GRAND RAPIDS, Mich — It was destined to be a year of big things at the Ronald McDonald House of Western Michigan (RMHWM). In March, the non-profit celebrated 30 years in the community. That's 3 decades of providing shelter and support to families with sick children in the hospital. There was a lot to be thankful for.
"We offer transportation back and forth. They get a clean room, a private shower, kitchen facilities and dinners. And so, we really take care of all the things that makes the day work well so that they can focus on their child," says executive director Ellen Carpenter. "We estimate anywhere between 13,000 and 15,000 families have come through this house. We're just honored to be able to do this work because we know that keeping families together helps children heal faster."
However, March was also when the COVID-19 pandemic forced businesses and organizations across the nation to change they way they do things. Soon after Ronald McDonald Houses around the nation began closing the doors to new families and all volunteers, due to public safety concerns.
"When COVID first started to emerge, everyone was looking for information. And so, we were trying to do our best. What we did most was follow what the hospitals were doing. So, our partnerships with the hospital (Spectrum Health) really helped us keep ourselves and our families safe," says Carpenter. "What we chose to do at that time was to partner with Spectrum Health. Their Renucci families moved here into the Ronald McDonald House so that they could re-purpose Renucci as a hospice. We were really proud to be part of that partnership to allow Renucci to be re-purposed so that the community had a place to be together with their family at the end of life. We did have a few families that we ultimately moved into a hotel so that Spectrum could manage this house with their families."
Carpenter says they were able to provide families, who live at least 30 miles from home, many of the same support services, such as transportation services to and from the hospital. But, she admits it wasn't the same as being on-site at the Ronald McDonald House.
"It feel so good to be back home," she says.
Carpenter says they got the green-light, from global headquarters, to re-open the house to families. This week, several moved in as the organization moves toward being fully operational again.
"It's so important because for many of these families they don't have many options. They live far from home. So, being able to be here and to for us to offer them as many services as possible just makes them more comfortable. It really gets us back to working on our mission," she says.
The on-going pandemic will force some changes when it comes to carrying out that mission as communal living can pose some safety concerns. Carpenter, however, is confident new rules are rigorous enough to protect everyone.
"We have cleaned this house from top to bottom. We had many vendors come forward that helped us do that. So, we know it's a clean space," she says. "And, we have ongoing cleaning going on. We have personal protection equipment. We have new protocols. Some of our communal areas are closed, so that they can eat and share in their rooms."
For now, the house will be closed to visitors and volunteers. Everyone at the home will go through a wellness screening and temperature check every day. Common spaces will be closed. Masks are required at all times, except in guest rooms. Also, all meals will be prepared by the staff and delivered "to" guest rooms.
"So, moving forward, families will be able to use the kitchen and the laundry services, but we do that in a way where they schedule it so they can have the whole space to themselves, and then we clean in-between," said Carpenter. "Unfortunately, our television room, our playroom and places where our families can commune together are close for now. We are lucky to be on five acres here, just a mile and a half from the hospital. So, our outdoor space also gives families a place to rest and recuperate while they're here."
The house officially re-opened on July 1. They've spent the first week welcoming a handful of families. At this time RMHWM is only able to operate at 25% capacity, which is four families.
"Then we will hold there for two weeks and make sure all of our protocols are working. We will make sure there's no illness in the house and then we're able to go to 50% capacity," says Carpenter.
During normal times, the Ronald McDonald House of Western Michigan relies heavily on volunteers to keep the house running smoothly. Carpenter has received many inquiries on how people can help in the meantime. She says there are ways to get involved.
"We are so lucky that volunteers do so much in our house," she says, while adding. "We've got all these beautiful gardens that certainly need tending. So, if you and your family members want to come out and help us do that, that would be amazing. We could also use support with food. We don't budget for that because normally volunteers come in every day to cook dinner. So if you want to sponsor a meal you can go to our website and do that. We also need our pantry to be restocked because food has been expiring."
While this 30th anniversary year has not gone according to plan, Carpenter and her staff are thankful they are still able to be there for families, when they need it the most.
MORE on 13 ON YOUR SIDE:
- Hundreds of families provided with meals during Kent County distribution event
- Whitmer signs order requiring healthcare workers to undergo implicit bias training
- Hunger remains top concern for West Michigan families during pandemic, not easing up any time soon
- Two Grand Rapids nonprofits combine to combat youth homelessness
►Make it easy to keep up to date with more stories like this. Download the 13 ON YOUR SIDE app now.