Ronald McDonald Houses offer special comfort during difficult times — a fact that Anita Martin knows firsthand.
Due to the care once provided to her by a Ronald McDonald House, Martin — the senior-high youth minister at St. Patrick’s Parish, Owego — now strives to enlighten parish teens about this ministry for families of sick children. She has taken a group to the Ronald McDonald House in Philadelphia three of the past four years, with the most recent excursion coming Aug. 21-22.
The visit took place at the first Ronald McDonald House ever established. This outreach was begun in 1974, providing temporary living space for families with children in nearby hospitals who could not easily afford hotels. There are now nearly 240 Ronald McDonald Houses in 25 countries, including one in Rochester.
The Tioga County group involved 10 volunteers from St. Patrick’s and Newark Valley’s St. John the Evangelist at Blessed Trinity Parish. Participants were: teens — Ashley Ayers, Nick Cromer, Zach David, Claire Franz, Carolyn Orth, and Erica and Olivia Young; and adults — Martin, Ruthanne Orth and Eric Heaton.
Following the three-hour morning drive to Philadelphia, volunteers spent the afternoon preparing dinner in the Ronald McDonald House kitchen, making enough food for approximately 40 people. The groceries were bought ahead of time using monies from the Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick’s youth-ministry budget.
And what a dinner it was: pulled pork barbecue and chicken spiedies for the main courses; a salad bar with chopped tomatoes, onions and a variety of salads from which to choose; and a fresh fruit shortcake dessert bar with blueberries, raspberries, peaches and brownies.
“Oh, it was incredible,” Martin exclaimed.
That was also the opinion of the Ronald McDonald House patrons. “When we were making the food we’d see the guests. They’d all smile and say ‘Are you making this all for us?’ When we went in line with them (at dinner time), they kept turning around and thanking us,” recalled Carolyn, 16. “As we were planning this all out, we didn’t know if we could make all this food. But we managed to pull it off.”
Families came and went during the evening, working their meals around visits to area hospitals where their children were staying. Some families ate quietly; other spoke at length with the Tioga volunteers.
“Some of the stories they told were pretty amazing,” said Claire, 15.
Ruthanne Orth, youth minister at St. John the Evangelist, talked with a tired-looking man who was accompanied by a young daughter. Another daughter was being treated at a local hospital for injuries suffered in a car accident last year.
“He had been staying in her room at the hospital on a cot. He was saying how great it was to be at the Ronald McDonald House, to get a nice shower. And he was so appreciative of the food,” Orth said.
The Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick group also provided gifts from a parish prayer-blanket ministry (the ministry was featured in the June 19-20 Courier). Blankets were given to three expectant mothers who were undergoing fetal surgery.
“I was touched by that, because one of the mothers was so touched she was teary-eyed,” said Olivia, 14.
Martin is well aware of these women’s emotions, having stayed at the Philadelphia Ronald McDonald House in 1998 while having fetal surgery for her unborn son, Aaron. He died Dec. 4 of that year — when he was two days old — due to complications from an abnormal lung condition known as congenital cystic andemetoid malformation. Martin and her husband Dan — who has also been active in youth ministry at St. Patrick’s — have three other children: Sam, 11; Isaiah, 7; and Sarah, 3.
“I think it meant more to all the kids, that Anita had been there and lived through that with her family,” Ruthanne Orth said.
Martin organized the first service trip to Ronald McDonald House in 2001, and also took groups in 2002 as well as this year. “It was a really nice way to say thank you. It’s just kind of become a tradition,” she said.
Following dinner, the group moved on to a local retreat house, the St. Vincent DePaul Center, where they stayed overnight. There, they were also given a special private Mass by Vincentian Father Jack Timlin, the retreat-center director. Sunday was fun day, as the gang enjoyed water slides and roller coasters at Dorney Park in Allentown, Pa., before heading back to Tioga County that evening.
A few days after getting home, several group members held a reflection session with Father Bill Coffas, parochial vicar for Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick’s, who had also mentioned the service trip in his homily Aug. 21-22.
This was the first youth-group project ever for Claire, who said she opted to participate because “I’m just the kind of person who likes to help others.” Now Claire is eager to take part in other youth-group activities: “Oh, I definitely want to do more. This was such a good trip, I would do more — no doubt.”
“I thought it was really, really fun to do,” Olivia added. “We were helping people who couldn’t help themselves in the situation they were in.”
Seeing so many families in difficult circumstances “makes me really appreciative of the life I live right now,” Carolyn said.
“It was truly a touching experience for all of us,” her mom added. “It felt good to do for others who were in some kind of pain.”
For Martin, the trip once again provided some important solace.
“I still realize how much grief there still is about losing Aaron. But every time I go (to Philadelphia), a little part of me heals a little more,” she said. “There’s never a day that I don’t think about it, but the pain isn’t as acute as it used to be.”