When Emily was just three months old, she had her first open heart surgery. “It meant the world to us that I was able to stay so close to her,” her mom, Laurie, said. “Thanks to Ronald McDonald House, Emily was never alone.”

When Laurie was 19 weeks pregnant, she and her husband, Marcus, went to the doctor for a second trimester scan. At 33 weeks, the test that showed that their baby had Down Syndrome in addition to a hole in her heart. “I found out I was having a daughter and you just picture this life and then somebody takes it away.”

But her concerns melted when Laurie and Marcus saw Emily for the first time January 30, 2016. “The second she was born it all went away. I just didn’t care anymore.”

When Emily had her first open heart surgery, things looked positive for the first 48 hours. Then Emily stopped breathing and the doctors had to revive her and insert a breathing tube. A pattern of hope and despair continued as Emily went through periods of stability and instability.

Laurie’s friend had told her about her experience at the Ronald McDonald House, so on the day of Emily’s first surgery, Laurie asked the social worker about the possibility of staying at the House near Advocate Children’s, where Emily was being treated. Emily’s surgery was on Monday, and on Friday morning, Laurie moved into the House across the street from her daughter.

For almost the full duration of the time Emily was in the hospital, Laurie made the House her home. “The convenience of being close to your kid when they’re sick…you can’t put a price on that,” she said.

“I had friends there, I had my mail sent there, I had all my drawers packed, I lived there,” Laurie said. At the beginning, Marcus stayed as well. Tyler, their three-year-old son, stayed with relatives so Laurie and Marcus could focus solely on Emily. But after two weeks, Marcus and Tyler returned to their home in Homer Glen while Laurie stayed close to the hospital. Every night, Marcus would visit, sometimes bringing Tyler so the three of them could eat dinner together.

Since their stay, the whole Cepkauskas family has stayed close to the staff, volunteers, and community of Ronald McDonald House, from holding fundraisers in their own neighborhood with a “Chalk-a-thon” to attending House events like Rolling with Ronald.

“This is the best support group you don’t want to be a part of,” Laurie added. “It was awesome. I’ve made life-long friends.”