Erin Maley found her world unraveling in an instant. After a violent car crash, she woke up three days later in a hospital several hours from her home. The doctors told her that her husband had been killed in the accident, and that her 22-month-old daughter, Summer, had broken her neck and was paralyzed. When she didn’t think there was anything anyone could say or do to make it better, the manager at the Ronald McDonald House in Cincinnati, Ohio, said “we have a place here for you to stay.”

These simple words and this simple gesture made a world of difference, helping Erin pick up the pieces and start to put them back together. Erin stayed at the House for 60 days while Summer fought to heal and regain mobility. She told us: “Being able to stay next to Summer, and having my mom there to do a load of laundry, to heat up dinner for me, to hold my head up, to give me strength to help Summer fight was huge.”

Against all odds, with her mom rallying for her at her bedside, little Summer recovered. Today she is three years old, almost 100 percent better, and walking.

Helping the Family Helps the Patient

Within the past decade, family-centered care has increasingly become a focus of conversation around the delivery of quality health care. The key tenets of this principle including access to care, continuity of care, and coordination of care have become crucial quality indicators for hospitals, contributing to their ranking and prominence.

In 1974 even before the term “family-centered care” was widely used, the first Ronald McDonald House® was built in Philadelphia — a program built on the foundation of this principle. From there a network of Ronald McDonald House Charities® (RMHC®) family-centered programs has grown to serve more than 4.5 million children annually, helping to improve health outcomes, proving that indeed a child heals faster and copes better when he is surrounded by the love, hugs, kisses and hope only his family can provide.

Today, the demand for our programs is larger than ever. In fact, 37 percent of RMHC chapters are in expansion mode, half of which are adding new programs or increasing the capacity of existing programs within the next two years. As a system, we are working hard to reduce Ronald McDonald House wait lists and meet the health care needs of children and their families, as more hospitals are aligning with the principles of family- or patient-centered care.  

How the Ronald McDonald Houses Got Started

So what exactly does RMHC do and how did the House program start? More than 38 years ago, a little girl named Kim Hill was diagnosed with leukemia. Her mother and father spent day and night by her bedside, sleeping on a cot and mustering up food from around the hospital. They knew there had to be a better way, and Kim’s pediatric oncologist, Dr. Audrey Evans, had an idea. She had long dreamt of creating a home-like environment right near the hospital for families traveling great distances to receive critical care for their child, but she needed funding. So Kim’s parents, Fred and Fran Hill, rallied the support of the Philadelphia Eagles football team, Jimmy Murray, the Eagles general manager and the McDonald’s owner/operators in the greater Philadelphia area to help raise money to create a “home away from home” for families of children battling illness or injury in the hospital. On October 15, 1974, the doors of the first Ronald McDonald House opened in Philadelphia, providing refuge, a place to sleep, home-cooked meals, and a tireless support network for families of hospitalized children.

Today, there are 320 Ronald McDonald Houses around the world, providing support, stability and vital resources to more than 8,200 families every night. First and foremost, these programs allow families to stay together, close by their hospitalized child. But togetherness and proximity mean a lot more when correlated with the health and well-being of a child.

Providing a Network

Rebeca Cazare (right) with her sister Elda

Rebeca Cazare (right) with her sister Elda.

Courtesy of Ronald McDonald House Charities

The Cazarez family experienced this need firsthand when their daughter Rebeca was diagnosed with a brain tumor and went into a coma. Rebeca’s doctors in Mexico told her family that there wasn’t hope, but the family refused to give up. They gained a medical visa and sought treatment at Driscoll Children’s Hospital in Corpus Christi, Texas. There they also found a place to call home temporarily at the Ronald McDonald House next door.

“The House did so much more than put a roof over our heads,” says Rebeca’s father, Norberto. “It was a warm place to stay, home-cooked meals to come home to, a Church nearby where we could pray, and a community of support lifting us up.”

After two years, everyone at the House witnessed Rebeca’s remarkable recovery. Through faith and determination, and with the help of extensive physical therapy, Rebeca began seeing and speaking again. Soon after, Rebeca could do what all the other eight-year olds were doing. Now, five years later, Rebeca is strong enough to go back home with her family.

What Is Needed Today

This year, with the help of experts and researchers within the healthcare industry, RMHC took a closer look at the system’s contribution toward the family-centered care model and the House program’s impact on health outcomes for children and their families.

Studies show that:

  • Family is a child’s central source of strength and support and children cope better and heal faster when family is by their side.
  • Many families suffer tremendous financial strain with the illness or injury of their child. To help ease the burden, Ronald McDonald Houses save families more than $276 million in lodgingcosts alone each year.
  • Simply having a safe and comforting place to stay at a Ronald McDonald Houses eases parental stress and anxiety, giving them the rest and space they need to make medical decisions critical to their child’s rehabilitation.
  • The proximity of Ronald McDonald Houses enables parents to stay close by and more readily available to their health care providers, which also allows them to be more informed participants in the decision making that affects their child’s care.
  • Infants being cared for in neonatal intensive care units who have the direct support of their families are stronger and go home faster. Over 40 percent of the children RMHC serves are NICU babies.

Simply put, we found that health outcomes improved with the help of RMHC programs. And as a system, we are committed to continued growth so that eventually all children and families that need the support of a Ronald McDonald House program will have it. 

The true testament to our work though is in the families that we help — in the stories that they share with us every day. Through Coca-Cola’s long-standing support of RMHC, the Company has enabled our System to be a champion for family-centered care. Coca-Cola’s investment in our mission has directly helped children and families like these.   

Taking the Long View

Colt Phillips is an example of a young survivor who has benefited from the commitment to family-centered care and the understanding that the journey to good health can be a long one. He has been battling cancer for the majority of his young life. At six months, he was diagnosed with neuroblastoma. Although the doctors immediately removed the tumor, several months later his scans showed that the cancer had returned with a vengeance.

Colt Phillips

Colt Phillips was diagnosed with neuroblastoma at six months old and has been battling cancer for the majority of his young life.

Courtesy of Ronald McDonald House Charities

Through chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant, Colt was in and out of the Monroe Carell Jr.’s Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., for an extended period of time. His parents, Cody and BreAnna, lived more than two hours away in Loretto, Tenn. They couldn’t imagine not being by Colt’s side to hold his arm and give him strength to fight. That's when RMHC of Nashville stepped in, providing the Phillips family with a "home away from home."

“We were there for 51 days, and it was a haven,” says Cody. “And it was a place where Colt could come to be away from the hospital, escaping into a world where there were no scary noises, neon lights, needles and tubes, even if only briefly.”

After almost two months, Colt was finally able to go home. However, less than a year later, the cancer returned, this time right up against the main artery of his heart, so they couldn’t take it out with surgery. While he went through chemo again, the Phillips family once again checked into the Ronald McDonald House in Nashville, and found the same kind of comfort and hope that they had experienced a year before.

We jumped for joy when about four months ago, Colt was again declared cancer-free.   

Lauren Schultz is the digital marketing manager at Ronald McDonald House Charities. RMHC works to help more than 4.5 million families a year to have the stability and resources they need to keep their child healthy and happy.