35 Years with San Diego’s Ronald McDonald House
By Connie Hernandez, a co-founder of Ronald McDonald House Charities of San Diego, pictured above with husband and co-founder Nick Hernandez
We were young parents in 1976, busy raising our two sons and two daughters. That’s when we got the worst news imaginable: “Your son has a fifty percent chance of surviving the week. And he will not live to celebrate his first birthday.”
That year, we and a group of other San Diego parents lost our beloved sons and daughters to that time’s terrible childhood killer, leukemia.
Then as now, when receiving such devastating news, you’ve somehow got to muster strength and believe that your child will be the exception. We thought: if we get the best medical care, if we pray enough, if we love him enough, our son will survive. Yet in spite of long hospital stays, endless IVs and blood draws, experimental chemotherapy, and blinding radiation, we lost. Our precious child was gone.
In our grief, my husband and I began to meet with other parents regularly at a coffee shop, brought together by Irma Gusfield, a social worker at what was to become Rady Children’s Hospital. We compared initial diagnoses, therapy regimens, and methods of coping.We became stronger by sharing.
We formed San Diegans Against Childhood Cancer, and within 18 months, we became an official 501c3 organization in California. Out of our personal loss, we wanted to create something lasting and positive to help other families with children in a life-threatening medical crisis.
Based on our own experience, and what we learned of the first Ronald McDonald House, which had opened in 1976 in Philadelphia, we began plans for a local “home away from home” that would ease the burdens of all-night hospital vigils and sleeping on chairs in hospital waiting rooms.
Another three years of work and our dream came true. Thanks to the generosity of local McDonald’s operators, Children’s Hospital, local philanthropic organizations, civic, business and labor leaders, and individuals in the community too numerous to mention, we opened our original 8-bedroom House on December 16, 1980.
The opening of our “home away from home” was an occasion filled with enthusiasm, joy, and pride of accomplishment.
That day 35 years ago marked the fulfillment of a dream, an opportunity to immortalize the memory of our son, Matthew.
Even while standing in the room on that day of celebration, I was struck with disbelief… we really did it!
December 1980: The first ring at the door
The Ronald McDonald House had been open just a few days when I answered a ring at its front door. It was a woman asking if this was the new place called the Ronald McDonald House. I could see that she was confused, in shock, and hurting. I welcomed her with a smile. I told her I was also a parent, and that we were here to help.
As I showed her around our brand new House and explained what was available, she looked surprised, relieved and extremely grateful.
She thanked me, and I remember how grateful I felt to have played a role in creating a haven for her and other parents in need. At that moment, I felt what the Ronald McDonald House is about.
It’s truly about warmth and comfort. It’s about caring and extending a helping hand. Regardless of what happens in the course of caring for these children, it’s about supporting families.
For me, the healing process began and good memories began to surface.
For the next three decades, our little Ronald McDonald House would serve over a thousand families. I am so pleased that the House’s current volunteers are giving guests all the personal care and attention of the old days.
2020: Forty years of comfort and care
In 2009, Ronald McDonald House Charities of San Diego made the next major leap forward by opening a new 47-room House with a Family Care Center to serve day visitors as well as overnight guests. The entire original House could fit inside the new House’s Joseph Clayes III Great Room.
San Diego’s Ronald McDonald House now hosts around 1,500 families a year and welcomes an additional 11,000 people for day services.
Treatments for leukemia have progressed tremendously since the 1970s, when we started our journey. Parents today can rest and find comfort at our community supported Ronald McDonald House.
Now, parents don’t have to shower in the nurse’s locker area at the hospital, or pull two chairs together to form a place to sleep.
Beds and showers are at the Ronald McDonald House, along with hot meals and staff and volunteers doing what they can to help make life easier for families in crisis.
We are still motivated by the memory and courage of our son, Matthew Hernandez, as well as other children like Phillip DeLaurier, Lance Rose, Kevin Hallisay, Susanne Baker, and Mini-Al Romero, who are the true founders of our home away from home. It’s a comfort knowing that they must surely be smiling down on our efforts.