By Alexander Germanis
A family is meant to be together. When any member of that family is missing for a significant time, the absence can be palpable. When a child is not with their family, that absence can become an ache so intense it breaks hearts.
Unfortunately, many children fall ill or require constant medical care that can take them away from their parents’ sides and put them in a hospital for days, weeks, or even months. Aside from the worry and stress this can cause the parents, there is also the child’s fear of being alone in that hospital, particularly if they know mom or dad might be many hours away.
Since 1974, Ronald McDonald House Charities® has established houses near hospitals to provide the essentials of home for those families. It is their mission to help keep those families together at a time when they most need each other’s warmth and support.
Fulfilling a need
For 33 years, the only Ronald McDonald House Charities® of Central Illinois was its Springfield program, a lone point of aid primarily serving the many people between Chicago and St. Louis. This area, according to Chief Executive Officer of Ronald McDonald House Charities® of Central Illinois Kelly Thompson, consists of a vast 29 county region.
“We conducted a medical needs study with the University of Illinois to determine which counties could potentially be most in need of our services,” Kelly explains. “The Peoria area was identified as a region with very high need, and thus began our journey to bring a Ronald McDonald House® close to the medical district.”
“This will be our first House outside of our starter House,” adds Peoria Program Director, Brian Replogle. “We’re really excited to join the Peoria community, which has been so warm and welcoming to us, and we’re thrilled to be there.”
Peoria has certainly expressed having open arms by already contributing over 80 percent of the funding for the construction. But, a further $1.5 million is needed before the opening of the Ronald McDonald House this late autumn (To see how you can donate, please see the contact information at the end of the article).
“Construction is going very well,” Kelly says. “Despite some subzero temperatures this winter, our build partners, River City Construction and Farnsworth Group, have kept the project timeline on track.”
Those interested can witness the construction on the corner of Spalding and Monroe in downtown Peoria or via a live feed on the website listed at the end of this article.
Providing more than just a roof
The Ronald McDonald House is not like staying at a hotel that just happens to be near the hospital. The staff and volunteers work tirelessly to make it feel like a home at a time when families are most in need of the comfort of being home.
“Our Peoria Ronald McDonald House® will operate 24/7, 365 days per year with a small paid staff and with the help of numerous volunteers,” Kelly shares. “We will be hiring approximately three to four full-time and eight to 12 part-time employees. We will be actively recruiting volunteers to help in the areas of family services and preparation of meals.”
Those individuals will serve an anticipated 700 families per year who will be occupying the 22 mini-suites in the house, each with its own private bathroom. Also provided within the Ronald McDonald House will be common kitchen areas for families, an art and education room, a toy store, and indoor and outdoor playgrounds.
As Brian points out, “The majority of folks we serve don’t expect to need us,” but the Ronald McDonald House is there for when they do. Those families can be of all sizes and circumstances. While most of the families who stay at the Springfield house are there because their babies are in the NICU, families are eligible to stay if their child in the hospital is still under the age of 21, whether it is inpatient or outpatient.
“We also don’t have a time limit,” Brian adds. “Families are eligible to stay with us for as long as their child is receiving medical care.”
This means, for however long your child is in need of constant medical care, the Ronald McDonald House® is there for you with the essentials of home — free of charge.
“Our families do not pay to stay with us, which is something we are so happy to be able to provide,” Brian says. “We’re fortunate to have a significant support system — from our families, donors, our corporate sponsors — and thus we are able to provide the essentials our families need in order to remove a very big piece of stress on the financial side of their lives.”
Be there for your child
A home should be a place where the stresses of the world can be sloughed off and a physical, emotional, and spiritual recharging can take place. For families who are already weighed down by the indescribable stress of having a child in the hospital, not being able to go home for that recharge in order to be near the child can be trying.
“We meet so many people going through this challenge of having to suddenly, temporarily relocate when they didn’t anticipate it,” Brian states. “As a parent, you want to focus your energy on making sure your child or children are healthy. So, when something happens and their child needs medical care — especially when it’s prolonged care — it’s already so stressful.”
Coupling that stress with the need to understand medical terminology, figuring out work schedules, and updating the rest of the family and friends on what is happening with their child, worrying about the regular rigors of the day can be just a little too much to handle.
Of course, the children in the hospital experience their own fears and stress as well. “It would be terrible to be a child in the hospital and not be able to see your mom for a week,” Brian sympathizes. “To know that if dad is going to step out to take a shower but mom is still going to be right there or vice versa — to always have somebody there is so comforting.”
The Ronald McDonald House mission is to remove the focus on those stressors and allow families to focus on their children in the hospital. In worst-case scenarios, should the hospital call at 2am, the parent can be there in minutes. “They can be by their child whenever they’re needed and still be able to get a decent night’s rest in a bed; they’re still able to eat a hot meal; they’re still able to take a warm shower,” Brian says. “So, all of those things hopefully help give them a sense of normalcy and a sense of comfort.”
“We try to take as much as we can off our families’ plates,” he continues. “You don’t have to worry about where to stay or how to budget for it, or whether a grandmother or sibling can stay too. Our goal is to take as much stress away from you so you can focus on those things you need to focus on and so you can be there with your child.”
“Sometimes, especially for a lot of non-profit organizations, you feel like you’re doing the work but don’t always get to see the mission work in action. But because our offices are located in the House, we get to meet and see our families all day, every day,” Brian says warmly. “It makes me better in my role and makes me want to work harder because I can see the impact it’s having.”
The simplicity of that mission belies its vital impact. Ronald McDonald House Charities® exists to keep families together during some of the most trying times those families might ever experience. Brian adds, “It is not an exaggeration to say that it changes lives.”
To help Ronald McDonald House Charities® of Central Illinois change lives, please donate. Donations can be made online at rmhc-centralIllinois.org or by mailing to P.O. Box 5354, Peoria, IL. 61601. For more information please visit our website or call 309-401-2525.
Witness the construction in progress at rmhc-centralillinois.org/peoria-house-build-live-feed/.