It might be Ramadam and several hours into today’s fast but Abdullah is cooking waffles for anybody who wanders along to the day room on the first floor. Whilst Abdullah might be observing the ritual of not eating or drinking between sunrise and sunset he is more than happy to cook waffles because it is something he does every week. Waffle Wednesday happens in Ronald McDonald Houses, all over the country and Abdullah and his fellow volunteers make sure they are always on hand to supply these tasty treats on time.
The smell wafts through the house, think hot doughnuts at the seaside, and slowly but surely families begin to arrive. Families who have come from as far away as Jersey, to be close by a poorly child who is just across the car park at Southampton General Hospital. Abdullah, the families and all the members of staff greet each other like old friends. Asking how things are going, genuinely interested in the answers.
I have been invited to spend the morning at the Southampton House of the Ronald McDonald House Charity, following my visit to the gala dinner earlier this year. The house is sombre today as a child who has been poorly for some time has sadly passed away over night. The family have been given a room to meet relatives, to make arrangements, to do whatever they need to, privately, all together. The staff are clearly affected by an event that has obviously happened too often. I cannot begin to imagine how they deal with this as often as they do but it really hits home how important this environment is for the families. For them to have a safe space to get through the most painful of hours.
There are 52 beds in the house, each one occupied, with a constant waiting list. They may stay just a few weeks, or they could be there for months. Years even. And it won’t cost them a penny. All the family are asked for is a £25 room key deposit at the start of their stay, which is then returned at the end (though many do decide to donate this to the house). Each room comes with twin beds, that can be made into doubles, a wardrobe, a safe and an en suite bathroom. Deliberately there are no TVs in the rooms, not just because the maintenance costs would be too much but also because staff are keen for families to socialise in the day rooms and not just retreat to their rooms every evening. Sharing their experience with other families going through something similar is a vital coping strategy. Something as simple as all watching Britain’s Got Talent together can go a long way to helping families relax, if just for an hour.
Ronald McDonald Houses provides these safe havens for families to spend time together. I wrote more about the charity as a whole and the work they do in this post: Do you know about Ronald McDonald House Charity?
Siblings are welcome to come and stay, as are grandparents. One family refer to this now as “mummy’s house” as mum spends the weeks here to be near her sick child, with her partner and other children staying at home for school Monday to Friday, and then they all come down to all be together at the weekends. It’s feels important that there be some semblance of normality for families, even if that is only all sitting down to eat dinner together a couple of times a week. Or to read a bedtime story a couple of times.
As Sarah-Jayne the house manager shows me around she tells me about the logistics for families and what the alternative would be if the house didn’t exist. People would sleep in their cars. So desperate are they to be close to their children they would do anything to not be hours away, and that includes grabbing a few hours asleep in the car park. I cannot begin to imagine.
There is a kitchen on every floor of the house, along with a lounge and dining area. Families are encouraged to cook, and each is assigned a compartment in the fridge to keep their own foods in.
As well as there being communal cupboards that house essentials that have been donated by families leaving, half boxes of pasta and cereal, or tubs of herbs. Dining tables are dotted about that can double as places to do crafts or homework. Toys sit tidily on shelves near the carpet, ready for the next small person to grab them, maybe oblivious to why they are here.
Every day the local branch of Marks and Spencer donate their short shelf life food to the main dining room for it to be shared out with the families. There are vending machines kindly donated by Coca Cola offering free drinks. Small things, but it is these things that make a huge difference to all of these families.
“Sometimes all parents of a poorly baby in the neo-natal unit can do is wash their clothes”, Sarah-Jayne continues. “Their babies are being fed by a tube, and they are cannot pick them up to hold them, so washing their clothes is all their parents feel they can do”. Hence the bank of Miele washing machines and tumble driers that sit in laundry rooms on each floor. It costs just £2 for each load (bedding and towels are done separately by the housekeepers).
Notice boards line the corridors, dotted with thank you cards and announcing fund raising events. Photographs from families who will always be grateful for being able to stay at a time when they needed it most.
As the poster in the hallway says “… they gave us somewhere to be together as a family”
I was going to publish this next week, to coincide with Waffle Wednesday again but then late on Friday night on Instagram I saw RMHC share the following update:
Together with its Franchisees, McDonald’s UK will match fund, up to a total of £50,000, the donations made to Ronald McDonald House Charities UK via the Donate button as part of this campaign.
So for every £1 you donate using this link: Ronald McDonald House Charities UK there will be another quid donated. Donate a tenner and a tenner gets matched. You get the idea.