Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Love lives here

Without Ronald McDonald House, 'we'd be bankrupt,' says new mom

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To think help for generations of sick children and their families started with the flipping of a burger at a fast-food restaurant.

Dara Courpice is one of the latest to need the help provided by Winnipeg's Ronald McDonald House, part of the system known around the world as the House That Love Built.

Courpice, of Brandon, has been living at the house a couple of blocks away from Children's Hospital and the Health Sciences Centre complex since Feb. 16, to be near to her premature baby daughter. After coming to Winnipeg for what she thought would be just an appointment to see how her pregnancy was going, Courpice was admitted to hospital, and a few days later, daughter Peyton was born 26 weeks premature on Feb. 13.

"She was one pound, three ounces when she was born," the first-time mom said during a recent interview at McDonald House.

"I'll probably be here until May 20 -- that was her due date."

Courpice, whose husband has had to remain in Brandon to work so they can continue to pay the bills at home, said she knows what would have happened to her young family if there were no Ronald McDonald House.

"We'd be bankrupt," she said.

"The affordability of the House is wonderful. It is $10 per night. And they had everything I needed to get settled."

Allison Kesler, executive director of Ronald McDonald House Manitoba, said there is no other facility like it in the province for families of sick kids who are hospitalized.

"The only other option would be staying at a hotel, and that can be very expensive," Kesler said.

"The House provides a safe place to be in a compassionate environment."

The House in Winnipeg has 14 rooms to accommodate families for extended stays. A couple of blocks away, right inside Children's Hospital, is the Ronald McDonald Family Room, which has three sleeping rooms for families of children in critical situations in hospital, as well as a comfort and care area for any family with a pediatric inpatient.

The House is open to parents and guardians of children under 18 who are receiving treatment for an illness or an injury, live a minimum of an hour away from Children's Hospital and have a referral in writing from hospital staff.

Recently, the House, thanks to a local donor, started to offer a daily continental breakfast to make sure families have something healthy to eat before spending the day at their child's bedside.

Kesler said the House does receive financial help from McDonald's Restaurants and Ronald McDonald House Charities, but they still have to do fundraising throughout the year, including McHappy Day on May 7 and the Hope Couture fashion show and fundraising event on May 9.

The first House opened in Philadelphia in 1974, through the efforts of former Philadelphia Eagles tight end Fred Hill. Hill and his wife had spent a lot of time in hospital while their three-year-old daughter, Kimberley, fought acute lymphatic leukemia. After she recovered, the football team and McDonald's Restaurants raised money to buy a home near the hospital for families to stay in while their children received cancer treatment.

Since then, more than 300 homes have opened in the U.S. and around the world.

Winnipeg's home opened on May 30, 1984, four years after Richard Adams, a Winnipeg lawyer, came up with the idea of bringing one here.

Adams said it was shortly after the death of his niece of a malignant brain tumour in 1978, that he saw a story about Ronald McDonald Houses.

"I'm McDonald's lawyer here and have been since 1976," he said.

"I called them and suggested they bring one here. A few weeks later they called and said they're interested, but they said on one condition: 'You do it.' "

A few years later, after Adams pulled together volunteers, architects, and did a lot of fundraising, the three-storey House opened its doors on Bannatyne Avenue.

Sadly, Adams' own daughter, Robin, who was extremely close to his niece, was diagnosed with leukemia the day it was announced there would be a House in Winnipeg. She cut the ribbon to open its doors but died a year after it opened.

Adams said the group putting together the House project was lucky to find a vacant site so close to Children's Hospital.

"There was an old rooming house that burned to the ground," he said. "We paid $30,000 for the lot."

Kesler said since then, the House and its volunteers have provided to families "a strong, compassionate environment.

"We give a place for families to come together, for their kids to play, to watch TV together at night. It's not uncommon to see a couple of dads or moms watching a show and creating a friendship while reducing the stress they get while at the hospital."

Kesler said families usually stay a few weeks, but there have been some that have had to stay a few months or more than a year.

The House is so full all the time it now has an arrangement with the nearby Econo Lodge on Notre Dame Avenue so families can stay there until there is a vacancy.

"It's the House That Love Built, but it is bursting at the seams," she said.

"At some point in time, 14 bedrooms won't be enough. We're almost looking that challenge in the eye now."

Kesler said it's with the help of about 150 volunteers that the House is able to operate, as well as run fundraising events.

Courpice said she's so thankful for all the volunteers, past and present, who have made the House a home away from home for parents who need it.

"I will never forget Ronald McDonald House," she said.

"I will definitely be contributing in some way in future... they were there when we needed them."

kevin.rollason@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 29, 2014 A15

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