Chuck George, whose 3-year-old son Thomas had a congenital heart defect, stayed at the Ronald McDonald House for a total of eight months.
“Quite frankly I can’t think of a time when I was under more stress, having a sick kid in the hospital and every day they are fighting for their life, and the staff is aware of the challenges families are going through and they try to
help them,” Chuck said.
Chuck has not stayed at the Ronald McDonald House in three years but he still stays keeps in contact with its director, Rita Ralston.
In 2015, after three heart surgeries, Thomas suffered complications and passed away.
“That’s the hardest day, not just in the Ronald McDonald house but in my life — period,” Chuck said. “I don’t think I’ve experienced anything more devastating than that.”
Coming back to the house, Ralston comforted him in the same way she has been a “beacon of light” to other families, according to Chuck.
For Ralston, it is all part of the job.
“Sometimes they just need to have someone present with them,” Ralston said. “One time I sat with a father for over an hour in the office, we didn’t need to speak, he just wanted someone present with him. At the same time, I’ve helped make
funeral arrangements. It is whatever that family needs to bridge getting them back to having that family support.”
Hospitality and support is becoming more critical as stays at the Ronald McDonald House are increasingly extended.
“The issue with that is, yes, they need a place to stay, but yes, it is going to be an extended stay,” Ralston said. “So if I go back to when I started in 2010, if I ran a pure mathematical average of length of stay ... it was a little
over 6 days. Now, if I run that same average, it’s about 17 days.”
Before learning about Khansaa’s need for the heart transplant, Sephida stayed at the Ronald McDonald House. However, she moved to the Yellow Door Foundation which has accommodations for immunocompromised patients. She did not know how
long she would stay there since Khansaa was on the heart transplant waitlist.
“How could we possibly pay for lodging 30 days or two or three months because when you are waiting for a transplant?” Sephida said.
However, her extended stay at the Yellow Door Foundation has given her a place to relax, stay on top of Khansaa’s insurance and a support network through the other families staying and the Foundation.
“It’s so many things you have to stay on top of so you have to keep your mind as peaceful and stable as possible because you can’t afford to let anything fall through the cracks because it can be detrimental for your child,” Sephida said.
Khansaa has been healthy so far through her procedures. She successfully received a heart transplant after 21 days on the waitlist. However, even if a family’s sick child survives, relationships between spouses and other children may deteriorate.
“Statistically things like this do rip families apart, and I know mothers who are going through divorce right now because it just was too much,” Sephida said.
However, with an apartment to herself, she can make her own meals and have her family visit from Virginia Beach. But most importantly, she emphasizes the importance of families asking for help.
“Just put that brave face on and you have to continue to smile and be positive and you have to be as strong as you possibly can and accept that support,” Sephida said.
The U.Va. Collaborative does not cost the hospital anything, according to Thompson. However, the individual housing groups need to accept the support of the community to continue offering homes for free.
The Alyssa House for immunocompromised patients costs the average price of owning at three bedroom home in Charlottesville and also keeps food staples for its residents. Maintaining the home depends on the generosity of others.
“We really do rely on donations,” Stevens said. Although the Ronald McDonald House in Charlottesville has an annual budget of $700,000, much of its funding comes from donations and fundraising. Walking into the house, plastic containers
of soda can tabs are stacked by the door front since they can be sold for recycling value. Canned goods filling the closets come from generous individuals, church groups and schools drives. The local Barnes and Nobles even donated
$40,000 worth of books to stock a library for both parents and their children.
Keeping these housing groups open independently requires a large community effort. And meeting the increasing demand of more families flocking the Children’s Hospital means these housing groups must continuing supporting and evaluating
each other through the Collaborative. However, having a home during crisis will remain a constant relief for families experiencing immense stress.
“I was that person looking at St. Jude’s commercials, looking at Ronald McDonald house from the outside looking in not knowing what they do, and now I’m that parent, so the tables can turn so quickly in your life and you not expect it,”
Sephida said. “But thank God those programs are there because who knows what would happen if they weren’t there or how many people would be sleeping in cars or in dangerous situations that they don’t have to be in.”