisan effort, of which I am co-chair, strives to bring together the charitable community and to build a broad and diverse coalition of champions from all aspects of society. When Memorial Day comes along this year people can and should honor our servicemen and women.
Because of philanthropic endeavors like Fisher House, TAPS, Swords to Plowshares and the United Through Reading program every single American can channel their gratitude into another critical layer of tradition that commemorates and honors military service. This generosity of spirit will help show why philanthropy matters; and its impact is felt by everyone, no matter who they are, where they work, or what they believe and is especially appreciated by those of us who are veterans and our families.
Gary L. Yates
President and CEO
The California Wellness Foundation
This piece originally appeared in the May 29, 2011 issue of the Washington Examiner. Yates serves as co-chair for Voices for Philanthropy. Yates is also a veteran.