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Monday, April 15, 2024

Gainesville’s new Ronald McDonald House boasts space for 20 more families

RMH offers housing for families of seriously ill children receiving hospital treatment

<p>The Gainesville Ronald McDonald Charity House on Thursday Oct. 12, 2023.</p><p><br/></p>

The Gainesville Ronald McDonald Charity House on Thursday Oct. 12, 2023.

When Cat Deesse stayed at the Ronald McDonald House of Jacksonville while her 12-year-old daughter received spinal fusion surgery, she had no idea she would later become the chief financial officer of North Central Florida’s own RMH.

Deesse joined the RMH staff in January, the same month the non-profit organization broke ground in its new, 45,000-square-foot location on SW 16th Street. The building, which holds 50 family suites compared to the old location’s 31 rooms, provides housing for families to stay near seriously ill children receiving treatment at UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital.

Executing the vision 

The plan for the new RMH began seven years ago, when Chief Executive Officer Sherry Houston decided she needed to do something to shorten RMH’s long waitlist. The house was fully booked 24 hours per day, 365 days per year, and turned away 1,962 families in 2021 alone.

RMH’s new space was formerly a Hope Lodge, a community sponsored by the American Cancer Association to provide a free place for cancer patients to stay during treatment, Houston said. Gainesville’s Hope Lodge closed in August 2020 after suspending operations due to COVID-19 in March 2020. After Houston toured the vacant facility with her board, she was hooked on the site, she said.

RMH began renovations on Jan. 2. In less than seven months, RMH moved in, finalizing all renovations for $3.4 million before it cut the ribbon on Aug. 24, Houston said. Families moved in four days later.

The house has been at its full 50-family capacity for about three weeks, Houston said.

Breaking ground on the new RMH was the culmination of a four-year timeline Houston created upon encouragement from her husband, she said.

“Remember, I’d been talking about this for seven years,” said Houston. “I was at the beach with my husband and I said, ‘We’re going to put together a timeline,’ and my husband says, ‘Yes, because you talk all the time, but you don’t take action until you make a plan.”

Houston made the plan, followed it to the letter and finished the entire move one month ahead of schedule, she said.

The house will serve 682 additional families per year than its previous location, but its upgrades go beyond square footage.

While the old house had only bedrooms and bathrooms in each family unit, the suites in the new house include a seating area and two hospitality suites, which are stations where families can grab a cup of coffee or sweet treat without having to go into the common kitchen, Houston said. 

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Other new amenities include an indoor gym with a peloton, a butterfly garden, three laundry rooms and a large dining room featuring modular tables.

“If you’re having a really good day at the hospital, you and others can gather,” said Houston. “If you’re had a really bad day and you and your loved ones just want to be by yourselves, you can pull the tables aside and have a private meal to yourself.”

Serving the families

For Deesse, the new building feels brighter and airier than the old one, which she hopes makes families feel comfortable even if they would prefer to be in their own home in their own living room, she said.

Though the average length of stay is 91 days, families may stay as briefly as one night or as long as 18 months. Throughout the constant ebb and flow of families moving in and out of the house the stories from each one are what make her job impactful and give her a purpose, Deesse said.

“It’s had a huge impact on me personally, so to see all the families come and go just means a lot to me,” she said.

Opening in time for the holiday season was part of the building plan, Houston said. She can’t imagine what it’s like to have a seriously ill child and be away from your support systems for the holidays, she added. The RMH volunteers do everything they can to make families feel supported throughout the season despite the stress of their children’s illnesses, she said.

Every year, a volunteering group comes to cook a Thanksgiving spread for the guests at the house, Deesse said. Other volunteers hold Halloween pumpkin-carving parties or bake sweet holiday treats for families.

RMH has a volunteer program made up of UF students and local businesses alike, Houston said. Volunteers staff RMH’s family room on the 10th floor of Shands Children’s Hospital and come into the house to do family activities, like teaching hula-hoop lessons and offering homework help.

Two of RMH’s most successful volunteer programs involve cooking. For its Visiting Chefs program, groups bring their own ingredients to the RMH kitchen to cook dinner for families. Sweets and Treats sees volunteers coming into the kitchen between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. to bake a cookie, brownie or other sweet treat, Houston said.

RMH’s values of outreach and empathy are reflected in its staff, said Amy Hammons, director of development. The Virginia native, who was just hired at RMH on Oct. 11, said her first impression upon walking into RMH for her interview was disbelief she would be given the opportunity to work in such a warm and welcoming environment.

“From the moment I went in there, I felt like they were family,” she said.

As director of development, Hammons hopes to “bust her ass” to keep the house running. Hammons notices people often take for granted the fact that RMH will continue offering housing to families. Those people don’t see the constant work that goes into keeping and growing the house, she said.

Houston, who Hammons describes as a “hurricane for good,” is Hammons’ ultimate inspiration, she said.

“The admiration I have for her is unreal,” she said, “I can only hope to be as successful with the Ronald McDonald House and do the due diligence that Sherry has.”

The new RMH is fully open and at capacity. Plans for the house’s newest $10 million expansion, which include removing the administrative area and building an extra story on the top of the building, are on hold.

RMH will make final adjustments to its current building and ensure its finances are settled before going through with the new project, which would add 30 additional rooms to its existing 50. The expansion may happen two or three years down the road, Houston said.

This article has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Cat Deesse's name. The Alligator previously reported otherwise. 

Contact Zoey Thomas at Follow her on Twitter @zoeythomas39

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Zoey Thomas

Zoey Thomas is a second-year media production major and the university administration reporter for The Alligator. She previously wrote for the metro desk. Other than reporter, Zoey's titles include espresso connoisseur, long-distance runner and Wes Anderson appreciator. 

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