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Ronald McDonald House marks anniversary

One year ago today, Central Alberta Ronald McDonald House first welcomed families with sick children.

With almost a full house, celebrations will be low-key today compared to last February, when there were public tours, a ribbon-cutting ceremony and speeches to open the 11-suite facility located near Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre.

“We’re actually encouraging people in Red Deer and Central Alberta to send in well wishes to the families via social media like Twitter and Facebook. People can send their messages and we’ll read them to the families during dinner,” said Larry Mathieson, executive director of Ronald McDonald House for Southern Alberta and Central Alberta, on Tuesday.

During its first year, 212 families from Central Alberta and beyond have lived in the house and another 758 people from the Red Deer area have dropped in for day programs to get a meal, shower, or just a break while their children were in hospital.

“(Ronald McDonald ) Houses tend to be kind of driven by what the closest hospital provides. In Red Deer, about 75 per cent of our families are using a special care nursery or neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). We see a lot of high-risk babies. Essentially you’ll spend literally months at bedside, or incubator-side, in many cases,” Mathieson said.

“The other 25 per cent is anything you could imagine that a child would be at Red Deer hospital for.”

The average stay is nine or 10 nights, with the longest stay just over 50 nights.

The majority of people who stay are from all over Central Alberta. This month occupancy hovered at eight to nine families at the facility located at 5002 39th St.

“Kind of a surprising thing for us is we do get the odd family from Calgary or Edmonton. We’ve had a number from Wetaskiwin. Right now we have a family from Fort McMurray.”

He said a couple times in the last three months, a few families had to be turned away because the house was full. But arrangements were made with local hotels for reduced rates for those families until suites were available.

“We’ve been fortunate that we’ve not had to turn away large numbers of families although that is probably likely sometimes in our future, hopefully not too, too, soon in our future. But we know that’s how it goes.”

Mathieson said use of day programs is higher in Red Deer than at houses in Calgary or Edmonton, which was unexpected. It’s good to see the house used to its potential.

People in Central Alberta have also maintained their support for the house.

“It’s been amazing. Since we opened Feb. 27, we’ve had 52 dinner groups make 152 dinners for families at the house. We would have never thought we’d have that many groups come out that quickly.”

Mathieson said while local knowledge of the house is high, more will be done this year to spread the word at hospitals and remote health centres so more families know the Red Deer house is an available option.

Anna-Marie Marten, of Lacombe, and her family stayed at Central Alberta Ronald McDonald House for about three weeks after her daughter Nevaeh Cree Thacker was born premature.

Marten said when her 10-year-old son was born premature in Edmonton, she suffered from postpartum depression because she couldn’t live nearby to spend more time with him.

“When you have a premie and they’re in NICU, and you don’t get to see them all the time, you almost feel like you’ve lost your baby. But I didn’t this time. I got to walk over anytime I wanted. That made having a premie so much easier. You don’t feel like you’ve abandoned your baby,” Marten said.

Red Deer’s Ronald McDonald House felt like home, she said.

“None of us wanted to leave. I never knew how special that place was until we went there. I don’t think people understand.”

When her daughter caught a respiratory infection in January and went back into hospital, the family returned to the house for two weeks.

Also during poor winter weather, they spent one night at the house to make sure Nevaeh could keep a medical appointment at the Red Deer hospital the next morning.

“Life would have been awful if it wasn’t for (Central Alberta Ronald McDonald House).”



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