Sun Times Article

July 6, 2009

A beautiful article written by Cathleen Falsani in the Chicago Sun-Times. 

McDonald house creates home for stressed families

Able to stay close to Vasco in hospital

June 19, 2009

BY CATHLEEN FALSANI Religion Columnist

The ancient Greeks believed that hospitality was sacred. They called it xenia, the word from which we get “genial” in English.

Showing hospitality to strangers and those far from home was a form of worship to the god Zeus, who was the Greek god of, among other things, travelers.

In the religiosity of xenia, the host was obliged to care for the guests, the guests were required to respect the host, and when the guests left, the host gave them a gift as an expression of what an honor it had been to host them.

Hospitality is a spiritual discipline. In India, for instance, there is a saying: atithi devo bhava, meaning, “the guest is God.” Likewise, in his great Rule, St. Benedict emphasized the importance of hospitality in a life of faith, saying, “Let everyone that comes be received as Christ.”

While the Ronald McDonald House in Oak Lawn, across the street from Hope Children’s Hospital, is not a house of worship, nor does it align itself with any spiritual tradition, it is very much a sacred space, extending hospitality in a powerful and tangible way to the weary families of sick children.

When my husband and I brought Vasco to Hope for heart surgery June 10, the thought of staying steps away at the McDonald house had never crossed our mind. We figured we’d take turns sleeping on a chair in Vasco’s hospital room while the other one drove home to Oak Park for the night.

But at the end of a marathon couple of days at the hospital with Vasco, the 10-year-old AIDS orphan from Malawi we’ve been hosting since April while he undergoes life-saving treatment at Hope, one of his nurses asked us, “Why don’t you stay at the McDonald house?”

A quick call to Kelly Evans, the McDonald house manager, and we had a room. A private room, with two beds and its own bathroom, for as long as we needed it. It was hard to step away from Vasco’s bedside, but walking across the street for a quick nap or a shower was much easier than driving 45 minutes in traffic each way.

I had no expectations when I walked in to the McDonald house late one afternoon, exhausted and carrying only my cell phone. Kevin Kramer, an assistant house manager, met me at the door, shook my hand, asked me if I wanted a cool bottle of water, and guided me to a wood-paneled room with comfy green velvet chairs while he went to get our paperwork.

The McDonald house in Oak Lawn is the fourth McDonald house built in the Chicago area. It opened on Dec. 15, 2008, and is very much a house — not an antiseptic institution or an impersonal hotel. It’s beautiful, well-appointed, and inviting.

Kramer gave me a tour of the 16-bedroom house set back from 93rd Street by a circular driveway and a stand of old-growth trees. There are two wings of the house facing the street, which the architect designed to look like arms reaching out, welcoming families in, he said. I started to get teary.

When he walked me into the kitchen — a fully stocked, enormous kitchen with wood floors and expansive counters, pantries lining the walls and several stainless steel refrigerators with “community” written on them — I began to cry.

The McDonald house people had thought of everything a stressed-out family far from home might need or want. All the house asks is a $10 donation per night, if you can afford it.

I could not have felt more welcome. I could not have been more relieved and blessed to be there, in the company of other families who were going through similar trials, although ours was short by comparison.

One night, my husband walked back to the house from the hospital — a walk Vasco could watch from the window of his intensive care room — around midnight and ran into another father in the kitchen, both of them eating home-cooked leftovers from the community fridge that is stocked daily with meals from volunteer groups. This night it was taco salad. They got to talking and the other man explained that his family had been living at the house for six months. His son, an infant, was born with a heart defect, not unlike Vasco, and has undergone numerous surgeries.

There were other families who were repeat visitors, coming to stay for a few days or a week or a month at a time every few months while their child endured surgery or chemotherapy or testing or rehabilitation.

I didn’t know most of their stories, but I recognized that look in their eyes. The weariness, the fear, the hope and the love.

When Vasco was released from the hospital on Wednesday, we took him to see the house for himself. “Oh . . . beautiful!” he squealed, pointing at the fireplace and the tall spiral staircase that form the hearth and the heart of the house.

Before we left the house, Evans invited Vasco to choose a gift from their immense toy closet. He chose a Tonka helicopter.

The McDonald houses will forever be my charity of choice for donations large and small. A visit to lists all sorts of opportunities to help, from collecting pop tabs to a wish list of things the house needs — plastic to-go containers, gallon jugs of vinegar, portable DVD players, boxes of cereal.

They are doing God’s work. We — and so many others — were strangers and they took us in.