Providing a Home Away From Home in Hawai‘i

LIFE CAN CHANGE IN A MATTER OF MOMENTS.

This universal truth is the common thread that runs between families staying at Ronald McDonald House.

“For most of our families, they find out their child is ill, and they have as little as 21/2 hours to get things together,” says Jerri Chong, executive director of Ronald McDonald House Charities, Hawaii (RMHCH).

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She describes, in her quiet yet crisp manner, what those moments can be for a worried parent: “They have the doctors telling them their child needs medical attention-in Honolulu-and they have to get all their affairs in order and maybe even get on a helicopter to fly with their child to the hospital,” she explains, adding that a second parent is often left behind to tie up further loose ends and figure out how to get to Honolulu, on their own.

This is where Ronald McDonald House comes in. After a referral-no one is turned away-the organization will have someone greet parents at the airport, shuttle them between the house and the hospital, and arrange each family’s room. In addition, the house is equipped with a laundry area and kitchen-filled with supplies-so the family can remain strong, together.

The ability to be a steadying hand during a family’s most dire moments is what inspires Chong and her staff.

RMHCH is here to provide as much normalcy as possible during rather abnormal times, according to Chong. Children have places to play: There is a lawn with playground equipment, areas filled with stuffed toys, the latest video games and books. Walking through the airy abode, one can hear the beginnings of a song as someone starts to tickle the ivories on a piano located just outside the dining room.

In addition to patients from the Neighbor Islands, the homes house families from throughout the Pacific, and even visitors on vacation-some of whom have endured medical emergencies that require long- term acute care. “In our 25-year history, we have never turned a family away,” Chong emphasizes proudly.

And she, as well as the rest of the RMHCH organization, has a lot to be proud of: In the coming year they will celebrate the organization’s 25th anniversary in Hawai’i.

The first house on Judd Street in Manoa was established in March 1987. After that, in January of 2006, a second home on O’ahu Avenue was opened. While the first houses entire families (“… sometimes grandparents are there too,” Chong explains), The O’ahu Avenue house is for adults only.

“They bond, through their shared experience,” Chong says. In 2003, RMHCH opened a Family Room at Kapi’olani Medical Center for Women & Children. If your child is sick, she explains, yet you live in Wai’anae or Kahalu’u, you might as well be from a neighbor island. The distance and time it would take a parent to travel to and from a hospital would be taxing for anyone.

The Family Room is there to provide a home-away-from- home within the hospital. Parents can catch up on emails, siblings can relax, play games or read a book, and there’s even a teen privacy room that allows patients who are well enough to leave their hospital room and visit with friends.

Janelle and Scott Komatsu were parents who once found themselves caught up in the maelstrom. Because they are O’ahu residents, they weren’t eligible to stay at the Ronald McDonald House, but they made great use of the Family Room.

“The Ronald McDonald House Family Room was an oasis for us when our daughter Maddie would spend days at a time at Kapi’olani … while being treated for leukemia,” Janelle says. “Our son Trevor, who was 5 at the time, would always ask when he could come to visit Maddie and go to the Family Room so he could play video games. For us parents, the Family Room was always stocked with hot coffee, snacks and food to fill our bellies, along with a friendly volunteer who made sure we made ourselves feel at home.”

Chong, who’s been with the organization since 2000, is quick to point out that RMHCH is a team effort.

“That’s one of the most beautiful things about our community,” she says. “The people want to take care of their own. It’s amazing the type of support we receive.” She points out that volunteer Mary Balding has been baking for the house every Wednesday for 22 years. Other individuals, such as professional golfer Michelle Wie have also contributed- Wie’s donation helped provide seed money for playground equipment and also provided fun additions to the playroom in the form of video gaming systems. Corporate donations, like the rooms that Outrigger Resorts provides for families who can’t get a room at the house are precious as well: It’s because of those hotel rooms that no family has been turned away.

In all, Ronald McDonald Houses service 300-400 families each year, and the Family Room services more than 10,000 people a year (the average stay in the room is about an hour). Other annual efforts are made to raise funds to help provide these services for the families.

“We’re always thinking about the kids, their families and what changes can be made,” Chong points out. There is a golf tournament each July and a fundraising gala scheduled for Nov. 20, kicking off the yearlong celebration of RMHCH’s 25th year.

All of these efforts don’t go unnoticed by the families whose lives are turned upside down by the scary news that their child is ill.

“I’m so thankful to Ronald McDonald House Charities for providing families in crisis a place to go to breathe and relax, even if only for a moment!” says Janelle Komatsu.