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Comfort and joy

Published December 24, 2005

[Times photos: Willie J. Allen Jr.]
Four-year-old Katie Dwan rests her head next to her baby sister, Katrina, at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg. The Dwan family of Clermont spent this week at a Ronald McDonald House in St. Petersburg while Katrina recovers from surgery.

Dwan family members, from left, Jennifer, John, Samantha and Katie, view their new DVD player inside their room at the Ronald McDonald House. The DVD player was bought with an anonymous donation to the Dwan family.
New Covenant Holiness Church member Ken Hamilton, left, prays for and with Chelsia Stevenson, 9, and her mother, Kathryn Stevenson, at All Children's Hospital this week. Kathryn Stevenson said the concern of Ronald McDonald House volunteers has warmed her heart.
Terri Giardina, 45, left, and Tonia Williams, 35, organize presents for the occupants of Ronald McDonald House in Tampa. Volunteers and donors provided holiday gifts.

ST. PETERSBURG - Never in her wildest dreams did Jennifer Dwan imagine she would celebrate Christmas at a Ronald McDonald House.

The 32-year-old Clermont resident had planned to spend the early weeks of December decorating her home and shopping with her husband, John. By now, she expected to be baking cookies with her two young daughters, Samantha and Katie.

But that all changed on Dec. 7, when Dwan was airlifted to Bayfront Medical Center. A few minutes after 7 a.m., her third child was delivered by emergency caesarean section.

Six days later, tiny Katrina Ashley Dwan - named for Hurricane Katrina - underwent an hourlong surgery at All Children's Hospital. Her doctors say she will need more operations to repair defects in her aorta and to correct a condition called pulmonary stenosis, a narrowing of the artery that carries oxygen.

That means the family will be staying at the Ronald McDonald House, their home away from home, at least through the holidays.

Dwan and her husband say they are grateful the organization is taking care of their day-to-day needs for food and shelter.

"We haven't had to worry about anything," she said. "That's been a very big relief."

The Dwans are among 30 families spending Christmas this year at a Ronald McDonald House of Tampa Bay. Nicknamed "the house that love built," the three residences in St. Petersburg and Tampa, along with 250 others in 27 countries, offer a haven for families with critically ill children.

A child's catastrophic illness is always stressful for parents, but even more so during the holidays, said local house manager Donna Young.

"It's a hard time for them, especially because they're away from their support system," Young said. "We try to make things as cheerful and as joyous as possible for them."

* * *

The two St. Petersburg houses, at 702 Eighth Ave. S and 401 Seventh Ave. S, beckon passers-by with garlands and twinkling lights. Inside, decorated Christmas trees fill nearly every room with the scent of evergreen.

An average stay at a Ronald McDonald House is four days, but some families come for weeks or months. One stayed for nearly a year.

Along with a house on Davis Islands in Tampa, the local branch of the nonprofit organization has served more than 28,000 families. Worldwide, the program has helped more than 3-million families whose children receive treatment at nearby hospitals for cancer, premature birth, organ transplants and other serious medical problems.

Local McDonald's restaurants provide support, generally contributing a quarter of the $1.7-million operating budget. The rest comes from the public.

"It costs $10 a night, but if they can't afford that, we reduce it to $5," Young said. "If they can't afford that, we reduce it to nothing."

Most rooms are equipped with two double beds and have space to add a crib or a cot. Bedside phones offer a direct line to the hospital. A "welcome poem" written by a mom who once stayed at the house sits atop each dresser, along with a journal in which guests are encouraged to write messages for the next family.

Volunteers also make sure each room has a calendar. That's because parents often lose track of the days, Young said.

But none of the guest rooms has a television, an omission Theresa Sessions came to appreciate because it forced her into the commons areas.

Sessions, who is staying at the St. Petersburg Ronald McDonald house with her husband and 16-year-old son, found it helped to share her concerns about her daughter, Tessa, with other parents.

On Dec. 14, doctors inserted a rod behind the 13-year-old's sternum to correct a rare condition that had caused Tessa's chest to cave in more than 3 inches. Tessa was released from the hospital this week, but the Sessions will remain at Ronald McDonald House until she is strong enough to return home to Lakeland.

"This is almost like being at home," Sessions, 34, said. "We even have to do a chore. Ours is to wipe down the patio furniture. It gives us an appreciation for the space we're using."

* * *

Among the amenities at most Ronald McDonald Houses are play rooms for kids and computer rooms with free Internet access. The 34-room east house in St. Petersburg, which opened in 1980, has a huge kitchen with four cooking stations where guests can prepare their own meals.

Glass jars filled with cookies and crackers and baskets loaded with fruit are within reach of anxious parents in a hurry to get to the hospital. Floor-to-ceiling cabinets are stocked with items such as soup, baby food, popcorn and canned fruit, and restaurant-size refrigerators contain milk, orange juice, eggs and butter.

Labels printed in English and Spanish invite families to help themselves to whatever they want.

Volunteers - more than 250 at the St. Petersburg and Tampa houses - are the backbone of the organization, Young said. Workers sign up for four-hour shifts from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week. They check families in and out, answer telephones and provide light housekeeping.

Community groups bring food every evening. Volunteers frequently bring the fixings and prepare the meals in the kitchen, inviting the families to help.

Many otherwise would not take the time to feed themselves, Young said.

At the back of the house, a special room is reserved for family members who need private time. A hospital chaplain is on call to meet with them there.

Sometimes, Young said, even during the holidays, parents have to make tough decisions about taking a child off life support.

* * *

Last week, things began to look up for 9-year-old Chelsia Stevenson. But for days after the delicate surgery to correct her heart defect, her mother, Kathryn, paced the floor, worried that the genetic disease that killed her sister would also kill her daughter.

Stevenson, 36, had heard about Ronald McDonald Houses from the parents of special needs children she teaches in Sarasota. She stayed at the east house in St. Petersburg three months ago when she brought Chelsia to All Children's for tests.

Arriving for the surgery on Dec. 13 was like coming home, Stevenson said.

And while she has missed decorating her home for the holidays and planning a big Christmas dinner, she said the concern of the Ronald McDonald volunteers has warmed her heart.

"It's just the most wonderful place I've ever been in my life," Stevenson said. "I feel the spirit of Christmas here because I'm surrounded by people who care."

The Dwans feel the spirit, too. Returning to the hospital from a brief respite at the Ronald McDonald House, they noticed an envelope taped to Katrina's crib. Inside was a money order for $500. There was no note.

"At first I thought it said $50," Jennifer Dwan said. "I looked at it again and realized it was $500.

"I told my daughters, "There really is a Santa."'

[Last modified December 24, 2005, 01:10:16]

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