By Ellen Jean Hirst
Afrika Milfort hadn't seen her father in nearly three years when she got a call and learned that he'd had a stroke.
Milfort, who says she's a daddy's girl, bought an expensive round-trip ticket to see him at the Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital in Hines. The 20-year-old attends college in Jacksonville, Fla., and lives with her mother there. Milfort's father, a veteran of the Navy and Marines, lives in Palatine.
"Going back on that kind of term was not the most ideal reunion," Milfort said. But by the time she left, he'd nearly recovered.
Two weeks later, though, she learned her father was ill again. Disheartened, she said, she knew she couldn't afford another plane ticket so soon.
An online search revealed the Hero Miles program, something that, at first, seemed too good to be true.
"I was kind of skeptical going into it," Milfort said. "I thought I was just one out of hundreds of people trying to get a ticket ... (but) they called me back the same day."
She had a ticket.
On Sunday at the Hines Fisher House, Gov. Pat Quinn encouraged Illinois residents to donate their frequent-flier miles to Hero Miles, so people like Milfort could travel to their relatives' bedsides, whether overseas or stateside. The program also helps wounded or sick service members with approved leave to fly home at no cost.
Quinn plans to donate 10,000 of his miles to the cause this year, said Brendan Dailey, chief of protocol for the governor's office. So far, Hero Miles has issued more than 34,000 tickets, worth nearly $54 million. The program works with AirTran, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta, Frontier, United and US Airways.
The Fisher House Foundation administers Hero Miles. It's a nonprofit organization with houses across the country that provide families of hospitalized veterans and military personnel with free lodging on hospital grounds.
"I think me being there helped (her father) heal faster," Milfort said.
Milfort said the Hines Fisher House felt like home.
"It was like walking into a Southern Living magazine," Milfort said. "If you've ever seen that magazine, it was immaculate and gorgeous. The way they accommodate the families is amazing."
Nancy Hogan stayed at the Hines Fisher House for 101/2 months when her husband, who was an Air Force staff sergeant, became very ill.
"It started out as vascular problems," Hogan said. When the family realized its lack of insurance wouldn't allow him to stay near home, he was transferred to the Hines VA hospital, and Nancy Hogan relocated to the Hines Fisher House. The management at the Fisher House became just like family, she said.
Hogan said that after eight amputations and a "roller-coaster ride" of emotions, her husband, Jim, became well enough to return home.
The Hines Fisher House will have at least 15 families staying there on Christmas, manager Holly Wright said.
"It's hard enough to be away from home," Wright said, "especially when your loved one may be very ill in the hospital."
Since it opened March 1, 2010, the Hines Fisher House has provided more than 1,700 families with accommodations while their family members were in the local veterans hospital. Some of them relied on donated frequent-flier miles for travel.
"All I can say is, please help and please tell your friends," veteran Jim Hogan said. "If you want to come here, your family can come with you."
Frequent-flier miles can be donated by visiting http://www.fisherhouse.org or by calling Holly Wright at 708-202-7154.
"Holidays, birthdays & anniversaries have been celebrated with tears and smiles with people who truly understand what the other person is experiencing."
- Kamryn Jaroszewski