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‘Home away from home’

Ann Farson, left, and Vietnam War veteran Robert Jaramillo tour one of the 16 bedrooms at the new Fisher House on the VA medical center campus. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It took a decade, but active-duty soldiers and veterans needing care at the Raymond G. Murphy Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Southeast Albuquerque finally have a “home away from home” for their families.

A ribbon cutting was held for the Fisher House on the VA campus on Friday. The 16-bedroom house will provide a free place for military and veterans’ families to stay while their loved ones are receiving care.

“It’s worth every second we’ve all spent,” Rita Navarette, president of Friends of the New Mexico Fisher House and lead advocate for the project, said of the effort, which encountered a few hurdles along the way. The $6 million project experienced delays because the site is in a federal historical district.

“It was the culmination of work from so many people,” Fisher House Foundation President David Coker said. “It was important for the house to fit in and complement what was already here.”

Fisher House Manager Christina Ramirez said some interior work needs to be completed, with the first families staying in the house around Thanksgiving. It is the 85th Fisher House operating across the United States, Germany and England. It is one of 43 near a VA hospital.

“These houses don’t crop up real quick,” New Mexico VA Health Care System Director Andrew Welch said. He credited Health Care System Associate Director Sonja Brown with working with the foundation for much of the 10-year effort “to make it happen.”

The new Fisher House in Albuquerque is on the Raymond G. Murphy Veterans Affairs Medical Center campus. It will provide free housing for families of active-duty soldiers and veterans who are being treated at the medical center. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

Blue Star mother Ruby Garcia was one of many people involved in the project. She saw firsthand the need for the home in New Mexico.

Her son, Victor, had a medical emergency while stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina with the 82nd Airborne as a paratrooper in 2012. She was a guest at a Fisher House in Fort Bragg after her son was injured.

“I needed to be with him immediately,” she said. “I did what any mother would do. I booked a flight and a hotel regardless of the financial burden. But when I got to Fort Bragg, my son’s commander took me from that cold hotel and he moved me into the Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Fisher House. I will never forget that day. I was greeted with open arms … at that moment all of my stresses and my emotions were at a halt. I felt a sigh of relief. It was a home away from home.”

Coker said his foundation’s goal is “to provide an environment where families can focus on healing.”

Garcia’s experience inspired her to become involved in the effort to bring a house to New Mexico. Garcia said she and members of the Fisher House Board met with officials at the Governor’s Office in Santa Fe to help overcome “the obstacles” of having the house in the historic district.

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., was among the dignitaries participating in the ribbon cutting.

“Fisher House enables families to care for, be with and advocate for family members they love and who are in the hospital,” the senator said. “There’s probably no one here who hasn’t been in the hospital or who hasn’t had a family member in the hospital. We all understand the profound healing value of having someone close.”

Ramirez said families would be able to stay in a private suite with a bedroom and their own bathroom.

“They share the rest of the house,” she said. “They share the communal dining room, living room and kitchen. They will be able to stay here with no cost while their veteran is hospitalized, as long their veteran needs them to be there.”

Navarette said the Friends of the New Mexico Fisher House will assist families staying at the house.

She said the group would “make sure our house manager, Christina (Ramirez), has an immediate line to call if she needs assistance for her guests.”

The home was opened with a Navajo blessing. Members of the New Mexico chapter of the American Legion Riders – which raised money for the house – attended the celebration.

Vietnam veteran Drew Dix – who was awarded the Medal of Honor – presented a plaque from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society to go in the house. A plaque from the organization is placed in all Fisher Houses.

Coker said the average stay for a family in a Fisher House is nine days. He said the Fisher House Foundation expects to help 33,000 families this year.

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