One Canberra home is more a lifeline for families than accommodation.
Ronald McDonald House Canberra (RMHC), on the second floor of Canberra Hospital, offers 10 rooms – each with two single beds and a bathroom. The peaceful rooms along the hallway lead to a dining room, TV room, lounge room and kitchen.
One floor above sits the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) and Special Care Nursery (SCN) where babies born premature or with serious health conditions stay until overcoming their early obstacles.
Their parents – often bewildered, exhausted and emotional – need only descend one level to reach their home away from home.
Ronald McDonald House Canberra runs seven days a week, 365 days a year, 24 hours a day free of charge for caregivers of children in intensive care.
“I’m not sure what the alternative would be for these parents,” RMHC fundraising manager Robyn Zwar says. “I don’t know a single person who could afford to pay accommodation costs in Canberra for such long periods.
“Our longest staying family was here 308 nights.”
Accommodating about 240 families a year, Ronald McDonald House Canberra is usually at capacity and there’s currently a waiting list.
Robyn says a base of more than 190 volunteers forms the “backbone of this beautiful charity”.
“Sometimes they do a three-hour shift, sometimes they sleep in ‘the House’ or come on weekends. They’ll support the families while they’re here, chat with them, cook for them, do their washing and cleaning,” she says.
Ronald McDonald House Canberra also provides some semblance of normalcy for residents so they can make themselves at home. The shared pantry and fridge are stocked with cereal, eggs, milk, bread and non-perishable staples.
Robyn says this helps residents who arrive after an emergency and don’t have time to prepare.
“Sometimes they don’t even have a bag packed,” she says. “Nobody ever plans to come here.”
Robyn says RMHC ‘s magic isn’t created by the amenities, but by the families who stay, their journeys and the bonds they form in times of crisis.
She hears stories of dads who can’t sleep and wander into the lounge room to find another sleepless parent with a sympathetic ear. Or Facebook groups which keep in touch and form lifelong friendships.
“This time last year we had such a beautiful group of families staying here long-term. When one family finally got the green light to leave, the other families got together and cooked a surprise farewell dinner in the kitchen. It became a tradition.”
It costs $132 a night per family to run RMHC. The charity also offers other programs including a family room in the paediatric ward, a family retreat with two units down the coast where long-time separated families can reunite for short holidays, and a learning program for children away from school for long periods.
“All up it costs us $650,000 a year to keep our big red doors open,” Robyn says.
With no government assistance, RMHC relies on fundraising efforts to sustain its services. In its 10th year in Canberra, the charity raised more than $600,000 through its 2022 flagship gala event.
“Canberrans are very generous,” Robyn says. “We receive monetary and in-kind support, and have some incredible sponsors.”
The gala’s naming sponsor – Lexus of Canberra – regularly holds corporate events to raise funds for RMHC.
“I always knew Ronald McDonald House had an excellent reputation – then I found out why,” dealer principal Mirko Milic says.
“To help keep a family together while they’re going through a traumatic experience hit a nerve with me.
“Being a sponsor and later becoming a board member, it was even more revealing as I met and heard from people rescued by ‘the House’ and the traumatic things they’d gone through.”
Robyn says these experiences embody the “immense privilege” it is to work at RMHC.
“Some families ask ‘is it strange I don’t want to leave?’ as they check out. I tell them no – we gave them a safe place and it became home.”
To find out more about how you can support Ronald McDonald House Canberra visit the website.