20 YEARS OLD: RONALD MCDONALD HOUSE
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Tishelle Hepa, left, in town from Kauai for chemotherapy to treat her leukemia, hugged hanai uncle Ed Pickop, also from Kauai, as the Ronald McDonald house celebrated its 20th anniversary yesterday. Pickop's daughter Nalinee stayed at the house almost 20 years ago after suffering infantile botulism poisoning.
Shelter for sick always open
Seriously ill children who stay at the Ronald McDonald House while being treated never miss Christmas or any other holiday.
"We have a perpetual Christmas tree," said Jerri Chong, executive director of Ronald McDonald House Charities of Hawaii. "Every day is Christmas."
Children also decorate the tree for Easter, Halloween and other occasions, she said.
The year-round tree is just one of many special touches at the 10-bedroom home at 1970 Judd Hillside Road, which celebrated its 20th anniversary yesterday with families, founders, staff and volunteers.
Sue Entz of Kona, who was president of the founding board, saw the need for such a facility while teaching at the old Children's Hospital. Parents from rural Oahu and the neighbor islands had nowhere to stay when their children were hospitalized, she said.
"They stayed in broom closets, vacant cars and days on end in the waiting room, or they were going home and leaving children without the emotional support they needed."
Comfort in time of need
Neighbor island and Pacific families often must leave home suddenly when a seriously ill child is flown to Honolulu for treatment, and they arrive with very little, said Jerri Chong, executive director of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Hawaii.
The Ronald McDonald Houses at Judd Hillside and Oahu Avenue provide everything the families need during a stressful time -- a comfortable home, food, transportation and emotional support, she said.
The public can help support the "House that Love Built" by donating $1 at any McDonald's Restaurant through March 30. Donors receive a colorful house-shaped cutout to write their name on, which will be displayed at the restaurants.
McDonald's Restaurants was an advertising account of her husband, John Burns, and his agency received information about a Ronald McDonald House in Chicago, she said.
"I said, 'That's what we have to do,' and we got it done."
But Entz and Kitty Lagareta, also one of the founders, recalled their struggle trying to convince people of the need and get permits and funding. "We came within a whisper of losing not only this, but the organization," Entz said.
About 20,000 people have stayed a total of 87,000 nights in the house, according to records. Families generally are allowed to stay up to 90 days, but some with critically ill children are there more than a year, Chong said. Families are asked to pay $20 a night if they can.
Meredith Palafox of Kona spent her 17th birthday in the Ronald McDonald House last May 9 while being treated for lymphoma at Kapiolani Medical Center. She stayed at the house from March 2006 to July 2006.
"I love it. It's neat, especially the people," she said.
Hanging out with her yesterday was Ruthie Mersburgh, 5, also of Kona, who was in and out of the house from March 2006 to February this year while being treated for neuroblastoma.
Meredith and Ruthie both had transplants with their own stem cells, said Gene Davis, spokesman for Ronald McDonald House Charities of Hawaii. Stem cells are filtered from the patient's circulatory system, stored in liquid nitrogen and reinjected in the child after heavy chemotherapy destroys all bone marrow, he explained.
"Both young ladies have shown remarkable improvement since that therapy. Meredith really helped Ruthie, too."
Charlene and Daniel Mersburgh, Ruthie's parents, were among those celebrating yesterday, not only because of their gratitude for the Ronald McDonald House but also because of their daughter's checkup Monday.
"Her blood count is excellent," Charlene said. "It's so exciting and timely for the celebration."