With three children’s hospitals in the metro area, Atlanta is a hub for people seeking answers to their children’s complex medical problems.
But when a child is sick, some things can fall by the wayside–such as securing a long-term rental, cooking a hot meal or showering.
That’s where the Ronald McDonald House Charities step in. In 322 houses across the world, families of sick children are housed, fed and provided a safe place to stay while their child gets treatment. Families are asked to donate up to $20 per day, but if the family cannot afford it, the fee is waived. Scores of volunteers keep the houses staffed and guests fed, cared for and entertained.
Ally Harris, 15, and her mom Iris arrived at the Peachtree-Dunwoody Ronald McDonald House in early June after receiving a frightening diagnosis. A junior varsity softball player, Ally was running on the field one moment and unable to walk or roll over the next. After a week in the hospital, doctors decided on a diagnosis: Guillain-Barre syndrome.
Guillain-Barre is a disease in which the body’s autoimmune system attacks the peripheral nervous system, causing numbness, tingling, paralysis and in extreme cases death.
“At first I didn’t have a clue about the Ronald McDonald House, they talked about it when she was in the hospital but I didn’t really know exactly what it would be like,” Iris Harris said. “They talk about the other Ronald McDonald house being a little more like a hotel, and the families don’t really see each other. But one thing I like about this one is we’ve gotten to know so many people and hear their stories and see the progress that their children have made. I think that’s very important in our healing process to know that there are other people out there. We thought what she had was bad, but there are a lot worse things out there. So it has been a blessing.”
Ronald McDonald Houses are so named because the primary donor is McDonald’s, but the charity is run independently. Atlanta currently has two houses: Gatewood House, opened in 2008 near Emory University, and Peachtree Dunwoody house, opened in 1994. Atlanta’s original Ronald McDonald House was established in Atlanta in 1979–the fourth in the country at that time–but was decommissioned in 2008 when the newest house was built on Gatewood Road.
During its 20-year history, the Peachtree-Dunwoody house has served nearly 10,000 families seeking treatment at nearby Children’s Healthcare at Scottish Rite Hospital. Last year alone it hosted 194 families in the 11-bedroom house.
Currently, the Peachtree-Dunwoody house is fundraising to build a new home on the site’s existing land, bringing the total number of bedrooms up to 31 and increasing the square footage to more than 52,000.
“Another reason we are expanding this house is that it’s really not wheelchair friendly or [accessible for] anyone that has a challenge getting around, which about 50 percent of our families in that rehab program at Scottish Rite,” said Beth Howell, president and CEO of Atlanta Ronald McDonald House Charities. “There’s no elevator in this house, and the fact that we are turning away around 200 families a year because we just don’t have enough rooms.”
The house looks like any normal home, with an entryway, sitting room, kitchen and dining room, patio, basement, family room and bedrooms. But, with 11 families at a time, the proportions are a little different. Everyone can have some space of their own.
While the Ronald McDonald House has started to feel like a home away from home for the Harrises, their actual home is in Franklin, in Heard County.
“We thought about driving back and forth but it’s 80-something miles and I just couldn’t do that every day,” Iris said. “She probably wouldn’t have been able to have the rehab that she needed, because we couldn’t afford to drive up here.”
Ally has made a friend, Maggie, while staying at the house. And when they return to Franklin on Fridays they take Maggie and her mom back home since they live nearby. On Sundays the Harrises come back with Maggie and mom in tow. Ally said they will be lifelong friends, all due to the Ronald McDonald House and its 20-year mission of serving kids and their families.
Carrie Bowden, marketing and communications director for the Atlanta houses, said some families have expressed concerns that the Peachtree-Dunwoody house will lose some of its homey charm.
“But, it’s the volunteers and the families and the spirit that make it a home,” she said. “The house will still have the same spirit. It will just be bigger and more spacious.”
Due to budget issues, none of the rooms have televisions and most share a bathroom. Though the Harrises would rather have a bathroom, Iris said the lack of television has made them socialize with other families more.
“I like it because I have friends here, we’ve made new friends,” Ally said. “If this didn’t happen to me we never would have met those people.”
Ally is currently undergoing day rehabilitation at Scottish Rite. Although Guillain-Barre is serious, many of its effects can be mitigated through quick hospital intervention coupled with rigorous occupational therapy. Ally and her mom spend most of the day at the hospital before coming back to the house to relax.
“A lot of the time we get in the car, turn the music up real loud, roll down the windows, grab the friends and hop in and just drive around,” Ally said.
“She’s still a kid, you know?” Iris said.
Edited to reflect that the Peachtree-Dunwoody House will be building a new house, not adding on to the existing one.
This article originally appeared in The Champion Newspaper.