Volunteering at Ronald McDonald House was something I had always wanted to do, but it wasn't until I became homeless this past year that I actually found myself close enough to a Ronald McDonald House to actually be able to volunteer there.
The house I volunteer at is strictly for families of children under 22 with cancer. It is the same house Carissa stayed at after her bone marrow transplant. Some of the Ronald McDonald Houses are strictly for cancer patients while others are for anyone with a sick child. All of the cancer patient homes are set up to accommodate a child in isolation after a bone marrow transplant. They have studio apartments for the families so they have a kitchenette and a private bathroom. The rest of the house is set up with bedrooms for the families and several families share a bathroom.
This house is only one of over 217 houses in 20 countries- United States, Brazil, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, France, Hong Kong, Sweden, Argentina, Hungary, Malaysia, Mexico, Spain, Finland, and Japan. Currently there are over 5,000 rooms available around the world each night to house families of sick children.
I look forward to volunteering at the house each week. I’m currently volunteering 2 days a week at the house. I've become 'buddies' with several of the kids at the house. Some families are there for a day or two for follow-up appointments, while others have been staying there for 2-7 months while their child is in isolation after a bone marrow transplant. Of all my current volunteer jobs this one is my favorite. I'm there to answer the doorbell, assist the families in whatever ways they need and to answer the phone. Over time I've started to develop personal relationships with each of the families. From blowing bubbles on the front lawn with bone marrow transplant patients, or reading books with a 10 year old from central America who is here after surgery for a brain tumor, to playing games with 4 siblings that are staying at RHMC over 1,000 miles from their home while their sister receives radiation for a tumor at a local hospital.
But volunteering at RMHC isn’t all fun and games. It can be tough. Week-to week there is different. Sometimes its quiet because all the families are at the hospital with their sick children. Other times it can be a very hectic place- especially when there are lots of siblings hanging around while their brother or sister is hospitalized. When the phone rings, its often hard to know what to expect. Sometimes it's a family calling for a reservation because their child is returning for treatment or follow up. Other times it is the pediatric oncology nurse calling looking for a room for a family of a newly diagnosed cancer patient. And then there are the calls we'd rather not have- when a family that’s stayed with us often calls to inform us that their child lost their battle with cancer.
For a family that has traveled miles for their child's treatment, we are often the only local support outside of the hospital. The volunteers and staff at RMHC often develop close friendships with families that stay often. The kids sometimes come to us and express their emotions regarding their illness with us because they need someone to talk to outside of their family. There are weeks that as I come to the house a little girl has been sitting out on the porch all morning waiting for me to show up because she got something new she wants to show me. Other times they sit and wait so they can tell me the exciding news: their treatment is over so they can go home!
Developing relationships with the parents can be very emotional. The volunteer at the desk is the first person they see when they come through the front door or RMHC. Often the parents have come by taxi right from the hospital and as they walk through the door they need someone to listen while they talk or just a shoulder to cry on. A volunteer is often the first familiar face the parent sees outside of the hospital after finding out that their child has relapsed, cancer is spreading, or that their child is terminal. They have had to hold in the emotions all day at the hospital because they are afraid to let on to their child that something serious is wrong (even though often the child already 'knows' they are sick again or going to die). I've often had parents come to me saying, "I found out today that the Bone Marrow Transplant didn't work for my daughter. What should I tell her? She is going to know that something is up when we stop the transplant drugs or start chemo suddenly. The doctors can't do anything more." Or "My son relapsed again. We have to go cross-country to another hospital. How do I explain to my kids what's going on with their brother?" It's tough. We are just volunteers, most of us aren't professional counselors. I think in a way that’s why many parents come talk to us. We can talk straightforward about things. They are less intimidated by us because we aren't medical professionals or have master's degrees. We are just a group of people who care enough to donate our time to help them. It's not our job- its just something we choose to do. We've heard the same questions over and over through time and can share how we've watched other families handle these issues. We also have a lot of books and resource binders that we've compiled over time that the families can look through for more info on their child's illness. In many ways RMHC is like a big support group for the families- they are all going through similar circumstances, but can help each other through the many issues they come up against.
Saying goodbye when a family is leaving is always a bittersweet moment for both the parents and the volunteers. The families are relieved to go home after weeks or months at RMHC but at the same time they will be miles from their child's doctor. They are nervous. When we say goodbye, we know we may never see these families again. Their child may do well and stay in remission for years. In other cases, the child may relapse a few months later and we might find them back on our doorstep looking for a place to stay while their child has to go through treatment again.
Volunteering at RHMC has been a wonderful experience. I've gotten to meet people from all over the world that have come to America for medical care for their child. Many of these families end up staying several months while their child is getting treatment, because they have to be stable enough to return to their home country where medical care isn't as good. These international families have so much to share with us- from cultural differences and customs, to cooking big meals for all the other families to try food from their country. Some come speaking very little or no English but over time we get to watch as they pick up English words and phrases. We get to watch as the children discover common American items that would be luxuries in their country such as toilet paper (one little boy used to run around one of the Ronald McDonald Houses dragging the roll behind him leaving toilet paper trails everywhere), indoor plumbing, microwaves and other common household items these children have never seen.
I look forward to the 2 days a week I spend at my local house. Each day there is different. Some are quiet and relaxed; others can be hectic or stressful. But no matter what the day there brings, I know I'm helping to make a difference in the lives of these families through volunteering.
If you are interested in volunteering at a Ronald McDonald House, visit http://www.rmhc.com to locate the House near you.
Ways to help at Ronald McDonald House:
Volunteering your time
Helping with building repairs
Cooking meals for the families staying at RMHC
Giving a tax-deductible donation
Donating groceries, movies, kitchen goods, linens, cleaning supplies, toiletries (contact your local RMHC to see their specific needs)
Dropping change in the Ronald McDonald House Charities containers at your local McDonalds (not all the money goes directly to the houses- it's split between a few other McDonalds Charities as well. See their website for a list of other charities).