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Sanctuary for the suffering

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Your child ends up in a Colorado Springs hospital and will be there for a while. How can you stay at your child's bedside while still taking care of your own needs?

For 25 years, the local Ronald McDonald House has been the answer for frightened, stressed-out families.

Jane Gabriel knows how they feel. She and her husband, Steve, had a son named Jonathan who was diagnosed with leukemia in the summer of 1990.

"The ball started rolling downhill and we were stuck on top of it," Jane recalls.

At that time, Memorial Hospital didn't have a pediatric oncology department. The Gabriels took the 4-year-old to Children's Hospital in Denver, and a social worker told them about the nearby Ronald McDonald House. Jane stayed there while Steve continued his Air Force career.

"I walk in the door here [at the Springs' Ronald McDonald House] and, even though this is not the house we were at, I am right back there," she says. "I would walk through the door and think, 'OK, now I can relax. Now I can let go for a little bit.'"

Jane would play with her son Jason, then 18 months old, in the house's family room. When her parents arrived to care for Jason in the Gabriels' home, she could spend more time at the hospital.

"I'd go back to the house to sleep and cry," she says. "I remember the first time I walked into the room and saw the comfy chair, I cried. It wasn't the chair in the hospital room."

No one turned away

Jonathan lost his battle in July 1991, but his legacy endures. The Gabriels donate to the house and every year, on Jonathan's birthday and the anniversary of his death, they deliver cookies.

Jason, now 23 and in the Air Force, has no direct memories of his brother. But he has expressed his love throughout his life by participating in Leukemia & Lymphoma Society fundraising walks, and painting the local house with his Eagle Scout troop.

That house, on North Logan Avenue, is a brief walk from Memorial Hospital and accommodates 11 families. It was built for a tuberculosis sanatorium, then became a nurses' dormitory.

"We love that it's been a house of healing for well over 125 years," says Sam Rush-Walton, development coordinator. "This is not a destination location, it's not like you choose to travel here. Something has gone terribly, terribly wrong."

The house has sheltered more than 8,000 families since it opened on Valentine's Day 1987. A U.S. map on the wall is covered with pins showing families' hometowns, but many are from southern Colorado, northern New Mexico, and western Kansas.

Many of the stories end happily.

"We celebrate with those families," Rush-Walton says. "For others, there's a new normal. Such as a car crash that injures a child. He won't be the golfer you hoped he would be, but he's taking steps on his own. There's a smaller percentage where, regardless of the best possible care, the little ones perish much too soon."

The average stay is 13 days, and no one is turned away for lack of money. A room costs about $40 per night, but grants and donations defray that cost for those who can't afford it. McDonald's itself covers 12 percent of the local budget.

"It's the expectation of every Ronald McDonald House in the world that McDonald's helps with start-up and whatever the individual operators can do with fundraisers. They also provide that branding, which is huge for us," says executive director Beth Alessio. "But the expectation is that every house is their own nonprofit, and they get support from their local community."

Better for everyone

Under Alessio's leadership, the staff has opened Colorado's first Ronald McDonald Family Room, inside Memorial Hospital, plus others at St. Francis Medical Center and the Children's Hospital of Colorado outpatient clinic. There, families can eat, take showers and do laundry while being just steps away from their child.

"Studies show that kids get better, faster, when their families are with them," Rush-Walton says.

The local organization also has launched the world's first green Ronald McDonald Care Mobile, which delivers medical and dental care to at-risk kids in five area counties.

"This is the mission of nonprofits, to step up when times get tough," Alessio says. "We went from serving 300 families a year [25 years ago] to 5,000 families a year."

Donated food can be reheated or cooked in the spacious kitchen for families gathering in the dining room. The backyard is stocked with a grill, tables and playground equipment.

But the home's heart beats in the cozy bedrooms that are havens for exhausted families.

"You're kind of on autopilot when you're dealing with a critically ill child," Gabriel says. "If you are supported, if you have a place like this, with wonderful people around you, your inner reserves grow as well. I learned that we needed to take care of ourselves first, before we could take care of Jonathan."

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