Ronald McDonald House

Supporting one another in times of need can mean different things to different people. For some it means lending their time at the school canteen. For others,  it’s joining a committee and making big decisions. Volunteering in all its forms is admirable and plays a huge part in our communities.

Some volunteering, however, will leave an indelible mark on the recipients of that time and effort.

It takes a special sort of person to make that contribution.

Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC) North Queensland is privileged to have many of these extraordinary people involved as volunteers.

The crucial work of the house is to support sick children and their families. They do this in a variety of ways. You will find RMHC volunteers at Townsville Hospital in the Ronald McDonald family room. You will also find them close by at Ronald McDonald House Townsville. The organisation also offers further support for children who need to catch up on school work missed due to illness. It also operates as    family retreats for families who need a getaway.

“You don’t realise what’s out there until you need it.

To do all this amazing work RMHC rely heavily on the contribution of their team of volunteers.

The Ronald McDonald House itself in Townsville has a huge range of facilities. They include 25 bedrooms (including four self-contained units), children’s game room, communal kitchens, laundry facilities, a library, lounge rooms. There’s also an outdoor area, a parents room and even a mini-golf course. And it’s all lovingly cared for by the team of volunteers. They ensure that this is truly a home away from home for families.

It’s a difficult job, and one that can be heartbreaking at times, but the team are up to it. With approximately 150 volunteers to call on, RMHC have a huge range of skill sets and personalities at their disposal.  This provides some calm from the storm for families going through what may be the toughest time of their life.

RMHC volunteers are extraordinary people.

When a family has a sick child it isn’t simply a diagnosis for one individual. It’s a diagnosis for the entire family.

The stress, worry and panic that can come with having a sick child are not easy to cope with. It’s particularly difficult if distance becomes a factor when medical treatment is required.

It is nearly impossible to understand the gravity of this situation. That is unless, like RMHC volunteers Kenny and Margaret, you have been that family seeking help.

“It’s been a while since we had that kind of stress, but I still remember it,” says Margaret.

Kenny and Margaret’s own personal experience has helped shape their approach to volunteering at Ronald McDonald House Townsville.

“We had a child with cancer years ago and we actually used Ronald McDonald House in Brisbane. We were supported by charities as well during those few years,” adds Margaret.

“You don’t realise how many families actually need support until you’re in the midst of it. Or, if you’re with a charity where you see the families come through,” she says.

Kenny emigrated to Australia from Belfast 43 years ago. He met Margaret at the post office (he spent his working life with Australia Post) shortly after arriving in Australia. They have been together ever since. Despite the decades spent in Australia, Kenny has retained his strong Irish accent. He puts it to good use, explaining his eye-catching red and white striped socks are Ronald McDonald House Silly Socks.

“I’ve got a pair at home to, I just didn’t wear them today – I should have worn shorts!” laughs Margaret.

The couple are happy to explain their love for their volunteering work with RMHC. However are characteristically humble about the impact they make on the lives of families with sick children.

The couple volunteer in different roles within the organisation.

Kenny is very handy in the garden. So, his time is spent ensuring that the grounds are always looking their best.

“Yes my responsibility is especially in the gardens, keeping them neat and tidy. Same as the car park, making sure everything is watered.

“It’s been especially difficult in the past few years. During the drought where there are water restrictions and no hoses allowed so you had to hand water everything. But they’ve relax them a little bit now so it’s good.

“I’m not the only one, there’s another couple of guys too I would stress. But yeah, I just did enjoy getting out and doing that.

“When people say ‘oh, that looks nice’, you get a certain amount of satisfaction out of it.

“We say people are in stressful situations. If we can take a little bit of that stress out of them, that’s nice,” he says.

He has been volunteering with RMHC for just over six years, making the decision to volunteer after he retired.

“When I retired I was enjoying life, it was good, but I wanted to do something as well. Ronald McDonald came up I don’t remember how or where. I just applied and they said ‘yes, come in’. I started off doing four hours a week, now it’s up to ten or twelve hours. I just enjoy it. It’s a nice environment to come into and people are always friendly. You feel you’re doing something, you get something out of it,” he says.

Margaret has taken on a couple of roles, doing one shift a week at the family room at the hospital. She also assists the volunteer co-ordinator with admin support for the rest of her time.

She has been volunteering since January 2018.

“Basically Kenny was already volunteering here and I’ve been to a few functions and I really liked the friendliness. I like the whole idea of the charity helping families,” she explains.

The family room can be quite a challenging place, as families deal with a huge spectrum of emotions. But we are forced to deal with news both good and bad.

No two shifts are alike in this rapidly changing environment.

“In the hospital room it’s checking the nap room, changing sheets, doing washing, making cups of tea, chatting with families. Sometimes it’s playing a game with a child so mum gets time to have a cup of tea,” explains Margaret.

“It’s just basically being there to support the family when they come in.”

Margaret agrees that every shift can bring a new challenge.

