Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007

Neighborhood works to help military families

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Victoria Hall had lived in her East Bethesda neighborhood for 10 years, across the street from one of the nation’s foremost military hospitals. Wounded fighters came and went from the base, briefly becoming her neighbors.

‘‘There’s a huge number of wounded soldiers over there, and they’re invisible to us...because you never see anyone in wheelchairs,” Hall said. ‘‘They’re neighbors to us. They’re in our neighborhood, and they don’t even know we’re there.”

This spring, she decided to start a small-scale neighborhood campaign to connect East Bethesda residents with the National Naval Medical Center that sits just north of the community. Hall and the East Bethesda Citizens Association began a casual, charitable relationship with the Fisher House, where families stay while their loved one recuperates.

The neighborhood association, one of the largest in the county, represents more than 1,200 households south of the National Naval Medical Center.

The Naval base holds two Fisher Houses, on Stokes Road, that offer free lodging to family members of sailors and soldiers, for up to 30 nights. There are 36 Fisher Houses at military bases around the country.

The association took its first step in earnest in May, putting out a collection basket for donations at the neighborhood’s yard sale in the Lynnbrook Local Park. After gathering $75 from neighbors toward freebies for military families, Hall made some calls to military and Fisher House officials — and to a downtown Bethesda restaurant where she thought out-of-towners might feel welcome.

Hall called Don Battista, manager of Rock Bottom on Norfolk Avenue, asking for a matching donation of $75 in free meals for Fisher House families. Battista bested her request and offered $200 in free meals for families, so that Hall could spend the $75 elsewhere.

Battista said the impetus for his company’s donation was Hall’s phone call. While the chain regularly budgets for donations in the 20814 Bethesda ZIP code, this was the brewery-restaurant’s first donation to the Fisher House, he said.

‘‘We have people from the Naval Hospital, patients and staff who come to the restaurant,” Battista said. He did not know whether any Fisher House families had stopped in with vouchers since the donations were offered.

Hall used the remainder of the neighborhood’s first collection to buy four movie ticket gift cards, six round-trip Metro cards and a $20 contribution to the Yellow Ribbon Fund that gives vouchers for free taxi cab rides in Bethesda.

The EBCA also gave the Fisher House some welcome-to-the-neighborhood packets from the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center, with maps and event listings.

Hall said the association delivered invitations to the Fisher House for families to attend the EBCA’s Fourth of July celebration, hoping that families could feel a part of a neighborhood during holidays.

Ben and Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream has pledged to give the Navy Med Fisher House 15 percent of its ice cream truck sales at the association’s annual Labor Day Picnic, according to EBCA President Ilaya Rome Hopkins.

The East Bethesda campaign is in its infancy, but the association board is hoping to continue collaborating with the Fisher House Foundation, based in Rockville. The neighborhood is one of many working with the foundation to hold events or collect donations to benefit Fisher House families, according to Jim Weiskopf, a foundation spokesman.

‘‘This is an extremely generous community, I knew that after being here five minutes,” said Becky Wood, manager of the Bethesda Fisher House program. Wood said recent donors include the Knights of Columbus who gave meals at Maggiano’s Little Italy in Friendship Heights, and phone cards from the American Legion.

‘‘They always say, ‘We wish we could thank [donors] in person,’” Wood said of the families. ‘‘It means so much.”

The warm fuzzies are shared in East Bethesda.

‘‘It was rewarding to me, to feel like we kind of made a connection between the residents, business owners and the Naval Hospital,” Hall said.