Thursday, July 11, 2013

St. Paul Mayor Cooks for Kids!

Tuesday, July 9th was an extra special night in the Ronald McDonald Family Room at Gillette Specialty Healthcare. The St. Paul Mayor, Chris Coleman, and Councilmember, Chris Tolbert, served a Cooks for Kids Meal in partnership with McDonalds. We had a great turnout by families – it's not every day the Mayor serves you dinner! Both the Mayor and the Councilmember were excited to meet with the families and learn about their experiences. Overall, the night was fun for all involved and we would love to see both the Mayor and Councilmember back to serve another Cooks for Kids Meal in the future!

St. Paul Mayor, Chris Coleman and Councilmember, Chris Tolbert, visited with families after dinner.
If you're intersted in supporting families through our Cooks for Kids program, click here

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Our Marvelous Teachers

Can you believe it? This is the 15th blog post celebrating all 15 marvelous years of our school – right here inside the Ronald McDonald House. We have loved sharing about our awesome students, the wonderful volunteers and all of the aspects of this special family service. Today, we celebrate the teachers who make this program happen! We are so fortunate to have Cindy Britain as our Teacher and Libby Hoops as our Assistant Teacher. Their styles blend and complement each other in amazing ways and to see them in action is truly remarkable.

In 2006, Mrs. Hoops joined our team. Every day, she brings her calm, soft-spoken nature to the classroom. As she works, Mrs. Hoops uniquely  observes exactly what each student needs. It may be a compliment, guiding him or her to an alternative method, or just the support to master an unfamiliar or challenging task. Mrs. Hoops also brings her insight to staff as we work to determine the most effective way to continue to provide support and guidance to students. Her perspective is so valuable! She has the unique gift of seeing challenges as opportunities. You are a gift to us, Mrs. Hoops! Thank you for your dedication to our mission.

Mrs. Hoops (left) and Mrs. Britain (right) work together to support and nurture RMH students. They are a dream team! :)

Back in 1998, Mrs. Britain joined the RMH team as the first (and only) teacher at our newly opened school. What an awesome day that was! Mrs. Britain has nurtured, cared for and encouraged growth in the program  in the same way as she nurtures, cares for and encourages growth in her students. The enthusiasm Mrs. Britain has for teaching is visible in the faces of each student. They are inspired to learn! Mrs. Britain loves to continually update and build out curriculum for each student. This is no small task, considering new students enroll throughout the year.
Wrapped up in her enthusiasm for teaching and inspiring students to develop a fundamental love of learning, is her love and dedication to each of "her kids." Mrs. B is tuned in to the whole child and works to strike a balance between the emotional and academic health of each student. The circumstances that bring families to stay at the Ronald McDonald House are complex. Students here are experiencing unthinkably difficult realities. Each day, it is Mrs. B's mission for each child to feel loved, supported and successful. This method includes setting high (but attainable!) academic expectations. know what? In the midst of the challenges students face, with the love and support they feel in our classroom, they meet and often surpass these expectations! How amazing is that?!

Thank you, Mrs. Britain! The Ronald McDonald House thanks you and each of the 500+ students whose lives you have touched and changed throughout the past 15 years thanks you! You and Mrs. Hoops are our mission in action.  

Mrs. Britain (above) has been the RMH teacher for the past 15 years  since the school opened!


Friday, May 17, 2013

Race for Grace!

Thanks to community support in Baxter, Minnesota last Memorial Day weekend, the Ronald McDonald House Oak Street "Help Yourself" pantry was fully stocked through the first annual Race for Grace! Parents, Jake and Alyssa stayed with us after Grace was born in May 2011. They organized the annual Race for Grace Memorial 5K walk/run to remember Grace and continue serving others in her honor.

This year, the funds raised will support our friends at Faith’s Lodge. Faith's Lodge does such amazing work for families. Their mission is to provide a place where parents and families facing the serious illness or death of a child can retreat to reflect on the past, renew strength for the present, and build hope for the future.
We support the wonderful Lee family and invite others to join them on Sunday, May 26 for the second annual Race For Grace. For more information, find "Race for Grace" on Facebook or learn more on the race website.
Kids like Emmie (above) are so thankful to have convenient snacks available in the "Help Yourself" pantry.

Monday, May 13, 2013

"How could we ensure Maya received all of the support and love she deserved and needed? The RMH filled in the gaps."

