RMHC Johnson Family
Courtesy of RMHC

When Noelle Johnson is asked about her son Jordan’s health, she can rattle off the dates of his three heart surgeries, his seven-month stay in the hospital as a newborn, when he got a tracheotomy tube inserted to help him breathe and the nights she’s spent by her 12-year-old’s side every time he’s come to Advocate Hope Hospital in Chicago.

“This little guy has been through a lot. But he’s tough. He’s really tough,” she said.

Yet when you ask her about how Ronald McDonald House Charities has helped her and her family by giving them a place to stay and comfort – for nearly free – she gets a little tongue-tied.

“I can’t…I can’t… I can’t even find the words to say how I feel about what they’ve done for me and my family,” she said. “It’s hard to put into words. But it’s made a huge impact on my family that we have some place to stay.”

Noelle is staying at the Oak Lawn Ronald McDonald House, kitty cornered from the hospital. She’s been here since March 11, and may be able to leave at the end of May if her son is discharged. That means she’s here this Sunday, too.

On Mother’s Day.

She won’t be the only mother here.

“It’s sad, but it’s so nice to have other people around who understand what you’re going through. We’ve met three different families and when they have a good day, we steal some of their joy,” she said. “It’s so great to see someone else have a good day. And then, we’ll have a good day, and they enjoy that, too.”

To help mothers who find themselves staying at a Ronald McDonald House over Mother’s Day, Chicago-based McDonald’s Corp. is partnering with 1-800-Flowers to send baskets of “spa” goodies – like soaps and lotions – to mothers staying at each of the 179 Ronald McDonald Houses in the United States. Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC) is not a part of McDonald’s Corp., but the company is the “Founding Mission Partner” of the non-profit and provides direct support for a portion of its annual budget. Not one company could sustain the growth of the Charity therefore the majority of funding comes from the public, including donations from McDonald’s customers at its restaurants.

Noelle, her husband, Jim, and their two other children live in McHenry, Ill., near the Wisconsin border about a two-hour drive from Chicago. Their youngest, Jordan, was born at Advocate Hope Hospital when an ultrasound discovered that he had a rare heart condition – his left heart chamber was so weak it couldn’t pump blood. That started more than a decade of surgeries and long hospital stays. Now he’s back because he lost a tooth, bled too much, got blood in his lungs, then got a bad flu virus. He was on a breathing machine for weeks.

Noelle will never forget her family’s stay in Chicago for Jordan’s first heart surgery. They stayed in a hotel room for a few nights, but realized they couldn’t afford it. Plus they were commuting back and forth because their other children were in school and Jim still had to work. “We were sleeping in recliner chairs in the hospital lobby and brushing our teeth in public restrooms,” she said. “It was awful.”

Then RMHC opened this House in December 2008. “I couldn’t believe it! We get a bed and a shower!”

The local RMHC Chapter has five houses in the Chicago area and houses 153 families every night. It asks for a small donation of $10 per night, but doesn’t turn away families who can’t afford that. It also has three Ronald McDonald Family Rooms in hospitals where families can rest and relax in a space near the Neonatal Intensive Care Units.

The 24,000-square-foot House in Oak Lawn where Noelle stays is on three-quarters of an acre and has 16 bedrooms with private baths. Four of those have living rooms and are for families that have to stay 30 days or longer. The House has a large kitchen, playroom, three living rooms and even a wheelchair accessible tree house.

It’s not just the big kitchen with three sinks and three dishwashers and four refrigerators that has helped make her life easier, it’s the volunteers who come to cook lunch and dinner every day for the families staying there. “Sometimes the Brownie Scouts will come in and bake cookies,” she says, amazed still that it happens. “It is beyond words.”

Noelle’s oldest son, Justin, 20, has been so impressed with the care his family has received that he gave a speech about the Ronald McDonald House for his speech class at college.

“You don’t have to worry about anything but caring for your kid,” says Noelle. “It’s hard to put into words what it’s meant for us.

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