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VOL. 132 | NO. 99 | Thursday, May 18, 2017

Ronald McDonald House Welcomes St. Jude Children, Families

By Don Wade

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Jill Crocker knew of Ronald McDonald House Charities and its mission to provide a “home away from home” for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital families and their children receiving treatment. But she had not been there.

Ronald McDonald House resident Elexis Villapando and her mom, Vanessa, take it easy on their second stay at the Memphis house. Elexis was first treated for leukemia at 19 days old. (Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

“I didn’t know where the house was,” said Crocker, a former bank executive and more recently the board chair at Urban Child Institute that helped steer that organization back into the public’s trust.

A few months ago, Crocker went to work as Ronald McDonald House’s executive director and her experience with UCI proved to be the perfect precursor: “Affirmed my passion and love for children. This is one of those things that happens once in a lifetime.”

Ronald McDonald House, located at 535 Alabama Ave., opened in 1991. Crocker says she walked into her new position to find an organization that is “very well run, great senior staff, and everyone I’ve met is very passionate.”

Still, she has taken on a big job. Ronald McDonald House has a $3.2 million annual budget. The house is not funded by St. Jude, but does receive some support. Fundraising is a year-round endeavor, with major events and initiatives such as Radiothon, Drive it Home, and Red Shoe Gala important to the mission.

“Chefs in the House” volunteers provide meals for residents, there is some corporate support, a young professional philanthropic group, the Red Shoe Society, and an adopt-a-room campaign ($5,000 for one year). The house has 51 rooms and two apartments.

Crocker, among other things, is tasked with maintaining relationships with major donors and reaching out to lapsed donors.

“We have to continue to tell a story in a way that’s supportive and not competitive (with the hospital),” she said.

The best way to do that is through the families. Recently, a family that had stayed here held a fish fry that raised $18,000. Another family that was at the house soon after it opened comes back annually.

“Every Christmas, to work,” Crocker said.

These families return, Crocker says, out of gratitude and regardless of their children’s personal outcomes. They return because they still remember the support and love in the midst of struggle and they recognize there will always be new families arriving to fill the spaces left by those leaving. Since 1991, more than 9,200 children and their families from almost every state and 45 countries have stayed at the house. In 2016 alone, more than 470 families and children stayed there.

“It’s a place of healing and hope,” said Crocker.

Certainly that is how Vanessa Villapando and her 16-year-old daughter Elexis, from Okeechobee, Florida, view Ronald McDonald House, which provides everything for families free of charge.

“If we didn’t have the Ronald McDonald House we would have a high hotel bill,” said Villapando (the operating cost of a Ronald McDonald House room for one night is $108). “So this house has been a blessing to us. And a hotel feels like a hotel.”

Said Elexis: “Too many people” at a hotel.

Diagnosed with a non-cancerous but aggressive brain tumor on Feb. 1, Elexis is receiving treatment at St. Jude and Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital. The tumor damaged nerves in her face and she has had to relearn how to walk and talk.

“Here, we know each other’s pain as parents,” Villapando said. “We go home and sometimes our families don’t understand. ‘Oh, we’re here for you,’ but it’s not the same as having another St. Jude family that knows what that medication makes your child feel like. Or we’re up till 2 o’clock in the morning because that’s our sanity. Or we’re up at 2 o’clock in the morning just talking, because that’s our sanity.

“We have learned one thing: In this house, we don’t talk politics. We have so much greater things at hand than politics. We’ll talk our favorite football, baseball, basketball team.”

For Elexis, sanity also is found in the pantry. She loves her Doritos, Lay’s potato chips and chocolate chip cookies.

“Definitely a teenager,” her mother said.

Coca-Cola is a supporter and so sodas are just 25 cents at the house. Crocker keeps quarters in her office and enough on her as she walks the grounds that she sometimes jingles. Everyone knows she is the keeper of the quarters, too, from the kids to the parents to the staff.

When she accepted the job, her husband had asked her a hard question: Are you sure you want to place yourself in the middle of such intense human struggles day after day after day?

“We try to keep a distance,” Crocker said, adding with a smile, “It never really works.”

But the Ronald McDonald House’s mission works. There is no denying the concept has been a fabulous success. Some 40 Ronald McDonald Houses exist around the country to support families with children receiving treatment for serious medical conditions. McDonald’s Corp. continues to provide some assistance, too. The house in Memphis, for example, gets 1 cent from Happy Meals sold in the region and receives other funds during special sales efforts, such as the Shamrock Shake around St. Patrick’s Day.

Families may come and stay but a few weeks, or they may stay here for many months. There is no predicting. Villapando and Elexis were actually here once before, when at 19 days old she was diagnosed with a form of leukemia. She spent six months in the intensive care unit at St. Jude.

This time, Elexis has experienced a couple of firsts thanks to donated tickets provided to residents. She saw her first NBA game at FedExForum and her first musical, “The Sound of Music,” at The Orpheum.

“When God sends us home, we’ll go home,” Villapando said. “At this moment, we’re just doing what we’re meant to do.”

Living life at their home away from home.

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