Kindergarten is a big year. When folks say “Oh, they just play in kindergarten!" We know it's so much more than that. Kindergarten is the foundation and the beginning of a lifetime of learning. When students begin kindergarten at our school, our teachers pay close attention to this critical transition in the child’s life as it coincides with all the other stress, transitions and loss they may be experiencing. Former student, Maya, made the transition to kindergarten at the same time she made many other difficult moves in her young life. Maya and her family were living and working in Senegal, West Africa when one of her brothers was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. Her brother’s treatment brought them to Minnesota...and brought Maya to our school to begin kindergarten.

Maya joined our school from Senegal, West Africa for her brother's 16-month medical treatment.
Tina, (Maya’s mom) shares...

"When I see the photos of the staff and students at the RMH School, I can’t help but smile from ear to ear. They. Are. Amazing. Our eldest daughter, Maya, started kindergarten at the RMH in September 2011. Just a year and a half prior, she had gracefully grown through a dramatic life change, when she became the big sister to triplets in January 2010. Yet, she was faced with even more transitions to come. In April 2011, one of her brothers, Khalil, was diagnosed with high-risk stage IV Neuroblastoma and within days, Maya had to say goodbye to all of her friends and loved ones and we packed up the only home she’d ever known and moved from Senegal, West Africa to Minnesota so her brother could begin a 16-month intensive treatment to combat cancer."

"It was a difficult time, a tough diagnosis, a logistically complicated move, and just plain challenging with one-year-old triplets.  How could we ensure Maya received all of the support and love she deserved and needed? The RMH filled in the gaps."

"The truth is, looking back, if I had to choose a school for our kids to attend, medical crisis or not, it would be the RMH school. Why? The RMH school sees and connects with the whole child. Each child is nurtured, inspired, given challenges, opportunities and support to thrive regardless of his or her circumstance. Academically and socially Maya blossomed. The staff worked tirelessly to create a family within the classroom and the empathy and compassion each child learned in that setting was matched by the empathy and compassion shown by the staff."

"Maya regularly says how much she misses the RMH school and how she wishes every school could be just like it. When I ask her why and what she liked about it, she always says first, “The people."  Then she says, “My friends, the castle, and the food." She was surrounded by love and inspired to learn there. Her strongest memories of the year and a half her younger brother battled cancer in Minnesota were not of fear or loneliness or sadness, but of being surrounded by love, friendship, warmth and safety. I know the staff and volunteers of the school have made a huge difference not just in who Maya is today, but who she will be in the future, and for that we are FOREVER GRATEFUL."

Maya shares her memories...
Maya even learned to ride a bike without training wheels while at the RMH!

Thank you for sharing your story with us, Maya! You are an amazing, resilient young lady and we're honored to know and love you and your family.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

"We heard they had a school there, but little did we know the lasting impact it would have on our lives!"

Wes and his family are part of our RMH family!
Wes and his family first came to stay at the House soon after his sister, Ireland, was born. Ireland has several serious conditions that require ongoing medical care. During long stretches in the hospital, Wes and his family stay at the RMH to be near her.

Wes and his family have been spending time at the RMH since Wes was a toddler. In fact, he attended our RMH school for most of his Kindergarten year into first grade. During that time, Wes made many friends. As his mom, Shanna, points out, he learned to say good-bye to many friends too; as they headed home while Wes and his family stayed on for Ireland's continued care. Wes learned so much about medical conditions while he was here at the House. We were all touched when he announced his plan to grow his beautiful, red hair to donate to Locks of Love®, supporting kids going through chemo. Wes is wonderfully compassionate and loves to help others.  
Inspired by his sister and the other kids he came to know at the RMH, Wes grew his hair to donate to Locks of Love.
We love to see kids make a difference!
After Wes left the RMH, we experienced a first for the school; a chance to visit a student's  hometown school. Our teacher, Mrs. B, and Persis (Director of Family Services) helped students learn about Ireland's conditions, what children experience at the Ronald McDonald House, and how we help families stay together. It was a wonderful visit and something we wish we could to for every student.  
Shanna (Wes' mom) shares her memories….

"We had our first stay at the Ronald McDonald House in 2008, just a few months after Ireland was born. Wes was 2½ years old. We heard they had a school there, but little did we know the lasting impact it would have on our lives! When I asked Wes what his favorite part of going to school at the RMH was, his reply was, "We'll that's easy. The teacher!" Wes has such great memories of that time. He frequently looks through his RMH scrapbook and Ireland loves looking at it, too! Wes formed friendships that will last a lifetime! The kids there form such special bonds and help each other through tough times. The hardest part of leaving the Ronald McDonald House for Wes was leaving behind his friends and of course his teachers. The RMH staff does such a wonderful job helping kids as well as parents through these difficult transitions. Having a sick child is stressful enough. It was so reassuring not to have to worry about Wes academically on top of everything else."

