Second Home

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W hen you drive past the new Ronald McDonald House on Howard Avenue, it’s hard to keep your eyes on the road. Opened last July and dedicated in September, it’s the most colorful, whimsical building in the neighborhood—perhaps even the city. Cartoonish figures dance up the facade and frolic around the windows. Waves of earth-toned colors wrap two towers whose angled windows seem to set them off-kilter. A curving walkway paved with the names of supporters leads visitors to the front doors, recessed between two wings that reach out to the street “like arms opening and saying, ‘You can come in here. This is a healing place,’” fundraiser Dick Popilowski says.

The house may be inviting, but being a guest here is no vacation. Families come to stay because their critically ill children are undergoing treatment across the street at Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital. Ronald McDonald House gives them a “home away from home,” its slogan says. The charity has been doing so in New Haven since 1985, until recently in a yellow mansion on George Street with 12 rooms, shared hallway bathrooms and a small kitchen.

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The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven - 2018 Annual Meeting

“I loved our first location,” says founder Claire DiMartino, who still shows up every Friday to volunteer. “It really had so much character, and being a house, we always felt like it was our home.”

Retaining that homey feeling was one of the organization’s primary concerns when drawing up plans for the new 28,000-square-foot building, says Popilowski, who served as director of the project’s capital campaign. A tour reveals bedrooms furnished like hotel rooms, all with private baths. Four cozy sunrooms let in daylight, and a larger upstairs lounge offers a space for families to meet. “Rooms like this are great because they can just go out here and chat, talk about what’s going on and… really understand each other,” says Kelsey Nawaf, the house’s development supervisor.

Downstairs there’s an industrial-sized kitchen where families can cook for themselves, with four Wolf ranges, plenty of cabinet space and wood counters made from an oak tree that was removed during construction. Kids can choose from indoor and outdoor play areas as well as a teen hangout space. An open dining and living room area is bright and cheerful.

Local architect Barry Svigals of Svigals + Partners designed even the stairwells with families in mind, Popilowski says. The landings in the front towers include floor-to-ceiling windows—“a great way for [guests] to look down and around and seem like they’re still part of the community, not feel like they’re closed in,” he says, adding that the towers are like beacons when they’re lit up at night.

It all cost a lot of cash—$11.35 million to be exact, which was money New Haven’s Ronald McDonald House just didn’t have. They’d been talking about expansion for years, Popilowski says, but it wasn’t until Yale approached them in 2012 asking about an upgrade that the dream started to look like a possible reality. The hospital was about to triple its services, Popilowski says, and administrators foresaw an increasing need for family accommodations.

“When we first started the campaign, we did a feasibility study,” he recalls. “The company came in and said, ‘You guys can only raise a million dollars.’” So Yale donated the land in a long-term lease arrangement and bought the old house. In addition, the hospital leases back space in the new house, which provides the charity with some income. Exceeding all expectations, the house raised $5.8 million from the community, including $2 million from McDonald’s owner-operators in the Western Massachusetts/Connecticut region, who taxed themselves on potatoes at 2 cents per pound.

Families may stay at Ronald McDonald House for just a few days or for months on end. One family whose child was undergoing a liver transplant and follow-up care stayed for more than a year, Nawaf says. It costs $100 per night to house a family; they’re asked to pay $15 per night when they can, but according to Nawaf, 83% of nights last year were entirely covered by the house. With 18 overnight rooms and 2 daytime “respite rooms,” the house is often full, but two upcoming phases are expected to increase that supply. In the next phase, more rooms will be constructed in the space that Yale currently leases, and finally, a medical building next door will be demolished to make room for an addition to the current structure.

Ronald McDonald House Charities oversees 186 houses in the U.S. and about that number in other countries as well, but the New Haven house is Connecticut’s only one. Most families who stay come from Fairfield and New London Counties, but over the decades, guests have come from 45 states and 18 foreign countries.

Founder DiMartino hardly could have imagined this multi-million-dollar house decades ago, when she spent nights sitting at the bedside of her own catastrophically ill daughter at Yale. “Back then it wasn’t too pretty, believe me,” she says. “You slept on a chair or whatever you could find because you never wanted to leave them.” She jokes that the creation of the New Haven house happened because “the hospital got tired of seeing me.” At the time, she was sitting on the board of Ronald McDonald House Charities, which made her a natural to take on the project, even though she was already working full-time and caring for her daughter, who was often hospitalized.

“Talk about lack of sleep!” she says. “But it was something that I really wanted to start, and once we got the okay… it came on rapidly.” 33 years later, she’s still involved.

Knowing DiMartino’s story gives meaning to one more architectural feature of the new house. A woman, her arms raised high, holds up one corner of the building’s front wing. A man balances the other corner on his head. Each of them is flanked by children. Like DiMartino and so many others, they’re caring for children while carrying the weight of the world.

Ronald McDonald House of Connecticut
860 Howard Ave, New Haven (map)
(203) 777-5683
https://rmhc-ctma.org/…

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 1, 2 and 5 photographed by Dan Mims. Images 3 and 4 photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter at KathyLeonardCzepiel.com. Her favorite New Haven scene is a packed summer concert on the Green with dinner from the food trucks, and she loves that there’s always something new to discover here.

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