“Very much so. You have days where it’s very mobile patients that have come in and they just want to watch T.V. or something, but they’re able to walk in. Then there’s others that… they’re in the children’s ward and mum’s very upset because they’ve had bad news. So you get the different levels of stress. I suppose you’ve got one and they are almost ready to go home. But then another one that’s on a terrible journey and it’s just starting.”

It’s an environment with such a wide range of challenges. It can be difficult not knowing what kind of day you’re going to have or what you’re walking into. For Margaret, being there to support families in these difficult times is something hugely valuable and close to her heart.

“I remember how valuable it was to have someone to chat to. I don’t find it stressful but sometimes I feel a little… raw. It does bring up some memories,” says Margaret.

“That’s what you’re there for. If you can give a couple of comforting words to somebody, even if it’s just to listen, it’s important. Because sometimes… especially the mums… when they’re a bit stressed they just need somebody to offload to. You don’t have to say anything. You just sit there, make them a cup of tea and offer them a biscuit or something and just listen.

“You don’t need to solve their problems you just need to listen,” she explains.

“You can see the difference sometimes when the families come in. You can see the stress in their face. And after a half an hour or so you can just see them starting to relax a little.

“They may not say much when they come in. but after a while they start to say things - they want to talk because they’ve found a nice relaxing place.   They will tell us when they walk through the door there, it’s like finding paradise,” she says.

We are volunteering in such an emotional atmosphere. It’s important to have a way to deal with the more difficult times that come with volunteering at RMHC.

Margaret has found this to be true particularly after a challenging day in the family room at the hospital.

“The way I deal with it is to offload. I talk to Ken about it,” says Margaret.

She acknowledges that holding on to stress and negative emotions is not ideal.

“I learnt that a long time ago, that you don’t bottle things up and keep it in there. I just try to be myself. If something has happened that day that’s been a bit stressful, we bounce things off each other,” she says.

Does it help that they both volunteer with the same organisation?

“Yeah I think so,” says Kenny.

“It probably helps,” agrees Margaret.

Communication is not just important between volunteers. ‘Vollies’ (as they are affectionately known) are a pillar of strength for families in their time of need.

“I think people who are in this situation of having a sick child, they are under a lot of stress. But they come back here (to Ronald McDonald House) to have a safe place where they can relax,” says Margaret.

It can be very isolating when a family is going through a difficult time. However, RMHC volunteers are willing to help families navigate this unknown journey and to help create connections with other families.

“There’s also lots of people to speak to as well if need be. There are other people who they can share information with, which is a big thing. They know that they’re not alone and there are a lot of people going through similar things,” says Margaret.

What makes RMHC unique as an organisation is the commitment to supporting the wellbeing of the entire family. We don’t just concentrate on the wellbeing of the sick child. With first-hand experience in this area, Kenny and Margaret both reiterate the importance of supporting the family as a whole.

“They (Ronald McDonald House Charities) run a program for kids, and not just kids that are sick. If they have siblings they come in too and that’s very important,” says Kenny.

“Because the siblings can feel awfully left out at times. We’ve had it said to us ‘oh you know, so-and-so is sick, she’s getting all the attention, not me’.”

“You’re not expecting young ones to understand the whole story.  They’ll say ‘I wish I was sick, I’d get all this attention or I’d get all these presents’.”

“That’s a good thing about the house – to keep the family together. It’s very important to keep the family together, keep them connected.”

Margaret agrees wholeheartedly with Kenny about the importance of considering the family as a whole when a child is sick.

“It affects everybody, including grandparents, aunts and uncles – the whole family and extended family. It’s good to have support and external support as in, you know, charities and things. I don’t think we could have survived without the support that we did get,” she says.

“Our daughter, she was four at the time she was diagnosed with a cancer. But believe it or not she’s 33 now. It’s been a long time but the emotions are still raw. You think it’s not but then all of a sudden something happens to you… you know?” says Kenny.

They both believe the relationship they have made with fellow volunteers and staff have made a difference in their lives.

“I think the friendships we’ve made since we started volunteering feel like you’re actually contributing a little bit,” says Margaret.

“It’s just the whole thing, just coming in seeing all the people. Saying hello to people and doing the job and seeing it’s appreciated,” says Kenny.

There has also been some learning along the way.

“I think what I’ve learnt is that people’s problems are very real to them. You really need to be very considerate of every individual… you can’t sort of dismiss anybody. Each person is an individual and they all require the same amount of support,” says Margaret.

The couple have found great value in their time volunteering at Ronald McDonald House and consider the work truly rewarding.

They do not hesitate to encourage anyone considering volunteering to see if it is the right fit for them.

“I’d probably just say… do it! It may not be for everyone. But if you think you might like to volunteer, Ronald McDonald House is a good place to start,” says Margaret.

“I’d mirror that,” adds Kenny.

“I really say the same thing – give it a go and see if you like it.

“It’s not for everybody but you might get something out of it for yourself too.”