Sibling love at the RMH! Devin, Ireland and Wes. 
- Photo by Jim Bovin
"Wes turned 8 years old yesterday. His time at the Ronald McDonald House has definitely helped shape him into the wonderful little boy he is today.  Thank you, Ronald McDonald House and staff!"

Happy Birthday, Wes! We're so glad to have you as part of our RMH family.

Monday, April 29, 2013

"What I remember the most from my children’s time at the RMH school is that imprint of education with CARE!"

Happy Marvelous Monday! Today, we're writing about a mom of two former RMH students. Our school serves both patients and their siblings. It's an amazing education model providing lots of emotional support, flexibility and compassion for students. Our school provides a sense of normalcy that's so important for children in crisis. In the 15 years our school has been serving families, there have been many times when patients and their sibling/s attend together. Students come to us with varying needs, but above all is their need to be with family.

Tesa, writes….

"My son, Dawson, attended school at the RMH during one of the toughest times of his life. Dawson has been treated for cancer and has endured two kidney transplants. He attended school at the RMH while going through dialysis – waiting for his "perfect kidney.” The wait started in July of 2005 and that amazing day came April 10, 2006. During the months of waiting, there were days when he was unable to even lift his head or he would just simply fall asleep right on his desk. However, Mrs. Britain just kept going with him…at his pace. It was difficult to know at times if Dawson had a learning disability or was just sick. Mrs. Britain was positive in her assessment that Dawson was learning what he needed to learn at that time. One of my favorite memories of Dawson’s time at school was during music class. Dawson loved music and one day, the students did a music parade through the Ronald McDonald House, stopping to serenade the staff and families. The music class was on his day off of dialysis which meant he was full of waste and wasn't feeling well. However, when it was music time, he was at the front of the line, pounding on those drums like it was his very own band. He was elated for those 15 minutes. Parents stood and cheered and I got to watch him just be a little boy. The school provided us an opportunity for Dawson to be that normal kid – even when he wasn't feeling his best. We can't thank you enough for that. School was hard, but you made it easy…you made it real."

"My daughter, Dana, also attended the RMH school. Dana's needs were different from my son’s needs. She was a freshman in high school during Dawson's treatment. As a parent, to hear the word "cancer" changes your life in an instant and your normal life seems very distant. As much as you want to make things better, you can't. Dana was having a tough time coming and going from our home to our home-away-from-home at the RMH. Being away from Dawson was difficult and then of course, being powerless to what her brother was going through. We saw things changing for her that January and knew the best place for her was with us at the RMH. Mrs. Britain helped us make it happen. Dana was able to follow her curriculum from home which is just amazing. My favorite memories of Dana in school were seeing her work with other siblings of patients. She instantly became an honorary older sister to her classmates. She would complete her work and was able to focus. The school staff knew when Dana needed to be with us at the hospital and were so flexible in making that time happen. Dana grew up a lot that year and Mrs. Britain and others from the school were there to help her grow and cope with all that was happening in our family. Dana is now in college and I think she remembers her life at RMH as the most positive experience in her life. God brings people and places into our lives and they leave the largest imprints on our hearts."

"What I remember most from my children’s time at the RMH school is that imprint of education with CARE! I experienced having a child who was ill attending school as well as his sibling. If asked if the school is the biggest asset of the house? Of course I'd say YES! What it provided for my family and our life during that difficult time was wonderful, but perhaps more importantly, it provided us a lifetime of memories and gratitude."

Dawson and his big sister, Dana, were able to attend school together at the RMH.


Monday, April 22, 2013

"If it wasn’t for the time I spent with the kids of the RMH, I’m not sure I would have known what it meant to be brave. I think that makes me one of the lucky ones."

This week’s Marvelous Monday post features another exceptional volunteer, Jeff.  A common role for volunteers is “House warming.” House warmers help out in various ways, including preparing and serving lunch for students in our school, followed by then supervising during lunch and recess. Jeff began volunteering as a House warmer, helped with many special events and even became an ambassador in the community to tell others about our mission. Jeff was willing to help wherever and however he could. However, the job he enjoyed most was being with the kids at lunch and recess. After Jeff graduated from the University of Minnesota, he moved to New York City. As it turns out, we were never far from his thoughts.

