This year’s top winner in the Fisher Service Award program connects volunteer pilots with injured and disabled veterans and their caregivers — flying them at no cost to medical centers, adaptive retreats and morale-boosting events throughout the eastern U.S.
“Our pilots love to fly veterans. … They look for the flights. They’re passionate about giving back,” said Donna Collins, executive director of PALS SkyHope. The organization provides the non-emergency medical flights to anyone where distance is a problem, but for veterans, that expands to include other programs that promote healing of the body, soul and mind, she said.
The Fisher Service Award for Military Community Service program provided a total of $250,000 in grants from the Fisher House Foundation to PALS Skyhope and four other nonprofit organizations for the innovative work they do to meet the unique needs in the military and veteran communities. The five organizations were chosen by a panel of judges from nearly 600 applications.
PALS SkyHope’s PALS for Patriots program received the top award of $90,000, and four other nonprofits received $40,000 each to expand programs that include free child care for military families during medical appointments, training for military teen aspiring entrepreneurs, no-cost comprehensive dental care for veterans, and grants for extracurricular activities for military children.
“The military service and veteran service organizations are part of our team,” said Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond, chief of space operations for the U.S. Space Force, in remarks at the ceremony Wednesday, to an audience that included the current winners as well as previous winners and other nonprofit organizations. This was his last public event before his retirement ceremony Nov. 2, he said.
Over the course of his career, Raymond said, he’s witnessed many times where the work of nonprofits has helped service members or their family. “It’s no exaggeration to say you save lives and you change lives,” he said. “Nonprofits that take care of our troops, veterans and families are essential to our nation. You are true patriots. …
“On behalf of all of us service members, we thank you. You make a huge, huge difference.
“Military life by its very nature entails sacrifice, and not just by the service member, but by the spouse, the children, our loved ones,” he said, citing the frequent moves, the separations, the multiple schools, and high stress work environments that take a toll.
Raymond said he and his wife, Mollie, and their three children moved to Japan in the middle of his daughter’s freshman year. She was assigned to write a one-sentence poem in a class at Yokota High School.
Raymond became emotional as he read that six-word poem.
“‘My dad serves and I follow’,” Raymond read. “It was very powerful,” he said.
To the representatives of nonprofits in the audience, he said, “You are appreciated. Your work matters tremendously. Please keep doing what you’re doing. We need you and we are a more ready and capable force, and our nation is more secure because of you.”
PALS for Patriots
PALS SkyHope’s PALS for Patriots program connects volunteer pilots with injured and disabled military veterans and their caregivers to medical centers and events that promote healing, Collins said.
“It‘s important for their recovery. … There’s a huge need out there, and treatment isn’t always close to home.”
“We would love to fly more veteran flights,” Collins said, “but awareness of our program is one of our challenges,” adding that the Military Times Foundation’s donation of $34,000 in advertising to each of the organizations will help with that effort.
Pilots volunteer their own time, their own plane and furnish the fuel. For every dollar the organization spends, the pilots spend $4, Collins said. An online system allows veterans to request flights. About 70% of the flights are covered by the volunteer pilots. “If they can’t fly them, we make sure to get them there on a commercial flight,” paid for by the organization, she said.
Since the program began, SkyHope has flown more than 1,200 veterans and their families. SkyHope also has a relationship with Major League Baseball, Collins said. “We coordinate with the various clubs to make it a special experience for our veterans. Many of the clubs provide skyboxes, give the veterans tours, picture opportunities and announce their presence at the games.”
Armed Services YMCA
For decades, Armed Services YMCA has worked to provide child care options for military families as one of its many programs, and junior enlisted families are their priority. One child care option is no-cost drop-in care during medical appointments. The “children’s waiting room” program is now offered at 12 locations, including a new one that opened at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Oct. 25, said Dorene Ocamb, ASYMCA’s chief development and marketing officer.
With the $40,000 in funding provided by the Fisher Service Award, Ocamb said, they hope to be able to open more locations. “We want the families to have this, so they can take care of themselves,” she said.
In most locations, the program is in a small space within the medical facility, where families can drop off their children at no cost for up to two hours as they go to medical appointments or pick up prescriptions at the pharmacy. Reservations are required usually about 24 to 48 hours ahead to reserve a spot.
In some areas, the children’s waiting room is located off the installation, perhaps at an ASYMCA chapter. At Fort Hood, Texas, there are programs at Darnall Army Medical Center and at two ASYMCA chapters off the base. This year, they’re on track to provide care for about 4,000 children between the three locations, she said.
In the year since the children’s waiting room opened at Darnell, the previous commanding officer of the hospital told ASYMCA they had seen a 30% decrease in the number of no-show appointments, she said. “People are actually able to keep their appointments when they have child care,” Ocamb said. “We think this is a really important program for military families in helping them get access to the health care they need, and helps the health care system provide sufficient care to military families.”
“Our goal is to be at capacity every day,” she said.
In some areas, where they don’t have the children’s waiting room, such as San Diego, they provide a voucher for free drop-in care at the installation child development center.
