Military Aid: Attorney helps spearhead Fisher House development efforts

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Bodman attorney Harvey Berman (fifth from left), treasurer of the board and pro bono counsel for Fisher House Michigan, took part in the groundbreaking of the Fisher House on the Ann Arbor VA Medical Center campus, in June 2018.

Photo courtesy of Fisher House Michigan

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Ann Arbor attorney Harvey Berman attended a November 2015 “Stories of Service” event in Ann Arbor honoring veterans. The Hill Auditorium event was a life-changer for him.

There, Berman met Ann Arbor Rotarian Karen Kerry, who was trying to get a Zachary and Elizabeth M. Fisher House built in Michigan, a temporary “home away from home” – at no charge – for families and caregivers of patients receiving medical care at major military and VA medical centers. Michigan is home to approximately 650,000 veterans, with five VA Medical Centers.

Kerry was moved to hear the story of Berman’s parents, Holocaust survivors who were liberated from concentration camps by American soldiers, and who immigrated to the U.S. after World War II.

“After Karen heard my family’s story, she called and asked if Bodman would form the nonprofit entity and obtain tax-exempt status,” Berman explains. “We said yes, and a month later, I was asked to be on the first board.

“I do this because our members of the armed forces risk their lives for us every day so we can be free – and the very least they deserve is free medical care and a place where their families can stay when the veteran in their family is being treated at a VA facility. I do this because unknown American soldiers saved my parents’ lives and made it possible for us to live in America. I do this because it’s the right thing to do – and we owe it to our veterans.”

The Fisher House motto is “A family’s love is good medicine.”

“Imagine how difficult it would be for our veterans to regain health if they couldn’t have family with them during their medical challenge,” Berman says. “Through my involvement with Fisher House Michigan, I’ve met some of the greatest people I’ve ever known – humble, dedicated, grateful American veterans who complain less about losing a limb than most Americans complain about the weather.

“These men and women are our real heroes – and the future of our country – because they understand the true meaning of serving others.”

Berman, an attorney with Bodman in Ann Arbor, is just completing his term as treasurer of the Fisher House Michigan board, and provides pro bono counsel.

“It’s an honor and a pleasure to service Fisher House Michigan,” he says. “We have a great board and executive director — Kate Melcher, a former Army Apache helicopter pilot — that takes very seriously the trust placed in us and our mission by the public.”

To date, FHM has raised $7 million of its $20 million goal, which will fund two Fisher Houses, support families during their stay, and provide funds to endow other Fisher Houses in Michigan that the VA authorizes.

“Of course, we have a long way to go and we’re always looking for leadership and other donations,” Berman says.

“We’re committed to doing everything in accordance with the law including having annual audited financials,” he adds. “My position as counsel has been important for our board and donors to assure we fulfill the trust placed in our organization.”

Construction of the Fisher House on the VA’s Ann Arbor campus is already bricked in, and Berman is confident it will be housing the families of veterans before next June. U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow, Rep. Debbie Dingell, Rep. Tim Walberg, and Paula Tutman from Channel 4 in Detroit attended last summer’s groundbreaking.

In March 2018, the Veterans Administration approved the building of a second Fisher House in Michigan, which is planned to be within walking distance of the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center in Detroit.

“Fund-raising for that effort is well underway and we eagerly anticipate site selection and groundbreaking in that city as well,” Berman says. “Our team has committed to support any Fisher House in the state that our veterans need.”

Berman travels to speak about Fisher Houses, and recently spoke at a New Orleans fund-raiser, where the city’s first Fisher House broke ground this month.

Fisher House Michigan held its 5th annual fund-raiser, Stories of Service: An Evening With Veterans on November 6 at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor. Delta Airlines was the main event sponsor.

“It may sound like a cliché, but the stories we hear at SOS are true personal stories of courage, valor, emotional strength, humility, commitment and patriotism that is rarely known by civilians,” Berman says. “Tears are shed – all are moved – and we gain a better understanding of service.”

