By Sharon Mulligan, Combined Arms Support Command Public AffairsOctober 6, 2011
FORT LEE, Va. -- Usually the heart of any home is the kitchen. It's where families gather to share stories, laughter and sometimes tears as they talk about their day. It's a place where warm meals uplift and provide comfort.
The Richmond Fisher House is truly a "home away from home" for families of service members and veterans receiving care at the Hunter Holmes McGuire Veterans Medical Center. The kitchen is the heart of the facility as family members gather to talk about their loved ones, share information on programs and grab a bite to eat in between trips to the hospital.
Most days, residents of the Fisher House must either rely on their own skills in the kitchen or get meals from local restaurants. But on a recent Saturday, Advanced Culinary Course students and instructors from the Joint Center of Culinary Excellence, Quartermaster School volunteered to prepare a brunch designed to nourish their bodies and spirits.
"We are truly grateful to have meals prepared for our residents," said Avila "Ave" Porter, Richmond Fisher House program assistant. "The cafeteria at the hospital is closed on the weekends so families either have to get fast food, bring something with them or get something out of the vending machines.
"The kitchen at the house is available for them to cook in, if they choose to, but many are so tired from caring for their loved ones that they just grab something quick," she explained. "And, not all the families have their own transportation. To have a delicious, nutritious meal prepared for them is something that really builds their morale."
The joint military service volunteer opportunity came about as an outreach project from the school.
"We wanted to get more involved with the community and stress to our students the need to give back," said Coast Guard Senior Chief Petty Officer Katrina Goguen, senior instructor. "The Fisher House mission provided an opportunity to help care for our military families and veterans while showcasing the training and professionalism of our food service specialists."
Because military members and their families are stationed around the world and sometimes must travel to reach specialized care, the Fisher House Foundation donates "comfort homes," which are built on the grounds of major military and Department of Veteran Affairs medical centers. These homes enable families to be close to their loved ones during their hospitalization.
After receiving a tour and briefing to better understand the facility and the residents, Chief Warrant Officer 4 Russell Campbell, Advanced Food Service Training Division chief, wanted to offer this as a volunteer opportunity to his students.
"There was a need here at the Fisher House that we thought we could help with," he said. "It's a great outreach mission as the skills the students use are in line with the training they are receiving. It also provides us with an opportunity to take care of our military family -- both active duty and veterans." The Advanced Culinary Course is an intense hands-on course designed to improve the overall skills of an experienced chef. The course focuses on knife skills, menu development, advanced baking techniques, buffet platter production and presentation, production of multiple course meals, effective purchasing techniques, advanced dessert preparation, table service and nutrition.
Planning and preparations for the outreach mission took place over several weeks. JCCoE personnel developed the menu and accompanied Fisher House personnel as they purchased the ingredients which would be used to create a variety of dishes.
As the six students and three instructors worked as a well-organized team preparing numerous dishes, the mood in the house was one of excitement and anticipation. Residents crowded around the kitchen to watch, ask questions and share stories about their loved ones receiving care in the hospital.
Brunch for the residents included: chicken marsala; roast pork with caramelized onion served on a bed of leeks; rosemary garlic roasted new potatoes; fettuccine alfredo with sautéed asparagus; and made-to-order omelets and crepes.
The Richmond house can provide a home for up to 21 families at any given time. "We stay full," said Porter, who has worked with the Fisher House program for seven years. "There is usually a waiting list for families of veterans. There is a process families go through to stay here; usually, our home is for families needing more of an extended stay. Residents stay with us a few days to a lot longer depending on need.
"The veterans need their families here with them - they are medicine for them," she said. Just as the brunch was a form of healing. "Many of our residents made plates to take to the hospital to share with their loved ones. There was a lot of excitement to try the different dishes."
Annually, the overall Fisher House program serves more than 12,000 families, and has made available over three million days of lodging since the program began in 1990. There is no charge for families to stay at a Fisher House operated by the VA; and the organization uses donations to reimburse the houses operated by the Army, Navy and Air Force.
Porter said the facility is a beautiful and comfortable place for families to stay, but noted there are needs beyond what they can provide.
"We're always looking for volunteers and have been very blessed to have some groups continually support the residents," she said. "The Blue Star Mothers, Daughters of the American Revolution, Richmond Red Cross and others routinely provide support, but there is always a need."
In appreciation for their hard work and dedication, Porter presented each of the military chefs with a Richmond Fisher House coin and encouraged them to come back.
"This is definitely a volunteer program we want to continue," Campbell said. "If we have enough volunteers in each class then we will schedule a time to come to the house and prepare a meal. We've already scheduled another outreach for the staff at our school."