AP NEWS

Ronald McDonald House to nearly double in size

May 14, 2019

If you have ever seen a family walk into the Rochester McDonald House of Rochester for the first time, the moment is nearly always unforgettable.

Rachelle Drabek has seen it many times. She, herself, is an anxious and beleaguered parent with a sick child.

There is a feeling of awe when you first enter, Drabek said. “It’s like a light in the darkness.”

It would be better if there were no need for Ronald McDonald Houses. But since there are sick children, such places have become indispensable refuges for parents seeking medical care for their children.

That need has prompted the Ronald McDonald House in Rochester to grow. This week, an invitation-only ribbon-cutting ceremony and public open house will mark the completion of a 48,000-square-foot expansion that will nearly double its capacity.

The addition, funded by a $17 million capital campaign, will add 30 guest rooms to the Rochester house, bringing the number of rooms to 70. Indoor and outdoor play areas, and underground parking are also part of the addition.

It will make the Rochester Ronald McDonald House the biggest in the state and the 17th- or 18th-largest in the world.

The expansion is being driven by a heartbreaking statistic: The Ronald McDonald House has had to turn away more families than it serves. In 2017, for example, the most recent year at full operation, the house served 761 families and turned away 1,079 families, according to the organization’s Impact Report. That pattern has held steady for the last five years.

“The hardest thing we do here is when families call for a room, and we have to say, ‘We don’t have one, but we’ll put you on the wait list,’” said Peggy Elliott, Ronald McDonald House executive director.

The need is also illustrated by the expectation that the new wing will be filled to capacity by the time guest families move in by late May or early June. But the wait list will be smaller and length of wait shorter.

The rising demand for rooms is driven by several factors, but the most signifiant are the specialization of Mayo Clinic and the increase in the average length of stay by families, communications director Jacob Dreyer said.

In 2017, for example, the average length of stay was 17 nights; in 2018, it was 22 nights. This year so far it is 59 nights.

House leaders knew that capacity would be an issue and began discussing expansion plans more than a decade ago. But the country was in a recession and a capital campaign was postponed.

A public campaign was launched two years ago and is now just $200,00 shy of its $17 million goal. More than 1,600 individuals contributed to the campaign, with gifts ranging from $1 to $3.3 million, Elliott said.

“That we are able to be here in Rochester and serve children is due to a very generous and caring community,” Elliott said. “We exist because of thousands of volunteers who come and share their time and talents with our mission. They also support the house financially.”

The Ronald McDonald House is more than a building. Rachelle Drabek and her husband, Ken, have been bringing their 9-year-old son, Logan, to Mayo Clinic and staying at the house for the past six years.

Logan has an undiagnosed progressive disorder that affects his gait, speech and internal organs. He is also diagnosed with ADHD, autism and dyslexia. He acts like a rambunctious boy in every respect, but his gait is getting worse and he could end up in a wheelchair one day.

Rachelle didn’t know there was a Ronald McDonald House when she and her son began making the trip to Mayo from Bondurant, Iowa, six years ago. Her husband stayed home to work.

They lived out of hotels at first, which was “horrific.” They didn’t know anybody and were largely confined to their hotel rooms. Then they got a referral to stay at the Ronald McDonald House.

“It was freedom,” Rachelle said. “It was freedom that became daily and a home. There were places he could go, an activity and game room. He’s a very busy boy.”

Rachelle says she is convinced that the community doesn’t appreciate the impact it is having on families served by the house. But then, if you haven’t experienced it, it is hard to describe.

But they involve things like a kitchen in which to make a home-cooled meal; a pantry filled with donations from the public; Bingo nights and prizes; and little gifts left in the mail boxes, to name just a few.

Even though trips to the clinic can bring anxiety and dread for Logan, the Ronald McDonald House has become a refuge for him and his mom.

“It’s like going to Grandma and Grandpa’s house,” Rachelle said. “There’s no fear. He’s so comfortable. It makes it so much easier on us, knowing that he’s so comfortable and at peace, despite what he goes through. It just makes it so much easier.”

Rachelle said she feels indelibly tied to the house and to the community as a result

“I will be part of that community for the rest of my life,” Rachelle said. “Even if we don’t need to go there any more because something happens to Logan. They’ve got my heart for life and my support for life.”