Being in the hospital with a child with Congenital Heart Defects (CHD) is stressful enough, but what if you live an hour (or several states) away? How do you navigate finding the basic necessities of a place to stay, meals and transportation to and from the hospital, all while being far from your family and support system? For many families of CHD kids who live a distance from Atlanta, this is a reality they must face. Atlanta Ronald McDonald House Charities exist to make it a little easier.
The Atlanta chapter of Ronald McDonald House Charities was started in 1979 with an eight-room home near Egleston. They now offer 81 guest rooms for families seeking medical care in Atlanta for their children, from newborn to age 21. And the cost to families? Free.
We are an integral part of family-centered care,” said Beth Howell, President and CEO of Atlanta Ronald McDonald House Charities. “Every family wants their child to be supported and not alone while they’re in the hospital. We know that if you reduce the stress on a family, you reduce the stress on the child, which gives them their best chance to heal. It’s very important to provide support for a family as they go through what is arguably the worst time in their lives.”
Last year, 558 cardiology families spent more than 5,300 nights at the Ronald McDonald House, and the organization has served 7,356 cardiac families since they opened. The House also features 10 transplant suites, which consist of two-bedroom units, full kitchens and a separate entrance to the building so that immunocompromised transplant kids can stay with their families in a home-like environment while they recover. Atlanta RMHC has served 249 cardiac transplant families.
“Feeling cared for and welcome is important to families, but the community they build here is what really makes the difference,” Howell said. “A big share of our guests are cardiac families, and it can be a real lifeline to connect with other parents who are a step or two ahead of you in the treatment plan. They provide encouragement and a listening ear to each other. When you’ve left your whole support network at home, it’s so important to have a sense of community with others who are going through similar experiences.”
One way Atlanta RMHC ensures families build that sense of community is by offering daily meals at the Houses. Volunteer groups, like the Sibley Heart Center Cardiology team, gather at the end of each day to prepare dinner for families staying in the Houses. Any leftovers are boxed up and used as lunches throughout the week, helping guests avoid costly restaurant meals while they’re at the hospital with their kids. This is a time to look forward to, and most families make a point to attend if they can.
Meals are a big deal, and we love it when groups like Sibley come in,” Howell said. “The families get to see the people they know from the hospital in a different context, and it encourages them to know that these professionals care enough to come provide a meal after working long days at their jobs.”
The Ronald McDonald House guest rooms are set up like hotel rooms, with two queen beds and a private bathroom. Unlike a hotel, however, the Houses feature a huge pantry and kitchen, where families can cook, grab breakfast or snacks and generally make themselves at home. There is a van that provides transportation to the hospital, so parents don’t have to pay for parking. In addition to the nightly dinner provided by volunteers, there is usually brunch on Saturday and Sunday and sometimes breakfast and lunch during the week provided by volunteers. After dinner, there’s an activity that families can participate in and then there’s the opportunity for a hot shower in a private room and a comfortable place to get some sleep after a long day at the hospital or appointments with medical specialists.
“If we weren’t here, many families would be sleeping at the hospital or in their cars,” Howell said. “People can’t afford to live in a hotel for weeks at a time. But the real magic of the Ronald McDonald House is being around other families going through the same things they are dealing with. They make lifelong friends here because they went through this experience together.”
The cost to serve a family per night is $120. Atlanta RMHC does not charge families to stay, but they can contribute if they are able. In order to provide this vital service, Atlanta RMHC raises every penny they need to operate and pay 26 full-time employees, and they have no other revenue base other than donations.
The Atlanta community supports Atlanta RMHC in several ways including by donating pantry items and toys for Santa’s workshop during the holidays, and volunteering to provide meals at the Houses. Companies and individuals can take part in the Adopt a Room program for $5,000 per room, where they are recognized in the rooms as well as on the organization’s website. People can also Adopt a Family. Atlanta Area McDonald’s Operators help support Atlanta RMHC by donating 2.5 cents per order of fries and a penny per Happy Meal as well as allowing customers to round up their transactions to the next dollar and donating the difference.
“Our goal is to nurture the health and well-being of children and families,” Howell said. “This is not a depressing place at all because these families have hope. Nearly every one of them will go home with their child better, if not cured. It’s an honor to serve them and help take care of families going through a tough time.”
Note from Beth Howell:
In response to COVID-19, we’ve suspended our volunteer and meal programs which has created a critical need for us to cover the cost of feeding and caring for our families. To help meet our urgent needs:
- Give today at org/donate.
- Donate gift cards or schedule to have individually boxed meals delivered by contacting Dee Dee Ebert, our volunteer services manager, at Deedee.Ebert@armhc.org.
For more information about Atlanta Ronald McDonald House charities, visit their website at https://armhc.org/. You can also follow Atlanta Ronald McDonald House charities on social media through:
For more information about Sibley Heart Center Cardiology and our pediatric cardiology specialists, click here.