Everyone for Veterans
Dr. Theresa Cheng began offering a free dental day in 2008 to give back to the community, and launched the Everyone for Veterans program in 2017. In the past five years, the organization has provided dental care to more than 900 veterans and their family members, said Jessica Elwell, the executive director. Volunteers have logged nearly 5,800 hours of service across 34 states and have provided nearly $1.1 million in comprehensive dental care and other essential needs.
The $40,000 award will be used to explore more opportunities to help veterans and their families.
“This grant makes a tremendous impact in the services and the supports we are able to provide,” Elwell said. “With this increase in capacity, we are looking forward to expanding our services to more states, partnering with more dental professionals and dental schools and serving more veterans than ever before.”
Typically, a veteran in the program will receive an average of about $3,500 in care, but there have been cases where a veteran received as much as $50,000 in donated comprehensive and restorative dental care.
While the dental program is their primary focus, they’ve also noticed there are other stressors for veterans that volunteers may be able to address. The organization’s Wingman Program helps point veterans to needed resources, and provides tangible goods and other practical support, she said. Examples have included providing a mattress for a veteran who had been sleeping in an armchair and giving warm weather clothing and gifts to children of veterans during the holidays.
Our Military Kids
Our Military Kids was founded in 2004 to provide grants for extracurricular activities to children and teens, ages 3 to 18, of deployed National Guard and Reserve members and post-9/11 combat-injured service members.
Each activity scholarship is worth up to $300. “We are hoping to provide up to 133 OMK scholarships with this $40,000 grant,” said Michelle Criqui, marketing and communications manager for Our Military Kids.
Sports are the most common activities they fund, she said, but they also send kids to fine arts classes, camp, tutoring and many more. And there are some unusual requests they have fulfilled, such as log rolling, bull riding, aerobatics camp, motocross, sailing lessons, robotics competitions and opera singing.
Since 2004, OMK has provided more than 80,000 activity scholarships worth $31 million to children and teens in all 50 states and four territories, she said.
The Rosie Network’s Kidpreneur Camp
The Rosie Network’s Kidpreneur program is one-of-a-kind effort, offering full-service training and support to military teens, typically ages 12 to 17, who are interested in becoming entrepreneurs.
The program was launched in 2021 as a summer camp, and this $40,000 grant will help the organization provide it year round, said Stephanie Brown, CEO and founder of The Rosie Network. Each military teen will also receive a custom entrepreneur workbook.
The feedback “has been just out of control. It was amazing,” Brown said. “There was no doubt we were going to do it again and just try to grow it.”
Kids today, especially military kids, have certain skills that make them great entrepreneurs, she said. “They move, they have to reacclimate, be the new person in town, and are outgoing.”
They also tend to be comfortable with technology. But it’s not just the program helping individual military kids realize their entrepreneurial opportunities, she said. “It’s really creating a network for them to help each other, to collaborate and support each other.
“That I find is the secret sauce, networking … shared experiences, shared values,” she said.
“Small business ownership is the American dream. We’re helping to build the next generation of business leaders. They will hire, they will give back and will in turn support military families.”
The teens can come to the program with an existing idea, product or service, or they can come to the program in the concept stage, and they’ll get help fleshing out their ideas, Brown said.
“The first Kidpreneur class I tuned in on, I couldn’t stop smiling. I had goose bumps,” Brown said.
“Why didn’t we do this 10 years ago?“
Military Times Foundation partners with the Fisher House Foundation in the Fisher Service Award program, previously known as the Newman’s Own Awards.
“Military Times is proud to support military-connected families and organizations like each of yours which strive to improve lives of those in this community,” said Kelly Facer, senior vice president for revenue operations at Military Times/ Sightline Media Group, at the ceremony. “As is the case every year, our honorees exemplify the power of community, cooperation and innovation in tackling the most important issues for our nation’s heroes.”
Since the program began in 1999, more than $2.75 million has been awarded to 200 nonprofits for innovative programs to improve the quality of life of service members, veterans and their families. The Fisher House Foundation is best known for its network of 93 comfort homes where military and veteran families can stay at no cost while a loved one is receiving medical treatment.
The founder of that program, Zachary Fisher, “taught us that there’s a dignity and majesty in the efforts of our armed forces,” said Dave Coker, president of Fisher House Foundation. “It is well for us to remember the noble deeds of those who have worn the uniform. That’s something that guides us at Fisher House.”
Over the past 20 years, Ken Fisher, Zachary Fisher’s grand nephew, has continued that legacy. “Ken taught us that ‘thank you for your service’ is nice, but it’s not enough,” Coker said. “You need to take that gratitude and put it into action in such a way that it narrows that military-civilian divide. …
“What I love about this [awards] program is how we find others, other organizations and other leaders who are as passionate and dedicated to supporting the military community as we are,” he said. “It’s one thing to find them, and another thing to tell the story,” adding that a big part of the effort is spreading awareness of what the groups do.
The judges for the awards were Mollie Raymond; Kelly Hokanson, spouse of the chief of the National Guard Bureau; Tammy Fisher, trustee of the Fisher House Foundation; Lynne Pace and Suzie Schwartz, both trustees as well as spouses of retired generals; and Kelly Facer of Military Times.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.