RMHC Programs Build Children’s Confidence and Family Spirits
March 01, 2021
The Ronald McDonald House® program is probably the most recognizable core offering of Ronald McDonald Houses Charities®(RMHC®). The House program provides overnight accommodations and a supportive home away from home for sick children and their families.
But the mission of RMHC is much bigger than just providing a place to sleep, recognizing that families with a sick child need additional types of support. What about children in treatment who fall behind on their schoolwork? Or siblings that still need to attend school, even if they are far from home with their family? How to support parents who feel isolated by caring for their sick child? Or families struggling to re-connect after living with illness?
Today, the focus of many RMHC Chapters around the world is to expand the support and resources available to the children and families they serve to better meet their holistic needs. These include camps and learning centers to help support the entire family in all aspects of their lives.
Camp programs provide a different kind of treatment
“Cancer is in the body of one child, but the whole family has a form of PTSD. Camp gives them an opportunity to reclaim their lives. It’s healing for the spirit and heals places that medical treatments can’t reach when they need it most,” says Fatima Djelmane Rodriguez, Executive Director of Camp Ronald McDonald® for Good Times of RMHC Southern California, a year-round program for children with cancer and their families.
Located in the San Jacinto Mountains east of Los Angeles, the camp serves close to 1,500 campers each year. Younger children attend with their families, while patients and siblings age 9 to high school graduation attend a kids-only camp. In addition to volunteer counselors, the camp is staffed by volunteer oncologists and nurses. RMHC Northern California runs a similar program.
During the pandemic, the camp operated by RMHC Southern California also has expanded programming to provide a “Camp at Home” experience – ensuring children and families are connected to the camp’s supportive community.
“Cancer is very isolating,” says Fatima, who has overseen the RMHC Southern California program for more than three years after first serving as Development Director. “Many parents have not had the chance to talk to other parents; and the hospital is not a place that tends to build community. With counselors at camp to support them, parents have the opportunity, often the first time since their child was diagnosed, to take some time for self-care.”
Camp also allows families to connect and be present. “There’s a sense of togetherness and joy,” Fatima says. And for kids-only camp, campers find hope, courage and reliance in an environment of peers, she explains. “Kids come back transformed.”
Education programs boost kids in more ways than one
Another major challenge for sick children and their families is schooling. Hospitalizations, medications and complicated treatment schedules make it difficult for sick children to keep up their studies.
The RMHC Australia Ronald McDonald Learning Program assists school-aged children with serious illnesses and injuries to catch up on missed education following treatment and recovery. Educational support services, including therapy sessions and one-on-one tutorials with experienced teachers, aim to help build each child’s confidence and self-esteem in preparation for their return to the classroom.
In Toronto, Canada, seriously ill children and their siblings staying at the Ronald McDonald House have the chance to attend an on-site private school.
What started as a pilot program has blossomed into a comprehensive learning environment for students in kindergarten through grade 12, staffed by four educators, and recognized by the province’s Ministry of Education. RMHC Toronto School offers a full school day and continuity of programming to cover breaks like holidays and vacation
“It was something we were missing to keep families staying as a whole at the House,” says Candice Gurwitz, Director of Family Services and Programs. “We’re grateful to our Board of Directors who had the vision to endorse and support the school.”
Katie Doering, school principal, was instrumental in creating the school, which takes a student-centered approach to the curriculum to merge children’s interests and social emotional needs with grade-level requirements.
“There’s a huge diversity of families we’ve been able to serve. We’re serving children from all over the world, children who are typically homeschooled, and those who attend alternative schools at home,” says Katie “We’re here to value the children’s culture and let kids follow their passions. We’re proud to have created a space where everyone feels welcome.”
With about 20 different students a month, the school’s individualized education helps students achieve academically, she says, recalling one student who jumped ahead several grades in math. “The mom said, ‘I can’t believe my child is getting treatment for a brain tumor and he’s doing the best he’s ever done.’”
School also extends a sense of normalcy to a very difficult time for families, Katie says. She’s observed how kids connect and make friends in the House, start participating in extra curriculars the House offers and even bring their families to eat together.
“One student who was also undergoing treatment said, ‘Going to school here tells me I have a future.’ – how important, how powerful is that?”
To learn about more unique Ronald McDonald House Charities program offerings, visit https://rmhc.org/about-us/our-impact.