PORTLAND – Having a child hospitalized for any reason for any length of time can be tough enough. When that hospital is not within reasonable driving distance, finding a place to stay adds to the stress of the situation.

That’s where the Ronald McDonald House steps in.

Recently, the location at 250 Brackett St. celebrated its 15th anniversary, having served more than 5,200 families from around the world.

“It’s not only a birthday, but a payday for the people involved,” said Joe Foley, who was on the original board that brought the Ronald McDonald House to Portland, after the celebration May 22.

“When guests stay at the house, they’re at a low point in their life. They’re heartsick they have a kid in the hospital. On Saturday, when they came through the gates, they were happy and smiling.”

For Foley, the anniversary marks a great accomplishment for the house, as well as the founders of the Portland location. After his son was in a severe accident in Vermont in the late 1980s, Foley said he stayed in a Ronald McDonald House in Burlington. The relief he experienced in having a place to stay prompted him to look into bringing one to Portland.

After much footwork and organizing, as well as close work with the Ronald McDonald House organization, the house came to fruition by 1995.

It started with 15 bedrooms and has since expanded to 21. Volunteer Becky Neidetcher said the rooms have twin or queen beds, and most rooms have private bathrooms. She said there are other areas to make the families feel comfortable, such as a living room, a playroom, a teen room with video games and movies, a dining area equipped with two full kitchens always stocked with food, laundry rooms with supplies, a “winter garden” with computers and Internet access that is decorated with indoor plants and a fish tank, as well as a “very lovely” check-in area.

While there is a small paid staff, Foley and Neidetcher agreed it is the nearly 300 volunteers that keep the house up and running. For more than 14 years, Neidetcher has been volunteering from 3 to 6 p.m. every Tuesday.

“At that shift, you do whatever is necessary,” she said, from checking in guests to cleaning or cooking. “You also have to be a good listener if (the family) needs someone to talk to.”

She said the most rewarding part of volunteering is the interaction with families.

“Seeing the relief they have when they’re walking through the door,” Neidetcher said.

“The volunteers bring so much to the house,” said Christopher Hirsch, president of the board of directors. “They truly are the helping hands and caring hearts.”

When families come to the Ronald McDonald House, they typically have children at Maine Medical Center for various lengths of time, Executive Director Robin Chibroski said. The atmosphere offers comfort from volunteers, a home-cooked meal, a restful night and a caring environment. It also offers emotional support not only from volunteers, but from other families facing similar situations, she said.

The anniversary celebration was attended by 100 family, friends and supporters. Chibroski said one family in attendance said being able to stay at the house played a big role in the recovery of their son.

Foley was the grill master for the cookout while Neidetcher scooped ice cream for dessert.

“It was great fun,” Neidetcher said.

“It’s always fun to see the families come back that have stayed there and their children have grown on to recover,” she said.

“It is gratifying to know we continue to be here for families when they need us all the most,” Foley said.

 

Staff Writer Emma Bouthillette can be contacted at 791-6325 or at: [email protected]