by Sam Sentelle
Posted on November 21, 2017
Huntington’s Ronald McDonald House
Residential support for pediatric medical care
November 21, 2017
At age three, Maggie was diagnosed with high-risk stage-four neuroblastoma which develops in certain types of nerve tissue, usually in children.
“When you look at pediatric cancer, it’s the worst of the worst — of the worst,” Jaye Toler told Putnam Rotarians. [The child] split time between Huntington and Columbus; some of her treatment was so intensive,” Toler explained. “We didn’t have a specialist here for her. Maggie, at five years old, asked why Huntington’s Ronald McDonald House didn’t have a playground [like Columbus]. Her mom said, ‘When you get better, we’ll do it. We’ll help them get one.’ We thought we’d have to raise five or six thousand dollars,” said Toler. “So Maggie starts looking through the catalog, and soon it was a $30,000 playground she wanted.”
A special swing set was priced at $1,500. The costs were out of reach, they thought.
But Maggie, in the course of intensive treatment and trips to Columbus, raised $50,000 for her playground. An equipment company heard about the need and agreed to provide the playground sets for the cost of materials.
“We took a week back in February last year,” Toler continued, “when from about 7 a.m. until about 9 p.m. for a week, more than 100 people from our community helped build it. Everything needed to be sawed and painted. Nothing was prefab. We had people from Charleston, Ashland, Ironton — all three states — come and help. It was the most humbling thing I’ve ever been a part of.”
The new playground is now in place for the pediatric medical care home. But there is better news: Maggie, now seven years of age, received a report of “clear scans” from her Columbus specialists last Friday. “She doesn’t have to go back for a year,” said Toler.
Maggie’s playground is part of the Ronald McDonald House across the street from Cabell-Huntington Hospital.
The RMH Charities, from a start in Philadelphia in 1974, now forms a network of 364 sites in 64 countries which offer a home-away-from-home for families with children who need intensive specialized care near a hospital. West Virginia now also has Ronald McDonald Houses in Charleston and Morgantown.
“[Parents] come in for a twenty-week checkup,” Toler added. “They think they’re going to find out if it’s a girl or a boy. And the doctor says, ‘We’ve got to deliver that baby. They’ve not packed an overnight bag. A lot of times, they’re airlifted [to the hospital]. We have a lot of premies. A lot of our surrounding hospitals don’t have neonatal intensive care units.”
Toler, the Director of Development for the Huntington home, was accompanied on her visit with Putnam Rotary by Cathy Conaway who is a Volunteer Coordinator for RMH Charities of the Tri-State.
“People often do not come prepared,” said Conaway. “Everything you need is available. You have no clue who is going to walk through that door. We have twenty bedrooms, but it’s very homey.” You don’t have to worry about where you’re going to stay. You can walk out of your home with nothing, and everything you need is at the Ronald McDonald House at your beck and call. [When] they need clothes, Jaye gets on Facebook and finds them. We have laundry facilities.
“We don’t charge,” said Conaway. “It’s all donation based. Marshall students volunteer to cook and clean the house. Our service area is tri-state. You can live in Huntington and stay in our house, you can live in Charleston and stay in our house. We’ve had one family from Russia. There are no boundaries. [The hospital] is recruiting pediatric sub-specialists. We’re now sending fewer [children] to Columbus. We are helping people through their worst nightmare,” she said. “It’s not just the diagnosis. It’s the fallout that happens afterward. We try to connect our people with other resources. We have computers so [the children] can keep up in school.
“Each house is a little different,” said Toler. “Some take only cancer patients. Columbus takes a lot of transplants. We give priority to how critical it is.”
Volunteers work 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. in three-hour shifts. An apartment is provided for an overnight resident to care for emergencies. “If someone is helicoptered in in the middle of the night, she’s the one who gets them set up until morning when all of the staff are there.
The Huntington home operates on $650,000 a year, all covered by volunteer work and donations from people such as Maggie who recognize the need. Most of the funding comes from customer donations at local McDonald’s restaurants. The national average for support is about eleven percent. The local contribution is close to forty percent. Last year, among restaurants nationally, Charleston and Huntington ranked sixth and seventh, respectively. Conaway and Toler agreed, “That’s a testament to local generosity.”
“A lot of what we do is just giving hugs,” said Toler. “And both of us think that is the best part of our job.”