Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Carolinas plans to double capacity with expansion

Construction of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Carolinas’ expansion is expected to be completed by spring 2018. The facility will include 12 new guest rooms, a lobby and reception space, a commercial-sized kitchen and open dining area, and an outdoor patio and playground, among other additions. Photo by Joshua S. Kelly

The Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Carolinas (RMHCC), which assists the families of sick or critically injured children by providing housing, meals, transportation, and other support, has been facing an unprecedented demand for its services.

“We are always full at over 80 percent capacity and have been for over five years,” says Marti Spencer, executive director and CEO of RMHCC.

RMHCC, located on Grove Road across from the Greenville Health System Children’s Hospital, is one of more than 335 Ronald McDonald Houses worldwide.

“We allow families to have time together. That’s the most important thing,” Spencer says. “So when your child is critically ill or injured, you know that we are kind of going to take away all those worries about where you’re going to sleep, where you’re going to eat, how you’re going to take a shower, do laundry. … So we provide all of those for them so that their focus can be on their child. We try to be part of the whole program of family-centered care.”

She adds, “We’re able to keep families close and help them have some normalcy at a very unpredictable time in their lives and their children’s lives.”

Since RMHCC opened its doors in 1989, GHS Children’s Hospital has more than doubled its number of beds, from 64 to 166 in 2015. In that same time period, its team of pediatric specialists has increased from 14 to 206.

More than half of the families who stay at RMHCC have children being treated at GHS, but the organization has other medical affiliates in the Upstate, including the Shriners Hospital for Children and Bon Secours St. Francis Health System.

RMHCC mainly serves families from across South Carolina, as well as from six neighboring states: Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. In 2015, the counties most served were Oconee, Greenwood, Laurens, Anderson, Spartanburg, and Greenville.

Although RMHCC never wants to be in a position where they have to turn away a family, the growth of local hospital systems has left them without a choice. With just 12 guest rooms, they simply don’t have enough space to accommodate need.

“Last year, we served over 350 families, but we had to wait-list over 250 families,” Spencer says.

The Bell family recently spent 12 days at a hotel before RMHCC had an open room.

Twenty-nine-year old Abby Bell gave birth to her second child, Jensen, on May 11. Her pregnancy was full-term without any complications, but during birth, Jensen sustained a severe brain injury, hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE), caused by oxygen deprivation to the brain. He was treated in the neonatal intensive care unit at the GHS Children’s Hospital.

Debbie Wilson, Abby Bell, and Fisher Bell during their stay at RMHCC. Photo by Joshua S. Kelly

When Jensen first arrived in the NICU, however, RMHCC was at full capacity. Faced with the choice of commuting to and from their home in Liberty or staying at a hotel, Abby and her husband, Christopher, opted for the latter. Co-workers, Abby said, pitched in to cover the lodging expense.

On May 25, to the family’s relief, RMHCC staff notified the Bells that a room was available.

In a June 1 interview, during the family’s stay at RMHCC, Abby Bell said that knowing she was very close to Jensen and could see him at any time helped provide some peace of mind. Other amenities that RMHCC offers, such as a hot dinner each night and laundry facilities, also helped reduce the stress of taking care of everyday tasks.

“They [RMHCC staff] go out of their way to make you feel comfortable,” Abby said, adding that the night the family arrived, the couple’s 4-year-old son, Fisher, was given a toy and handmade blanket.

The Bells stayed at RMHCC until June 14, when Jensen died in the NICU from complications associated with HIE.

“All I can say about the Ronald McDonald House is that they made a hard time in my life so much better. I even received a card and basket from the staff after he [Jensen] passed away. I hope that one day I can find a way to repay them,” Abby wrote in a July 20 email to the Greenville Journal.

A major change is on the horizon for RMHCC, one that will significantly help reduce the number of families who need to seek alternative housing while their child receives medical treatment.

In mid-2015, RMHCC introduced their Building Hope capital campaign, with a goal to raise $3.5 million for a comprehensive expansion of their facility.

Marti Spencer, executive director and CEO of Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Carolinas, during a June 1 tour of the planned expansion. Photo by Joshua S. Kelly

Plans call for a 17,500-square-foot addition that will double RMHCC’s capacity, with 12 new guest rooms, a lobby and reception space, a family library, a commercial-sized kitchen and open dining area, an outdoor patio and playground, a volunteer hub, laundry facilities, a parent fitness room, and an elevator for increased accessibility. Construction is expected to be completed in spring 2018.

To date, the Building Hope campaign has raised $2.5 million. In the final round of fundraising, RMHCC’s goal is to have 2,000 individuals pledge $500 each.

“We need to get to that other $1 million. We’ve been great stewards of the dollars that have been given to us over the years, and we want people to see the success that we are and the success that we will continue to be,” Spencer says. “We want to be a big partner not only for our hospital system but for families that reach out to us and need us. And I think that with the expansion, we will be able to make a greater impact in the lives of so many.”

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