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Major Expansion of Ronald McDonald House in Ottawa will be a lifeline for many families

For the Roberts family, Ronald McDonald House Ottawa (RMHCO) was a welcome refuge, a “second home” and a financial rescue.

Daughter Bria was diagnosed with Stage 1 brain cancer in 2018 and required 70 weeks of chemotherapy treatment at Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO). But the family lives in Kingston, Ont., so when Bria started treatment, they had to make the two-hour trip every Friday morning.

“She dreaded to go to Ottawa as we had to leave at 5 am, and what kid wants to do that?” said her mother, April Roberts. A social worker in the hospital told them about RMHCO and they were welcomed into the home Thursday nights so that Bria could get her treatment early Friday morning and then return to Kingston.

April can’t say enough about their experience, saying it alleviated some of the stress of having a sick child.

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Bria agreed. “It’s obviously a pretty scary thing to be diagnosed with cancer at such a young age (11)…but going to Ronald McDonald House …it really helped me to have kind of second family there and they were all very welcoming. They were the people who helped me through my journey.”

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Eli, almost 2 years old, with her mom Kim, after 160 total nights spent at RMHCO.

Christine Hardy, Chief Executive Officer of RMHCO, said the organization takes pride in making life a bit more comfortable for the approximately 500 families served each year. “We are there to wrap our arms around them, give them a warm hug and make their lives as easy as we can.”

That means 30 volunteers who work hard to make stays more comfortable; from cooking and doing laundry to lending a supportive ear on bad days, as well as celebrating treatment milestones and birthdays on good ones.

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The Ottawa location is one of the original five Ronald McDonald Houses built in Canada. It features a large family room with a fireplace that is often the centerpiece for families to gather, and a TV room with comfortable couches. A spacious kitchen has two workstations to allow families to cook alongside each other and a well-stocked playroom for young children.

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RMHCO is nestled in a wooded area where families can enjoy the peace of nature while being only a couple minutes’ walk from the hospital. All of these features made coming into the city for Bria’s chemotherapy much more pleasant, said April – along with the crafts room. “It was her happy place.”

While the Roberts were lucky to be able to call RMHCO their second home during April’s chemotherapy, many families are turned away each year as the 39-year-old House can only accommodate 14 families. You can call to request a spot if you live too far away to commute back and forth each day, but as you can imagine – serving over 200 communities each year – it can be difficult to get in.  Hardy says 65 per cent of families live outside a city with a children’s hospital.

Now, thanks to a major fundraising campaign, the house is getting a much-needed, $22.7-million expansion and will soon be able to host 36 families – more than doubling its current capacity, said Hardy. Last August the team at the House were overjoyed to find out they were receiving a $9.37-million federal grant from Infrastructure Canada’s Green and Inclusive Community Building program, getting them that much closer to breaking ground. And most recently, in March 2023, the Province of Ontario granted the House $3.1 million to ensure the build gets started this summer, making room for everyone.

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Jade, now 3 years old, spent 236 nights at our House during her Leukemia battle.

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Hardy said this new, Net Zero Carbon LEED Gold expansion will eliminate the need for the current lengthy wait list. And, while the current House isn’t equipped with certain accessibility features, the expanded RMHCO will be Rick Hansen Gold Certified in accessibility. That means everything from wider, sloped walkways and ramps, to accessible parking and an elevator, which Hardy says is much-needed to meet the diverse needs of the community.

The expansion will have a variety of bedroom configurations, allowing more than the current capacity of four people per room. You will soon have the option of a separate sleeping space for family members such as siblings or grandparents, who often attend treatments with one of the parents, Hardy said.

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Parents of children with cancer often experience chronic stress and anxiety, with one study finding that upwards of 77 per cent of respondents reported anxiety. But a study from the American Psychological Association found that families who stayed together at a Ronald McDonald House (RMH) believed their stay helped their child’s recovery.

After the redesign, residents will enjoy a larger kitchen with a number of workspaces for families to cook alongside each other, different spaces to eat together or separately, quiet rooms outside of the bedroom suites for yoga or reading, a gym, teen room, craft room and multipurpose room for things like movie nights and special events.

The new expansion will be bright, sunny, and connected by a glass walkway to the existing House. As well, the addition will be built to the Canada Green Building Council’s Zero Carbon Building standard, ensuring the Canadian mission that all future Ronald McDonald Houses aim to reduce their environmental impact.

Under this certification, the construction will be highly energy-efficient and will greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from building materials, said Hardy. The Ottawa home at the time of the application was the only RMH home to have received this federal grant. Ground-breaking begins this summer, said Hardy, with the expected construction to be completed in 2024.

For families, the revamped RMHCO will give them more room, said Hardy, but will also provide more shared spaces so they can create relationships and find support groups. This support was a highlight for the Roberts family, who were grateful to meet others going through the same thing.

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“That was reassuring—that we weren’t alone in our journey. Everyone was so friendly and lent their time and ears,” said April.

Often, they gathered in the kitchen to cook together or spent time in the shared family room at the end of the day. “We would hang out in the kitchen at night and share our stories,” added Bria.

And many parents, including April and her husband Kerry, say that RMHCO has been an economic lifesaver.

“I think what we most often hear from families is that we’ve saved them from the financial burden of having a sick child and all of the costs associated with that and being away from home for such a long period,” said Hardy. The longest stay for RMHCO was 734 nights, saving a family two years’ worth of living expenses, projected at over $200,000.

For Bria, the memories of her stay will last a lifetime. The now-healthy Grade 10 student is considering a career in nursing.

“Throughout my journey I really thought nursing would be interesting, since I’ve been through this and I could relate to some of the kids.”

If you would like to find out more about volunteering or donating to RMHCO, visit their website. You can also become a monthly “House Warmer” donor to show your support to families year-round.

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