By Katie Sobiech
A freshly brewed pot of McDonald’s coffee and the smell of baking cookies have a way of making anyone feel right at home. This welcoming atmosphere at Akron’s Ronald McDonald House (RMH), also known as “The House that Love Built”, has been in existence since 1985.
The RMH, a local gem that many are unaware of, houses families of sick children staying nearby at the Akron Children’s Hospital. They want families to feel as “at-home” as possible, and focus on the healing of their children, rather than the burdens of daily tasks.
Last year the RMH served 655 families, totaling about 11,169 individuals. They had to turn away 5,149 families.
Providing a Place of Rest
“Our mission is so simple – providing a place for families to sleep, eat and shower while their kids are admitted to the hospital,” Meri Skiera, Volunteer and Media Coordinator at the Ronald McDonald House of Akron, said.
“We see a lot of unique situations and special care concerns – one is our preemies. Babies are born into those families very early and may literally be just one or two pounds. (There’s) also our transplant kids who get bone marrow or stem cell transplants and are admitted for 30 days. After that they have to be within a certain radius of the hospital in case of infection or rejections, so they will come live in our house with a parent for about another 60 days,” Skiera explained.
Not having a place to rest at the hospital leaves tired, stressed parents in a bind. The financial aspect doesn’t help either.
A Family’s Perspective
Jerry and Sheila Wright and their two sons, Patrick and Paul, from Strasburg Ohio have stayed at the RMH 16 different times.
At just 6 years old Patrick was diagnosed with cancer. His mother says it was then that their world collapsed.
Patrick has undergone 2 surgeries and 44 weeks of chemotherapy – making the RMH a huge blessing to the entire family.
The RMH allowed Jerry to stay with Patrick overnight while Sheila stayed at the House with Paul. Because of the proximity of the House to the hospital, Sheila slept peacefully knowing that she could see her son in a matter of minutes if she needed to.
Sheila recalls the first time she stepped foot in the RMH. It was in December and decorated for Christmas, and there was pot roast cooking in the kitchen. The sights and sounds and smells reminded her of holidays spent in the homes of her family.
“The people were always so nice and polite and comforting. It was like a big hug when you went into the House,” Sheila said.
Lessening the Financial Burden
“We had a family from Columbus and there was no way they could drive up every day, so we housed them Monday through Friday and they went home on weekends,” Skiera explained.
It’s an “extreme relief” for families Skiera says, especially those with children staying at the hospital long-term, or who have kids in therapy and need to keep coming back. This not only saves on driving costs, but the expenses of staying at a hotel for nights on end.
The average stay at the RMH is about 7 days, though 3-6 months is typical, Skiera says.
A Safe Place for Healing
One young girl, about 4 years old, was wheeled into the RMH in a red a wagon wearing sunglasses after having eye surgery. She was offered ginger ale and snacks, as well as a peaceful, quiet place to stay.
Twenty families of patients such as this little girl are given a safe place to stay each night.
“When they started this charity in the 70’s they did studies that proved that children heal faster and cope better if they have a loved one near them. So the goal is making it possible that families can be here, which directly affects the child in the hospital,” Skiera said.
This much-need source is appreciated by thousands of families that have been touched throughout the years. It’s hard enough having a child who is sick, let alone worrying about stacks of medical and hotel bills that can drastically add up.
“As long as you have a patient being treated at Akron Children’s or one of their long-term therapy programs, a transplant situation, or cancer treatments – we will house the family here during their stay to take the burden off of them,” Skiera said.
And this is all free of charge, with the exception of those families who would like to leave a donation.
Every Detail Makes a Difference
Approximately 45-50 people stay in the house on an average night, with access to a buffet style kitchen, open pantry and laundry facilities.
Each family gets their own private room. The living room, dining room and kitchen are shared community spaces where they get to interact with other families.
“(Families) need to shut the door and be alone, but they also have time shared with other families that know what it feels like and are experiencing the same thing – having a sick child. So you’ll see our families support each other,” Skiera explained, “Our dining room at dinner time is a dynamic, beautiful place to see that support happening.”
The RMH takes the pressure of everyday chores off of parents’ shoulders.
“You wake up in the morning and really want to go see your child, so you don’t clean your sheets and you get home at night, you’re tired and sleep in dirty sheets,” Scara explained of typical situations.
“So there are fresh sheets and towels available. It helps them feel better and in turn helps the child feel better,” she continued, on the difference at the RMH.
The kitchen is stocked with snacks and home cooked meals, and bedrooms are kept fresh with clean sheets.
Lois Reaven, found in the kitchen baking cookies, has done just about “everything” at the RMH. “Everything but fix the toilet” she laughs.
Reaven had already cleaned the refrigerator, baked cookies and loaded the dishwasher that morning.
No task is too big, or small, for her. If it needs to be done, she does it, and has for the past 28 years while serving as a volunteer.
“When we first started we did everything by hand – there were no computers so we had to write everything every single day – the name, address, where they came from, the county, doctor, everything. Everything had to be done by hand,” Reaven recalls of its early days.
“It’s a good volunteer job because you feel good when you’re done,” Reaven said.
“Almost everything in this room has been donated to the house by the community, church groups, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, schools…” Skiera said of the beautifully decorated living area.
The RMH also shares with others in the community.
“We have a very nice relationship with ACCESS and (the Haven of Rest) with sharing,” Skiera said.
McDonalds also donates their coffee products to the home.
“The hospital just announced a $200 million multi-phase expansion at the hospital. It’s going to be fabulous,” Skiera explained, “It’s going to be like a campus, and with that, we get to expand.”
This means about 50-60 brand new rooms for the RMH, a renovation of the building and, most importantly, less turning away of families in need.
A campaign to help with this project will be coming soon.
Volunteers are always needed to help. The house must be staffed from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
“They cook, clean, listen and are present in the house. They are who keep it looking like it looks,” Skiera said.
“Without our volunteers we couldn’t provide an as nice and well-kept home,” she continued.
“The community has supported us in this quiet, sustained, heartfelt way that you know how you’re going to make it work and it works. We’re so proud of it and you’re inspired everyday by the families that get up and go deal with what they need to deal with. You get inspired to do everything you can for them and to help them and get them through,” Skiera said.
For more info. on the RMH in Akron and opportunities to volunteer or give donations please visit http://www.rmhakron.org.