Since 1986, Ronald McDonald House® near University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital has welcomed more than 24,000 families from around the world, totaling nearly 223,000 visits. Celebrating its 30th year of remarkable service, the House had numerous reasons to throw a party! On September 17, over 300 people gathered at the House, recalling memories of loved ones and remembering the special care that has always taken place there. Current and past staff, including one of the House founders, Ann Pettigrew, attended, as well as families who have first-hand knowledge of just how special this place is. One particular family shared their story.
“Our daughter Mattea was born in April 2009,” Jamie Freedlund says. “She lived for 9-and-a-half months and she spent most of her short life in the Comer Children’s NICU.” The Freedlund family (Jamie, her husband, Gary, and their oldest daughter, Reese) stayed at Ronald McDonald House for 13 weeks during those months. “Since we lived about an hour from the hospital, the House was a huge blessing. In our world of chaos, it was something we were so grateful for.”
“When you are going through something like that, not having to think about where you’ll stay or what you’ll eat makes a huge difference,” Jamie continues. “The House was a lifeline to us.” The Freedlund family, now with two boys, drive monthly to the House to prepare and serve dinner to other families who are experiencing some of the hardest times in their lives. “It is simply an amazing place.”
One person Jamie knows well is Mardelle Gundlach, the current House Director who has been connected to the House in some capacity since 1987. “She has a heart of gold,” Jamie says. “We really got to know her in 2009; she is so giving and so kind. She loves being there and she provides so much support to each family staying at the House.”
Mardelle feels the House ‘birthday’ is the perfect tribute because, “This is not a sad place. We may have sad moments, but it’s a wonderful place that has been around for 30 years.” She marvels at all of the lives that have been touched. “Different families from different places, every night with a place to stay while their child is sick. I had a brother who died in 1951, so I know what it was like to stay in a hospital waiting room. This House is a true blessing for so many families,” Mardelle shares. Mardelle especially remembers Mattea. “This family took what was happening to them to a new level of giving back, because of Mattea,” Mardelle says.
The Freedlund Family started a nonprofit, called Mattea’s Joy, in 2010 after she passed away. “We started the organization to provide comfort and support to families with sick kids, because of our experience,” Jamie says. “You have no idea what it’s like unless you are in it. Your life is turned upside down. We wanted to help.” Jamie explains they love talking about Mattea and they want to tell her story. They do that by bringing friends along when they go to the House to serve dinner each month. They see Mardelle; their children become friends with kids at the House; they, like many others since 1986, make a difference. Jamie calls the House cozy and beautiful. To her and thousands of others, it will always be their ‘home away from home’.