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Ronald McDonald house to celebrate 20 years of helping families

By ROSALIND HELDERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 17, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Hospital waiting room chairs make for hard beds.

But Betsy Hanley says that if not for the St. Petersburg Ronald McDonald House, that's where she would have slept for nights on end to be near her son Patrick, whose cancer was diagnosed in 1994.

"I wasn't going to let my son be in the hospital by himself," she says.

Ms. Hanley and Patrick were in and out of the hospital for seven months before the 7-year-old died.

And during that time, Ms. Hanley, who lived then in Lee County, would stay at the Ronald McDonald House whenever her son's illness brought her to town.

"We never seemed to be home for longer than two weeks before we had to toss everything into the car and head back to the hospital," Ms. Hanley says. "The Ronald McDonald House was just a godsend."

Ms. Hanley, who now works full time as the resident manager of Tampa Bay's Ronald McDonald House, will be on hand today as volunteers, staff and the families they have served celebrate the 20th anniversary of St. Petersburg's house -- the first established in Florida.

The event will be marked by carnival games, cake and photo opportunities with Ronald McDonald. St. Petersburg City Council member Robert Kersteen also will present a city proclamation declaring June 17 as Ronald McDonald House day.

The Ronald McDonald House of Tampa Bay has provided a home away from home for families whose children are in area hospitals.

"It's very difficult to put into words how much this helps," says Dr. Jerry Barbosa, an oncologist at All Children's Hospital.

For a fee of $10 a night, families can stay at the houses while their children are treated in local hospitals. Located within walking distance of children's hospitals, the houses provide families with hot meals and laundry facilities. There are 206 houses in 19 countries.

The House technically caps family stays at 30 days, but families can stay on longer if their children need longer-term care.

"It's a place where families are with other families who are going through the same thing," says Martha L. Gifford, public relations coordinator for the Ronald McDonald House of Tampa Bay.

During the past 20 years, 18,000 families have stayed at one of the Tampa Bay Ronald McDonald Houses. The system has grown since just one house was founded in St. Petersburg 20 years ago. Today there are three houses -- two in St. Petersburg and one in Tampa -- offering 66 bedrooms to families in need.

The birthday celebration will begin at 10 a.m. today at the St. Petersburg "West" House, 702 Eighth Ave. S.

Betsy Hanley will be there to say happy birthday to the house that has meant so much to her.

"When I go back to that house, even as a staff member," she says, "I come in those front doors as family."

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