Heidi Stevens: Ronald McDonald House, a port in the storm for families with sick kids, asks public to fill coronavirus-prompted gap where volunteers used to be

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CHICAGO — Ronald McDonald House is what happens when you take the best of humanity and put it up against some of life’s darkest hours.

The concept — a free, welcoming, nearby space for families to live while their children are hospitalized — arrived in Chicago more than 40 years ago.

At the time, founder Charlie Marino’s daughter, Gage, was being treated for stage 4 leukemia at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Lincoln Park. He and his wife, Jean, noticed families living out of suitcases and sleeping on hospital couches to remain near their sick children.

The Marinos asked their daughter’s oncologist, “Has anyone ever thought of buying a house nearby where people can sleep?” Charlie Marino told me when I interviewed him in 2017.

“Oh, people have been talking about that for years,” the oncologist, Ed Baum, told them.

Through Baum, the Marinos learned about a communal house in Philadelphia established in 1974 with the help of Philadelphia Eagles general manager Jim Murray and fast food giant McDonald’s.

After several months of fundraising and hunting for property in Chicago, the Marinos purchased the convent from St. Clement’s Church at 622 W. Deming Place — complete with 17 bedrooms, three kitchens and one laundry room — and opened it in 1977 bearing the name Ronald McDonald House. It was the second of its kind in the nation.

Today, there are five Ronald McDonald Houses in and around Chicago. They rely heavily on volunteers, who do everything from shopping for, preparing, serving and cleaning up meals; to tackling household repairs; to putting up holiday decorations; to dropping by with fresh-baked desserts.

Now, because of the coronavirus, those volunteers are no longer able to help.

Ronald McDonald House Charities of Chicagoland and Northwest Indiana made the difficult but necessary decision to protect the families they serve and the kind souls who serve them by suspending all volunteer services for the next three weeks, and possibly longer.

“This is something we need to wrap our heads around for a bit of time,” Lisa Mitchell, vice president of programs and services at Ronald McDonald House Charities of Chicagoland and Northwest Indiana, told me Monday. “We’re looking at the next 21 days, and then we’ll re-evaluate.”

In the meantime, the needs of families who live at the five Ronald McDonald House locations haven’t slowed.

“Our families have so many other worries,” Mitchell said. “We can’t have any shakiness on our side influence their stress levels. We need to be that rock for them. We have to figure out how we can offer all our services in the absence of our volunteers’ warm hearts and busy hands. It’s a struggle.”

Jenny Dias Da Costa is living at the Winfield Ronald McDonald House with her 5-year-old son, Max, who has recurrent medulloblastoma, a cancer that targets the central nervous system.

Max was diagnosed at age 3. His cancer was in remission last summer, but doctors found two tumors in his brain in November. He recently finished a new round of chemotherapy and now receives daily doses of radiation, for which he has to be sedated.

Max and his mom were staying at the Ronald McDonald House during the week, and heading home to Elmhurst to see Max’s dad on the weekends. But the coronavirus outbreak made it too risky for them to travel back and forth, particularly since Max’s dad travels for work and was still flying on planes until last week.

So the family decided it was safest for Max’s dad to keep his distance for now. They’ve been staying in touch through FaceTime.

“I’m Max’s primary caregiver,” Dias Da Costa told me. “So I can’t afford to get sick.”

Max’s immune system is severely compromised. Though, as Dias Da Costa pointed out, she has spent the past two years accounting for that — long before COVID-19 entered the picture.

“For families of kids with cancer, they’ve always lived like this, you know?” she said. “We were self-isolating during our kids’ treatment. We were already constantly sanitizing our houses. We were already very vigilant about washing our hands and being careful about stuff like that.”

But the coronavirus has upped the ante, shrinking the circle of people they can be near.

“Volunteers used to come in with therapy dogs,” Dias Da Costa said. “Someone would always come by in the afternoon to bake cupcakes or cookies. There’s nobody to do that anymore.”

So far, though, Ronald McDonald House staff has been able to keep the place stocked with groceries and meals. Dias Da Costa hasn’t had to venture out to a store or restaurant in between Max’s appointments, which can number up to 14 each week.

Mitchell would like to keep it that way. For every family they serve.

“Ronald McDonald House needs to continue to be available for the families who need us, virus or no virus,” Mitchell said.

The organization figures it will cost $95,000 to fund at least one meal a day for every family, across all five houses, for a month, Mitchell said. There’s a fundraising push on the website (rmhccni.org) to purchase groceries and catered meals. Mitchell said they’re also asking the public to donate restaurant gift cards.

“We’re trying to give families every tool they can possibly get to stay well and stay safe and limit their community interactions,” Mitchell said. “It’s a tough one.”

It’s particularly hard when community is such a fundamental part of the Ronald McDonald House concept.

Two years ago, I interviewed Richard and Dayle Morrissey, the first family to stay at Chicago’s first Ronald McDonald House. Their daughter, Kathey, was diagnosed with cancer at 10 months. They came to rely on volunteers and other families who moved into the house for logistical help, but also for emotional support.

“You learn not to be proud,” Richard Morrissey told me then. “You learn to ask for help, ask for prayers, ask for support. You get a sense of empathy you never even considered until you see a child diagnosed with cancer. It was very reassuring to be around people who could relate.”

Now families are being asked to spread out during meal times and quiet times, widening their circle of isolation.

“It’s definitely different now,” Dias Da Costa said.

But Max still looks forward to returning to their little home away from home after radiation each day, she said. He calls it “the hotel.”

“He get excited about it,” she said. “It’s been the silver lining for him during the hardest part of his life. For him to go through so many difficult and painful experiences he has no choice about and to have any positive associations about any part of it, it’s just such a gift.”


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