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What it’s like to stay at Vancouver Ronald McDonald House when your child is sick

Weston Ireton.
Weston Ireton. Ireton Family, Ronald McDonald House BC and Yukon

The first time Adam Ireton and his family entered the Ronald McDonald House in Vancouver, his two young boys were amazed by the yellow slide in the lobby.

It was August 2018, and then three-year-old Weston Ireton had just been diagnosed with leukemia. The Ireton family, from Port Hardy, B.C., wasn’t sure what to expect when they began their stay at the house.

But it surpassed their wildest expectations.

“It really is overwhelming, how nice it is,” Adam says. “They do a great job of distracting everybody from why they are really there.”

As the Vancouver house approaches its six-year anniversary in July, Richard Pass, CEO of Ronald McDonald House B.C. and Yukon, says this is the kind of experience he wants for all the families who stay there.

The previous Vancouver facility could only serve 13 families at a time. In 2014, the organization opened a new, $32-million building with space for 73 families at once.

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Every year, the house provides accommodation for around 2,000 families from B.C. and the Yukon whose children are battling a life-threatening illness. It’s located on the grounds of the B.C. Children’s Hospital, so parents and children can easily walk from the facility to the hospital.

Besides the slide, the house also has a basketball court, toy room, Lego lounge, teen lounge and yoga classes. Pass says these are just some of the ways Ronald McDonald House B.C. and Yukon (RMH BC) tries to make families as comfortable as they can be.

“They’re having the worst possible experience of their lives. We’re trying to make it as hopeful as possible.” He adds that studies show children heal more quickly if they are surrounded by their families.

The cost savings alone are a huge asset, Adam Ireton says. He and his wife, Kristen, run a pharmacy in their hometown — a six-hour drive from Vancouver — and have had to switch places over almost two years of treatment for Weston.

Ireton family
Ireton family.

RMH BC estimates that families save between $3,000 and $6,000 per month by staying at the house.

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The Vancouver facility is the world’s fifth-largest Ronald McDonald House and has a unique set-up, Pass says. It’s divided into four connected “wings,” and rooms are assigned based on diagnoses.

Each “wing” has its own common lounge and dining area, and guest rooms have private bedrooms and washrooms.

Families can make their own meals in the shared kitchens. They’re given space in cupboards and fridges, and thanks to a partnership with Save-On-Foods, the kitchens are stocked with food and supplies for families’ use.

If they don’t have hospital appointments, children can head to volunteer-run programs such as music therapy and arts and crafts, or just play in the playground or toy rooms.

Four nights a week, volunteers make a home-cooked dinner for residents. Adults can spend evenings in the lounges after the kids have gone to bed, and many make friends for life with other parents, Pass says.

READ MORE: Caring for the caregiver: Raising children with a disability or chronic disease

Families say the support for both parents and children is invaluable. Children play together, and illness is normalized.

“There are so many families going through the same thing. There are all kinds of little bald kids running all over the place,” says Adam Ireton.

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Amy Foley, whose son Brodie, 15, is currently receiving treatment at B.C. Children’s Hospital for a rare tumour, says the time at RMH BC has helped her feel secure.

“The staff are so lovely, and they make you so comfortable. It eases your burden, so you are able to relax and take care of your child.”

She also enjoys connecting with other families. Foley is a ukulele player and has found another parent who shares her interest, and she’s even met another family from her hometown of Nelson, B.C. “It’s nice to have interactions that are separate from the hospital,” she says.

Brodie started treatment in early March, so the Foleys’ stay at the house began right as the coronavirus pandemic hit. Amy says she feels lucky that her husband, Jonathan, and other son, Deacon, were able to spend some time at RMH BC before heading home to take care of the family construction business and school.

Folley family
Folley family.

Due to COVID-19, the house had to close to visitors and incoming patients in mid-March for residents’ safety. But Amy Foley says that while the coronavirus crisis has changed things — people now wear masks and observe physical distancing while eating in the kitchens or common areas — RMH BC has still found ways to create a homey feel for residents.

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“On Mother’s Day, we received beautiful baskets full of treats. It makes you feel special when you are not able to be at home,” she says.

Though 250 volunteers normally run the house, Pass says all volunteer shifts were suspended in March to decrease risk to vulnerable families and immune-compromised children. And while there are plans to celebrate the home’s sixth anniversary this month, they will be different from the cook-offs and events of other years.

Another difficulty during the COVID-19 crisis has been that annual fundraising drives were cancelled, including a golf tournament, a car rally and a gala. “So many of the fundraising events that benefit the house have been cancelled,” Pass says, adding that RMH BC relies heavily on community support, now more than ever.

Before her stay, Amy Foley says, she hadn’t really known what Ronald McDonald House was all about. Now, she would encourage everyone to donate.

“If I was to pay it forward, I’d donate to RMH, knowing now how much they support families.”

READ MORE: Coronavirus: 2020 Okanagan Dream Rally cancelled, but will be back for 2021

This July, enter the RMH BC 50/50 raffle for your chance to win and to help the house keep serving families.

Plus, you can support Ronald McDonald House B.C. and Yukon by making a donation through their website, or by hosting a virtual event or a Home for Dinner meal.

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