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VOL. 126 | NO. 179 | Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Serving Families

Ronald McDonald House in 20th year of helping St. Jude families

By Aisling Maki

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Since April, Ronald McDonald House of Memphis has served as a home-away-from-home for Jeanne Erickson and her son, Kaden, 9, a patient undergoing treatment for a form of leukemia at nearby St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Leukemia patient Kaden Erickson, 9, of Jonesboro, Ark., plays with his mother Jeanne Erickson at the Ronald McDonald House, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)

Kaden is the second oldest of the Erickson family’s five children. His siblings remain home in Jonesboro, Ark., with their father and other family members while Kaden awaits a bone marrow transplant in Memphis.

“It’s nice not to have to give thought to where we’re going to sleep and if it’s going to be clean and it’s going to be safe for him,” Jeanne Erickson said. “Without Ronald McDonald House, we’d have to provide for two different households in two different states. And when we’re done at St. Jude for the day and we say we’re going home, we mean Ronald McDonald House. It’s as close to home as we can be for now. It’s a wonderful thing for the time being, to be as normal as possible in what’s become our new normal.”

The Erickson family is one of about 6,000 families housed by Ronald McDonald House of Memphis, 535 Alabama Ave., since it opened its doors in 1991. They’ve come from every state and at least 45 countries seeking treatment at St. Jude, the Memphis hospital that provides treatment to children afflicted by cancer or other catastrophic illnesses, regardless of a family’s ability to pay.

However, 20-year-old Ronald Mc Donald House Charities (RMHC) of Memphis is an independent, community-supported nonprofit organization.

“People think we’re St. Jude,” said Caron Byrd, who for four years has served as executive director of RMHC of Memphis. “We are completely independent of them, but we support St. Jude and are so proud to be partnered with them. Our purpose is to serve their patients.”

The first Ronald McDonald House opened in 1974 in Philadelphia. Today, there are about 300 houses worldwide, and RMHC of Memphis is one of only two houses serving patients of only one hospital.

“Most houses serve families of inpatients at hospitals and the house is really a place for their parents to stay and cook a meal and take a shower, and the next day they’re right back over at the hospital to be by their child’s bed,” Byrd said. “Because St. Jude is primarily an outpatient facility, the children come back here. So that makes us very different in that the children live at our Ronald McDonald House.”

Prior to RMHC of Memphis, St. Jude families had to stay in local hotels that had relationships with St. Jude, and although families were grateful for the free lodging, hotels weren’t the ideal option for children undergoing cancer treatment.

“Even the cleanest hotel is not clean to hospital standards for kids who have weakened immune systems,” Byrd said. “And they couldn’t cook a meal or do laundry, there were no playgrounds for the kids, and the person in the next room probably wasn’t another mom you could talk to and bond and share your experience with.”

Most Ronald McDonald House facilities require families to pay a nominal fee, but families stay entirely free of charge at RMHC of Memphis. The actual cost per night to operate each room is $108, with the average cost per family stay totaling nearly $2,600.

The facility’s annual $2.4 million operating budget, which includes everything from security to entertainment to stocking the pantries, is made possible through support from the Memphis community.

“We have a tremendous group of volunteers who support us and all of our special events,” Byrd said. “We have churches that come and cook meals for our families. There are so many groups, including schools and local businesses that have raised money for us for many years.”

Perhaps the best-known fundraiser for the nonprofit is the Annual Rock 103 Ronald McDonald House Radiothon, associated with one of the charity’s most passionate supporters, the late radio personality John “Bad Dog” McCormack.

Another fundraiser, the 17th Annual Big Scoop Ice Cream Festival, is scheduled to take place Sept. 24 at AutoZone Park, during National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.

RMHC has also received a challenge grant from the Plough Foundation toward its ongoing renovations in honor of the house’s 20th anniversary – the first major overhaul of the facility since it was built.

“We provide these families with a comfortable, warm, nurturing home with great amenities that’s aesthetically pleasing,” Byrd said. “We knew it was time to make some changes and give the house a facelift. We wanted it to look much more appealing for kids, who exude such happiness. The laughter we hear around here, the jokes … you’d not know these kids were sick but for the physical changes they go through. The house needed to reflect that. We wanted the colors to be bright and for the house to look cheerful. Despite everything these children are going through, their marker on the world is one of joy and life – and that’s what you take from your experience with Ronald McDonald House.”

To learn more about RMHC of Memphis or the upcoming Big Scoop Ice Cream Festival, visit www.rmhmemphis.org.

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