By Amy Wenk
amywenk@reporternewspapers.net

The Ronald McDonald House Charities have provided a haven for families coping with serious childhood illnesses in Atlanta since 1979. It is not uncommon at the two houses in Sandy Springs and Decatur to see a young mother crying over the diagnosis of her newborn or a family waiting patiently to hear a child has received a desperately needed transplant.

The Ronald McDonald House provides an environment of support for families receiving care at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Recent expansion at the house serving Egleston in North Druid Hills — also being considered for the facility serving Scottish Rite in Sandy Springs — allows the charity to serve more families with better amenities but poses a challenge to maintain the homey feel.

That setting allows one family to reach out to put another at ease, sharing experiences and wisdom, and encourages volunteers to give their time to prepare meals for the guests.

“We try to connect guests with other people in the house,” said Cari Olson, house manager of the Sandy Springs location on Peachtree-Dunwoody Road. “That way, they don’t feel so alone. It’s a comfort zone. We have activities at night, including games, bingo, crafts and movies.”

Since 1979, Atlanta’s Ronald McDonald Houses (www.armh.com) have provided lodging and meals to families traveling 60 miles or more for treatment from Children’s Healthcare. Families can stay for $20 a night, and no one is turned away for an inability to pay.

“They are so relieved they are here,” said Carrie Bowden, a spokeswoman for the organization. “The families love it here.”

A 16-bedroom house opened on Houston Mill Road near Emory University in 1979; it was the fourth Ronald McDonald House in the nation. In 1994, the Sandy Springs house opened with 11 bedrooms.

Both houses were converted from single-family homes.

Now a new facility near Emory is moving the Ronald McDonald House into a new stage to meet the ever-growing need of families receiving care at Children’s Healthcare.

The expansion

The Atlanta Ronald McDonald House Charities turned away 312 families in 2007 because rooms were not available. In addition, more than 150 families whose children received bone marrow, kidney, liver or heart transplants could not be served because the houses could not provide the special isolation facilities those children required.

Those problems were addressed by the opening June 9 of a new Ronald McDonald House at 795 Gatewood Road, within walking distance of Children’s Healthcare at Egleston. The $15 million facility replaced the house on Houston Mill Road.

“We had no other choice but to grow,” said Bowden, noting that Egleston has expanded. “When the hospital grows, so do we with the number of families we serve.”

At almost 61,000 square feet, the house has 50 bedrooms and state-of-the-art accommodations. The 1,300-square-foot kitchen includes seven dishwashers and six sinks. The facility has common family and support rooms, a community dining room, a conference and teaching room, a library, a business center, an activity room, and laundry facilities.

A transplant wing is isolated from the main facility to minimize contamination because “even a common cold can be life-threatening” to transplant patients, Bowden said. The wing has 10 two-bedroom suites, each with 931 square feet.

The new building has increased the nonprofit agency’s capacity by 300 percent. Thirty families are living there now.

“This house is a marvel,” said guest John Amos of Dalton. “It is like staying in a hotel.”

Amos and his wife, Tanja, and children Chandler, Jacob and Emma, as well as his mother, Judy, were at the Gatewood house the day it opened. They are staying there while 2-year-old son Samuel awaits a heart transplant at Egleston.

“You can’t sit in the hospital for eight weeks,” John said. “You have to eat and sleep, and the hospital is certainly not set up to spend the night. There is nowhere else in Atlanta you can stay and get a meal for $20 a night. It is a very big deal.”

Judy added, “It is like a home away from home.”

The future

Plans are being made for a similar 50-bedroom house on Peachtree-Dunwoody Road to serve Children’s Healthcare at Scottish Rite.

“They are working on the timelines right now,” Bowden said. “We are doing the feasibility study at this time.” It took 2½ years to raise the money for the new Gatewood house.

Olson said the new facility will look different from the Gatewood house but will have a similar capacity.

The organization owns the property next to the current Sandy Springs house, and Olson said the new facility could incorporate the current structure or be built from scratch.

“It will be different,” Olson said. “They are trying to build a house to look similar to the other houses on Peachtree-Dunwoody.”

She said she is excited at the prospect of more room to help families but is worried about losing the close-knit atmosphere of the house. Unlike the facility on Gatewood, which has televisions in each guest suite, the Peachtree-Dunwoody house is less like a hotel and lacks such individual amenities. Olson said that situation compels families to spend time together in the common areas.

“How do I keep the atmosphere, the feeling and the relationships going when you change the building?” she said. “If there are televisions in their rooms, how do I get them to come out?”

No matter the outcome, she said, the Ronald McDonald House will remain a place of comfort for families coping with childhood illness.

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