Jeff writes:
"My Strange and Fortunate Life as the Jellyman...
2002; my first year as a student [living in Frontier Hall at the University of Minnesota] was an exciting time. Like most freshman, I was exploring a life far from home, meeting new friends and figuring out what I wanted to study. While this felt like the beginning of something great, I couldn’t help but be humbled each day as I walked the sidewalks around my dormitory and encountered the brave and adorable RMH children – many bald and most wearing medical masks on their way to and from the hospital. I soon learned these kids were living with their families at the Ronald McDonald House and undergoing treatment for life-threatening illnesses such as leukemia. Many were far from home and in the Twin Cities for a life-saving transplant or other complicated medical procedure. It was admittedly a dose of reality to see them on a routine walk to class.
Spring semester came and I decided to get involved. I couldn’t just walk past every day without feeling as if there was more to life than pursuing self-focused goals. It struck me how lucky I was that I was healthy and had enjoyed a full and happy childhood. It could easily have been me or someone I loved in their shoes. So, I started volunteering at the RMH between classes. Twice a week, I would do whatever I could to help out the staff: stocking food pantries, cleaning rooms or planning activities. It was rewarding, but I wondered what it would be like to work with the children. Then, I got my chance when I was asked if I would like to help with the school lunch hour.
I couldn’t have predicted how amazing it would be to interact with the siblings and often the patients themselves. Their energy, their optimism and their passion for life was inspiring. I would enter each volunteer shift worried about an exam or my ambiguous future and exit completely appreciative of the simplest things. One could say the perspective I gained working at the RMH truly set the foundation for me to be a better man…or at least a guy the kids would come to call “Jellyman.”
The story goes, one routine day, the students learned an important lesson from their talented teacher [Mrs. Britain] on alliteration which is the literary term for repeating consonant sounds. Rowan a young Egyptian girl was pointing at her classmates and providing them nicknames by applying the lesson. When she came to me, she declared proudly, “JELLY JEFF! JELLY JEFF!” Of course, there was a chorus of laughter among the group (which only finally faded when I brought out their lunch).
Shortly after, as I worked on cleaning the dishes, I heard a high-pitched endearing request echo toward me:
“Hey, Jellyman! Can you help me open my milk?” The boy responsible, seven-year-old Elijah, didn’t flinch in calling me Jellyman. In fact, he actually thought that was my name. And it stuck. From that day forward I was the Jellyman. (The moniker became such folklore that many RMH staff members to this day only know me by it). Years would pass and I would graduate and move to New York City to begin a new chapter…sadly parting ways with the RMH, but taking the Jellyman name with me.
Fast forward a few years into my life in Manhattan when I found myself confronting one strange symptom after another, which led me to the emergency room. Having experienced 27 years of a healthy life, I never could have predicted what would come of that trip to the hospital. To this day, the doctor’s words seem surreal. “Jeff, you have leukemia.”
I bet you didn’t see that coming. I know I didn’t. Life is rarely predictable and disease knows no bounds.
On my first day of radiation, I was parked in a wheelchair waiting for my turn in the treatment chamber. As I nervously anticipated being microwaved, a young boy (age 9) was parked next to me with his father. He had several days under his belt and was on-deck for another round. Yet somehow, he was still smiling ear to ear. His toothy grin immediately took me back to the kids of the RMH in Minneapolis. My mind drifted to the four years I spent volunteering. I realized in that moment, I had a built-in source of motivation for survival to tap into. I looked at the young boy and smiled back as they wheeled me in for my turn.
When I came out, despite feeling sick and struggling physically, I worked up a big smile for when he saw me. As he went passed I gave him a high five and declared, “You’re up buddy- you’ll do great." As I said the words, I knew I didn’t have to tell him. He was the tough one…just like each of the kids I had encountered at the RMH. Elijah, Rowan and so many others who had shown me what it meant to be brave. If they and their siblings could endure it, so could I.
In November, 2011 I underwent a successful stem cell transplant with my own hero. My older brother, Matt, was my donor. Today, at 29, I am proud to say I am a cancer survivor. If it wasn’t for the time I spent with the kids of the RMH, I’m not sure I would have known what it meant to be brave. I think that makes me one of the lucky ones." 

Volunteers are truly the heart of the House.