Home Away From Home

by Julie Shannon | Aug 20, 2018
Home Away From Home

The Ronald McDonald House of Southern New Jersey has been providing comfort and healing to families of seriously ill children for 35 years.

When a child has been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, parents have an immediate reaction to find them the best medical care as soon as possible. The last thing on their mind is thinking they may have to travel a distance to receive treatment, let alone having to be far away from the comforts of home during frequent visits.

That’s where the Ronald McDonald House of Southern New Jersey comes in. Since 1983, the Camden location has been a refuge for families of seriously ill children who are being treated at nearby hospitals. The Ronald McDonald House doesn’t just provide a bed and sheets— each family is given their own bedroom, hot meals are provided daily, and most importantly, a warm, welcoming environment from the moment families walk in. It’s a homey and comforting environment that families need during times of uncertainty and unfamiliarity.

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“Children recover better when they are not hospitalized, but when they can be with their family,” Executive Director Teddy Thomas says. “We began with the statement, ‘It’s a home away from home for families whose children needed medical care,’ and that’s still true today, but we phrase it as ‘We offer hope away from home for families.’” Our mission hasn’t changed, but what has changed is we’ve gone from back then, all the children were in the hospital, and today 75 percent receive outpatient care but most have to be at the hospital every day so they can’t go all the way back [home] again because it’s too far and they are too sick.” 

Because of the demand and large number of requests, they grew from a 10-bedroom house to a four-story building with 25 family bedrooms that was built in 1998 and is located next to Cooper University Hospital. But history of the Ronald McDonald House goes back four decades—1974 to be exact when the first Ronald McDonald House opened in Philadelphia. It began when former Philadelphia Eagles player Fred Hill’s daughter Kim was being treated for leukemia. Camping out nightly on hospital chairs and not eating solid meals during her three years of treatment took a toll and that was before they learned many other families were traveling long distances for their children’s treatment and couldn’t afford hotel rooms. Currently, there are more than 250 Ronald McDonald Houses in 26 countries that have housed 10 million families.

Thomas says the average stay for a family in the Ronald McDonald House of Southern New Jersey is 27 days, but it ranges from one night to a few months depending on the illness and treatment plan. Families that are eligible to stay are those who live 35 miles or more away. “About half are from South Jersey,” she says. “Other families can be from anywhere across the United States or another country.” Not surprisingly, the house is filled every night with a waiting list. Nearby hotels help accommodate families the Ronald McDonald House cannot until a room is available.

The organization goes to great lengths to make sure families—especially the children being treated—have a sense of normalcy and don’t dwell on the reason why they are there. One way is by creating playful, colorful themed bedrooms to appeal to the children. Some of those themes include Harry Potter, SpongeBob SquarePants, Sesame Street, Harley Davidson, NASCAR and the Philadelphia Flyers and Sixers.

“The kids are very excited about where they are staying and the wonderful thing is, children are encouraged to ask other children what their room looks like and they say, ‘When I come back, next time I want to stay in such and such room,’” says Thomas. “Sixty-five percent of these children are chronically ill and will have to return at some point, so they love to talk about where they will stay next time. 

“We have one little boy who’s stayed in 14 rooms and said he would even stay in the room with the pink and purple butterflies. Even though he has a challenging illness, he has a positive outlook on life and is smiling and enjoying things outside of the hospital— which is true for all these children who are going through a difficult medical issue. Anything where they can make a choice is great and exciting for them because so many parts of their life they can’t make choices—choices are made for them.”

The Ronald McDonald House suggested donation per family is $15 a night, but no family is required to pay and none are turned away if they don’t have the funds. Thomas says the money goes toward accommodations, meals and transportation to the hospital—the last two are provided by volunteers.

“We have volunteer drivers who drive families back and forth to the hospitals and medical facilities, and we have groups who come in and make meals,” Thomas says. “Fortunately we have a calendar and a different group signs up to make dinner every night of the year. We have church groups, families, baseball teams—you name it. Families are given breakfast and dinner every day since most families are in the hospital during lunch. If no group is providing breakfast, we provide a continental breakfast for them.”

The support from the community to help keep the Ronald McDonald House running smoothly and help the families staying there is something they count on because they are not funded by the government. Various events are held throughout the year all over South Jersey to raise money and they accept donations daily for paper products, food, among others.

“We have a wish list, from toilet paper, tissues and paper towels, to coffee and cereal for breakfast—these are things we need and use every day,” Thomas says.

Thomas’ biggest wish—making sure every child who stays at the Ronald McDonald House feels like a regular kid.

“On the inside they are just children and want to enjoy life like every other child,” she says. “At the Ronald McDonald House, everything is somewhat normal for them. It’s fantastic.”

If you’d like to volunteer your time or donate to the Ronald McDonald House of Southern New Jersey, visit RonaldHouse-SNJ.org. 

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 15, Issue 5 (August 2018).

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Author: Julie Shannon


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