Caring for caregivers – That’s been the mission for Ronald McDonald House Charities® for nearly 50 years as it has provided accommodations free of charge where families can stay together while caring for their critically ill or injured children.
“Families are stronger together,” said Susan Adams, president and CEO of Ronald McDonald House Charities® of Oklahoma City. “We are a place for families to be together.”
Since its first house in Philadelphia in 1974, the organization has established more than 375 locations near top children’s hospitals around the world, welcoming parents who travel considerable distances to receive the best care, including Kaleigh and Najiyen Blythe.
Home away from home
The Blythes – both senior airmen in the U.S. Air Force – came to OU Children’s Hospital from Altus in December 2021 after complications led to the premature birth of their daughter, Lillia. With their extended families in Georgia and South Carolina and their home two hours away, the Blythes checked in to the local Ronald McDonald House® to be near Lillia as she underwent a variety of procedures and treatments for her underdeveloped respiratory system.
The newly expanded 40-bedroom Ronald McDonald House in Oklahoma City – whose first house opened in 1984 at another location offering 10 bedrooms – attaches directly to OU Children’s Hospital via a skybridge. This proximity allowed the Blythes to arrive at the NICU in the middle of one particularly crucial night five minutes after a nurse called to alert them of Lillia’s distress.
“It’s been so great being so close to her and not having to worry about being two hours away,” said Kaleigh. “It takes the stress of having to travel back and forth.”
Ronald McDonald Houses balance the need for families’ privacy and support, according to Adams. While families receive their own personal bedroom and bathroom, they can also access common living, dining, kitchen and laundry areas where they can meet with other families caring for their own sick children.
After Najiyen began returning to duty in Altus during the week, he was grateful Kaleigh not only had a safe place to stay near Lillia but also other parents in the house around her, so she was not alone between the NICU and their accommodations.
“We’ve been fortunate to have this as part of our experience and to give me peace of mind when I’m at work,” said Najiyen. “She’s able to go to lunch or talk with people that understand what’s going on, so she has that connection.”
Serving local families
The amenities offered at houses go beyond a place to rest and recharge, said Adams. The local Ronald McDonald House also enlists the help of guest chefs to provide at least one meal a day for families and provides some staples for families to prepare other meals in the kitchen facilities. Some volunteers also offer their services in providing haircuts and other personal care needs for those staying at the house, and musicians and artists have used their talents at events hosted at the house for guests.
Ronald McDonald House Charities also cares for those who live in the same general area as the hospital through the Ronald McDonald Family Room®, which offers services like showers, laundry, computer access, and snacks without families having to make the round-trip journey home.
“You have everything you need so you can focus on taking care of your child,” said Adams.
Keeping families together became a greater challenge during the period of distancing and separation stemming from responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, which included not allowing siblings to stay with their families until recently. Ronald McDonald House Charities of Oklahoma City adapted to the changing guidelines to ensure they continued helping families.
Despite suspending admission of new families into the local house on March 21, 2020, the organization continued providing accommodations to the families already staying there, said Adams. They supplemented their facilities with hotel rooms for new families for a time, and they still provided meals every day for parents with the help of hospital vouchers, packaged meals and community partnerships. As protocols started to ease, Ronald McDonald House began welcoming parents back until the house and family room returned to normal operations in mid-April 2022.
During this time, the local Ronald McDonald House completed its planned expansion to 40 bedrooms, and Adams said she is looking forward to using this new space to help even more families by providing a projected 8,067 accommodated nights in 2022 and about 12,400 nights in 2023.
While all involved in this work hope for the best outcomes, Adams said the realities guest families face can come with loss and grief. But sometimes the families’ experiences in a Ronald McDonald House can help provide an added layer of support during their darkest time.
“We help families that are not able to take their child home perhaps even more than the families that are able,” said Adams. “We do not provide clinical care, but our team walks by their side with each day no matter what it brings. They gain support from our team. They gain support from other families in the house. As I hear from families … we have given them the ability to be by their child’s side to continue to make memories until the day they are not able to take their child home.”
Given the number of families the organization serves every year and its association with 90 percent of the world’s top children’s hospitals, Ronald McDonald House Charities has utilized family-centered care research that analyzes how critical hospitalizations of children impact families long after they return home. Stability from accommodations like Ronald McDonald Houses can help reduce some of the negative outcomes from those experiences.
Help provide hope
Ronald McDonald House Charities funds its services with help from individual and organizational donors who support its mission to keep families together. For instance, local McDonalds restaurants provide a penny in donations for every pound of fries sold, and some feature boxes near the register for patrons to make cash donations.
Dave and Stacy Lopez have not only donated personally to the organization for years, but they also have helped plan and coordinate events like Walk for Kids or the annual Red Shoe Rendezvous – which will take place at 6 p.m. on Sept. 23, 2022, at the Omni Hotel, 100 Oklahoma City Blvd. – because of the impact they have seen in the lives of guest families they have met.
“To see all the work done through the charity and to see the space it provides for families to help give them hope, that to me is the most rewarding part of being involved,” said Dave Lopez, who has attended events at the local, national and international levels. “It’s a great place for hope.”
Despite its global reach, the organization understands the importance of its role in local communities. As such, Adams said all money raised locally stays within the local Ronald McDonald House Charities programs.
Donations can also take the form of toys provided for siblings to play with while staying at the house or food items for the pantries provided for families’ use, said Adams.
For more information and ways to get involved with Ronald McDonald House of Oklahoma City, visit rmhc-okc.org or call 405-424-6873.