On the tenth floor of UF Shands Children’s Hospital, there is a room that exists for the sole purpose of caring for those enduring one of life’s darkest moments: the severe illness or injury of a child.
The walls of the Ronald McDonald Family Room are lined with comfortable chairs. A colorful piece of artwork that reads “Welcome Family” sits above a television to the right, around the corner from a computer station, small dining area and kitchen with snacks and fresh coffee brewed by volunteers. Off this main room is a semi-private quiet room stocked with pillows, bed linens and two chairs that convert into beds. Completely filling the space is a feeling of sanctuary.
“Nobody wants their kid to be in the hospital. Particularly in the ICU, it’s a really stressful environment even though we let the family stay at the bedside,” said Missy Reynolds, nurse manager in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, located a few steps down the hall. “The Family Room gives them a place to get away from the bedside with more of a homelike atmosphere. And because it’s right outside the door [of the PICU], they don’t feel like they’re leaving their child or that we’re kicking them out.”
The Family Room never closes, even on holidays, and all of its services are offered completely free-of-charge thanks to Ronald McDonald House Charities of North Central Florida and the donations it receives from the community.
“Any family, whether they’re parents, close relatives, distant relatives, or friends of the family, if they have a child that they’re visiting in the hospital, they’re welcome in the Family Room for as long as they want, even overnight,” said Dorie Faulkner, director of volunteer services for RMHC.
Opened in 2002 as part of the twentieth anniversary celebration of Gainesville’s Ronald McDonald House, the two facilities are built on the same idea that nothing else should matter when a family is focused on the health of their child.
“I love watching the families’ reactions when they come in,” beamed Faulkner. “They are allowed to take their brave face off — the one they put on to talk to the doctors and their child — and let their hair down. You can almost see the relief.”
Helping to care for the room and its visitors are nearly 50 volunteers who collectively donate over 3,200 hours of their time annually.
Dennis and Sharon Jones have been volunteers in the Family Room for 10 years, since they first moved to Gainesville after retiring from lifelong careers in education.
“It was the perfect choice for us,” Dennis Jones explained. “Meeting the families gives us a chance to provide some comfort and feel like we can make a real difference during a difficult situation.”
In addition to tidying up, making beverages and ensuring the room is inviting to guests, volunteers offer support to families with the use of active listening. Volunteers like the Joneses work hard to create an environment where families can express their true thoughts without feeling judged.
“Often people will just kind of unload. We want to listen, and sometimes all they need to do is vent and get some of the tension out, and not be constantly told, ‘Oh it’ll be alright,’ said Sharon Jones. “We don’t say anything other than the fact that we know the doctors here are so wonderful. We’ve seen so many successful cases. We don’t tell them not to worry, but we do feel they couldn’t be in a better place.”
Active listening is taken a step further in a well-loved binder on display atop the Family Room’s small library — a single bookshelf stuffed with material for all ages. A bold red “What’s Your Story?” emblazoned on the cover, the binder holds the stories of anyone who cares to share on its everlasting handful of blank pages in the back.
“Today my eleven-year-old daughter is having an open heart surgery. Her second,” begins a page written in delicate cursive.
“To be 15, I gotta deal with a lot! But I’m strong,” reads another page signed with a giant heart. “I have faith in [my brother] and Jesus!! He has made it this far & he can keep fighting!”
The notes serve as a catharsis for those who write them and create a bridge to other families who can relate during what can be an isolating time. These deep connections are a bittersweet perk for Family Room guests, some of whom visit frequently for months while their child undergoes extensive treatment or waits for a transplant.
Appointment regularity is about the only constant Marilyn Jaquette expects when arriving for her shift. Jaquette is another long-term Family Room volunteer, marking her fifth year of service in September.
“You don’t know if there’s going to be two people in the room or twenty people, and what state they’re in,” said Jaquette. “You have the really sad cases and you have the really good cases, and it’s just knowing how to deal and be there for either case.”
When appropriate, Jaquette shares jokes. “Seeing someone who was previously sullen crack a smile makes my whole week,” she gushed. Sometimes, she sits in complete silence. “One woman held my hand while she just cried,” Jaquette somberly recounted.
In any case, Jaquette is constantly amazed at the resiliency of people. On one day forever etched in her memory, Jaquette entered the Family Room where a large crowd was gathered immediately after the sudden, unexpected death of 14-year-old girl.
“There’s at least 20 people — everybody from family, co-workers, church people, pastor, you name it — there to support this family after their devastating loss. They were devastated… but on the other hand, they were rejoicing because their daughter’s organs were going to nine people,” remembered Jaquette.
“It’s those situations that warm your heart,” she added. “It was a sad situation, and yet the family had already turned it around and made something good of it, knowing that the daughter would’ve wanted to help others.”
For Reynolds and other medical staff at the hospital, the Family Room and its volunteers are a crucial resource.
“The healthcare team is involved in taking care of the child. Even though we’d very much like to be there to support the family too, our first focus has to be the child,” said Reynolds. “Having the volunteer there, especially during the daytime, is really comforting to the nurses and other healthcare team members.”
“We know they’re looking after the family while we look after the kid.”
Learn more about becoming a Family Room volunteer by contacting Dori Faulkner at [email protected] or 352-374-4404.