The chair of Bodman PLC’s Construction Practice Group, Berman notes that all Fisher Houses are designed and constructed by the national Fisher House Foundation in Maryland and must meet rigorous government standards, including the ability to withstand hurricanes, earthquakes, and bomb blasts. Energy efficiency and conservation are utilized as to appliances and lighting, but there are limits on energy conservation methods given the overarching safety requirements.

Berman concentrates his practice in construction, contracts, real estate and business matters including claims and alternative dispute resolution, and also focuses on “green” building and “lean” construction matters.
He is a member of the Forum on the Construction Industry of the American Bar Association, the Washtenaw Contractors Association, and the Builders and Remodelers Association of Greater Ann Arbor.

“My father was a residential builder for a major part of his career and he loved real estate and construction. His love of these areas carried over to me, but I didn’t know the full extent until later when I started practicing law,” Berman says. “The construction industry involves real salt-of-the-earth and get-it-done people. The combination of skill, teamwork, and risk provides an unmatched challenge. Every building is a testament to the success of the building industry.”

He is also a LEED Accredited Professional specializing in sustainable building systems and practices; one of only a small group of lawyers in Michigan to achieve that certification.

“I’ve always been concerned about the environment and conservation of energy – but the Iran oil embargo in the ‘70s increased my interest,” he says. “I was founder and president of a company that in 1981 put on BikeAmerica, which I believe is the largest bicycle show to ever take place in the U.S. This was my effort to tackle improving the environment and conserving energy. Over 17,000 people attended this four-day education, exhibit and racing event at Cleveland’s Convention Center.”

An alumnus of Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, Berman has always been interested in writing and public speaking and also had a strong interest in profit and nonprofit organizations, helping start quite a few over the years.

“Law seemed like a great way to combine these interests,” he says.

Berman was the attorney for Blaney Park, a logging town turned resort and residential development in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula that was the victim of unscrupulous developers. He also served as the attorney for an architectural firm relating to claims surrounding the Hell Dam project that involved virtually every prominent construction attorney in Detroit at the time.

In addition, he recently resolved without litigation a major construction defect dispute involving an out-of-state construction project revolving around a 650,000-square-foot automotive parts plant. He also has represented the project owner on numerous high profile and other construction transactions involving stadiums, corporate headquarters, museums, hospitals, warehouse, and manufacturing plants.

Berman and his wife Shelly Kovacs, an author and private sports and educational consultant to high school and college students, make their home in Ann Arbor with their 4-year-old Goldendoodle Teddy. The couple’s son, Josh, works for Culture Amp in San Francisco, and daughter Julia works for Franworth in Ann Arbor.

“Besides spending time with Teddy and working out with a fantastic group of sports trainers at Coval Fitness, most of my spare time is spent rooting for Michigan and helping several other community organizations such as Life Remodeled which revitalizes Detroit neighborhoods and the Ann Arbor Student Building Industry Program, Inc. which enables local high school students to build a house every year. Both are public/private partnerships,” he says.


What is a  Fisher House?

Fisher House was the brainchild of prominent New York real estate developer and philanthropist Zachary Fisher. After a leg injury prohibited him from active duty during World War II, Fisher began a lifetime dedicated to the wellbeing of men and women in uniform. Fisher House Michigan will bring the total to more than 80 Fisher Houses located at military and VA medical centers across the nation. There also are Fisher Houses in Great Britain and Germany.

Fisher Houses have up to 21 family suites that include private bedrooms and baths. Families share a kitchen, laundry facilities, dining room, and living room. The Ann Arbor Fisher House will provide 16 suites.

Since the first two Fisher Houses opened in 1991, more than 335,000 families have benefited from more than 8 million days of free lodging, representing a savings of an estimated $407 million in out-of-pocket costs for the military, patients and their families. CharityWatch, an independent philanthropic watch dog, names Fisher House as one of only three military charities with an A+ rating. Most recently, Fisher House Michigan (FHM) was awarded the GuideStar Platinum Seal of Transparency.

The Fisher House Foundation underwrites the construction and furnishing of each home. Each facility is then gifted to the Department of Veterans Affairs, which oversees its operations, supported in part by endowments reliant on donations from the public and organizations.

For additional information, visit https://fisherhousemichigan.org.

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