Nearly two years ago, Jen Day underwent an emergency C-section to deliver her second child, Vincent, when something went terribly wrong.

The baby, born three weeks early, wasn’t breathing and had to be resuscitated and intubated as soon as he was delivered. One of Day’s medical providers whispered gently, “It doesn’t look good, Jen.”

“That’s when I lost it,” said Day, recounting the ordeal.

For the next several weeks, baby Vincent was in the neonatal intensive care unit at Maine Medical Center in Portland. Day and her husband, Josh, stayed two blocks away at the Portland Ronald McDonald House, a lifeline that provided shelter and sustenance until Vincent was well enough for the family to return to their home in Waterville.

Josh and Jen Day with their children, Scarlet and Vincent, in a family photo from last summer. “Ronald McDonald House took so much stress off our shoulders” when a newborn Vincent was being treated in the neonatal intensive care unit at Maine Medical Center in Portland, says Jen Day. Courtesy of Jen Day

“For us, we have money in our savings account to pay our bills with, but there’s no way we could have afforded to stay in a hotel or pay for meals the 16 days we were there,” she said. “We would have gone bankrupt.”

The Days’ experience, like hundreds of others who have used the Ronald McDonald houses in Portland and Bangor, is sustained by the coins people drop in collection boxes at McDonald’s restaurants around the state.

In 2016, the change collected at counters and drive-thru windows exceeded $135,000 — roughly 15 percent of the charity’s annual operating budget.

“That impact is huge,” said Robin Chibroski, executive director of the Ronald McDonald House Charities, which oversees the Ronald McDonald houses in Bangor and Portland.

The cost to the nonprofit to operate the two houses is roughly $75 per night, per room. A portion of the money raised from the collection boxes helps offset those nightly costs, and also supports grants RMHC awards to further its mission to support healthy children and healthy families.

Last year, for instance, RMHC supported three dental health programs aimed at children.

“There’s no way RMHC could run its own dental program, but by partnering with other groups, we can reach far greater numbers of children,” said Chibroski, who added the combined reach of the dental programs brought dental instruction and screening to about 4,500 kids. RMHC supported the program with grants to the Waterville Community Dental Center, Penobscot Community Health Care and University of New England supporting Washington County.

PAYING IT FORWARD

Maine’s Ronald McDonald houses open their doors to anyone who has a child under the age of 21 receiving care from Portland or Bangor hospitals. The charity suggests a donation of $10 a night to offset the cost of the stay, but many families – especially ones who are there for extended periods – are unable to pay.

In 2016, Chibroski said, they offered more than 7,500 nights of comfort to nearly 600 families, about 70 percent of whom could not make a payment toward their stay.

Robin Chibroski, executive director of Ronald McDonald House Charities in Maine, stands near a collection box at McDonald’s in Portland. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

“We don’t want to put the stress of making a payment on a family that is dealing with a sick child,” she said. “So you can understand how important the donations from the collection boxes are.”

Day said she and her husband give back to the charity in numerous ways to show their gratitude. Whenever they bring Vincent down to Portland for follow-up care, they stop by Sam’s Club to load up on things like paper towels, trash bags and other goods they donate to help offset the cost of operating the house. They collect tabs from cans as a fundraiser for the RMHC. And of course they drop money into the collection boxes at McDonald’s.

“We’ve always been pay-it-forward people,” said Day. “Ronald McDonald House took so much stress off our shoulders, you want to do what you can for them.”

Having shelter and a prepared meal at the end of the day meant a lot, but Day said she was particularly touched by some of the smaller things volunteers did for them. One put together a little backpack of supplies for the Days’ daughter, Scarlet, so she could stay overnight at the house. Another prepared a tote bag for Day so she could pump and carry breast milk to the hospital.

“It’s hard to find the words to describe how much those things meant,” she said

In addition to donations from individuals, RMHC receives backing from supporters and companies that offer to sponsor a room for a year. Chibroski said many families will send a note of thanks to the person or company sponsoring the room they stayed in while their child received medical care.

The Portland house has 21 rooms and the Bangor house has 14. Chibroski said for the time being, the facilities are adequate to handle the demand. In 2016, the average length of stay for a family accompanying a sick child was 13 nights.

She said she’s very grateful to McDonald’s customers who toss their change into the collection boxes, likely unaware that their coins add up to such significant support. The charity receives donations from 61 McDonald’s restaurants around the state and from four in northern New Hampshire. The fast-food chain also contributes a penny from each Happy Meal it sells to the Ronald McDonald House Charities. In 2016, those pennies from Maine owner/operators added up to $23,035.