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Ronald McDonald House Charities of Appalachia forced to adapt

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world had to change the way it did things. Social distancing was required, yet, at the same time, hospitals were met with an influx of patients. Due to the unforeseen circumstances, the healthcare industry had to adapt, and swiftly. Not only healthcare professionals but also the people involved with the Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC) were required to adapt.


These charities assist families of patients staying in hospitals across the globe. When a loved one is in a hospital, the RMHC houses provide shelter to the family in proximity to said hospital, as long as either a nurse, doctor, or social worker signs off on a referral form. Guests must also pass background screenings. The Houses across the country serve families who have a family member under the age of 21 or 18, varying from House to House. This eases some of the financial burdens on the family. In addition, it allows convenient access to be there for the hospitalized loved one. Families can stay at any RMHC location across the country for little or no cost. Generally, payment is not required, but any donations can help RMHC doors stay open.


The RMHC locations help families across the country, but the establishments in Appalachia are especially essential. Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina combine to make a total of 129,536 square miles. Between these three states, there are 477 hospitals, according to officialusa.com. That means that there is one hospital every 271 square miles. Distances that great can cause difficulties for families in Appalachia when a family member is in the hospital.


However, geographic difficulties are not the only challenges facing Appalachia when it comes to healthcare barriers.


Brittany Long is the director of operations at the Southern Appalachian RMHC located in Johnson City, Tennessee. She has served in this role for nine years. She states that an area like

Southwest Virginia, which makes up a large portion of the families her location serves, also faces the challenge of limited opportunities.


“Most of our families are at what the economic level would be poor or extremely poor,” said Long. “They don’t have internet. They don’t know how to access services. And they’re too ashamed to ask for help. They’re too proud.”


However, Long, who is working on her master’s degree in Human Services at East Tennessee State University, is making an effort to set up the visitors for success after they leave her location.


“What I decided to do was to create this resource guide, put it in the bags that we give our families when they come to stay so they never have to ask for it,” said Long. “Then they have it once they go home. In this resource guide, I’ve broken it up first by state, Tennessee or Virginia, then by county. So, depending on where the family lives they’ll have access to clothing needs, baby supplies, food, shelter, and utility help.”


However, the COVID pandemic brought more challenges to the RHMC than previously faced. With social distancing guidelines, serving families immediately became more difficult. One of the ways this was most apparent was in food service. The guests of the house would eat at a communal table prior to the CDC guidelines being put in place. Long said that this was something to which her location had to quickly adapt.


“We serve a meal every night,” said Long. “So, it’s like, well, how are they going to get their food, because they can’t all come to the kitchen and eat. So, we assigned mealtimes, and we would box up the meals, take it to the rooms. And then we had snack stations that we put on each floor. So, families never had to convene in the same space.”


The Johnson City location was not the only RMHC affected by the pandemic. Other locations also had to get creative in a new world. One of the most important factors keeping the RMHC houses afloat is funds. Food, utilities, housing costs, etc., must be paid for in some way. While McDonald’s helps out each RMHC location in various ways, the houses are all responsible for the majority of their funding.


However, Rita Ralston, the executive director of the Charlottesville, Virginia, RMHC, says that customers who donate to RMHC at their local McDonald’s are making a positive impact on their community.


“There is no other company that has done what they have done for children and families,” says Ralston. “It is all dependent on access through the stores. So, if you have been into a McDonald’s, you know that they may have canisters on the counter, or if you drive through they may have a canister there. Or they may ask you to round up.”


However, Ralston and her team have faced challenges over the last two years in organizing events to raise funds. She says this is likely a side effect of the pandemic as well as a result of the economic struggles facing the country.


“I don’t know if folks are coming out the way they used to though,” said Ralston. “So, I think there is a lot of uncertainty in the world both from an economic standpoint and just from a gathering standpoint.”


However, there are alternative methods to raising money for houses that are a part of the RMHC. Mindy Bloom, the chief development officer of the Piedmont Triad RHMC, has taken advantage of modern technology when it comes to generating funds.


“As people get more comfortable in the digital age, we’re definitely getting more online types of donations and the like,” said Bloom. “People like that. We even have a way to accept crypto. Have we ever gotten a gift that way? No, which is fine. But we have a way.”


Long, Ralston, and Bloom indicated that COVID was a time of quick reactions. One of the challenges each house faced was suddenly being forced to utilize portions of the house as opposed to the entirety of the house. Resultingly, they all say that they had to get creative in the way that they assisted families. They had to use resources and find alternative options in their community. A common thread was local hotels allowing discounted rates to families that had a sick child in the hospital.


Some may assume that the RMHC saw a large influx of people who needed assistance. However, Long said that it was actually the opposite for her location. She theorized that it was likely a result of people still feeling unsure about their safety when they went into a public place. In addition, she hypothesized that it could be more directly related to the COVID policies set by their hospital partner, Ballad Health. The hospital had restrictions on who was allowed to come into the facilities. One of the restrictions was siblings, so, families who had multiple children had to commute in order to supervise multiple children.


Even though the staff and volunteers involved with the RMHC had to adapt in order to better serve their guests, Brittany Long says that one of the biggest changes she has noticed is something that may be a social side effect of COVID.


“It’s like there is a disconnect with people, that you don’t want to get close to people anymore,” said Long. “People are texting more than they are talking to somebody face to face. So, that is not the same as it used to be. The communal spirit, I guess, is not the same here as it used to be. I

get more interaction with the families, but I don’t think they connect with each other the same as they did before.”


Mindy Bloom said this is something she noticed as well, more so during COVID, however. She states that she feels some of their family fun activities help build comradery among the guests. These activities include pet therapy, bingo night with prizes, and special meals throughout the week.


All of the world has had to adapt during and after COVID for various reasons, and the RMHC is no exception. Ronald McDonald House Charities thrive with the support of their communities, and help, via donations or volunteered time, makes an impactful difference for the families that need the assistance of the establishments.

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