In the mid-2000s, Claudia and Gilberto Candido received news no one wants to hear: their oldest child, Maurizio, had cancer.
He was 6.
The cancer, which was located behind Maurizio’s knee, had reached an advanced stage. The family lived in Venezuela, but, seeking to give Maurizio the greatest chance of survival, they traveled to Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital in 2006. Their main focus was getting Maurizio the best medical care they could. They had no concrete plans for where to stay. A social worker at the hospital advised them to stay at the Ronald McDonald House of Connecticut, close by in New Haven. Ronald McDonald House Charities is a nonprofit organization, formed by a member of McDonald’s Corp. but fully separate from McDonald’s, whose mission is to house children and their families who are being treated at nearby hospitals.
The Candidos took that advice. During their first visit and on return visits to New Haven over the next 11 years, as Maurizio received follow-up treatments, the Ronald McDonald House became something far more than a convenient place to stay for the family.
“For us it’s not just a house, or a five-star hotel; for us it’s our home, and the people here are amazing and care about all the families,” Claudia says during the family’s most recent journey to New Haven in August. The visit took place so Maurizio, who is now cancer free, could receive treatment to correct side effects from previous radiation treatments. While receiving these treatments, Maurizio, now 16, his brother Gianfranco, 14, and sister Isabella, 7, and his parents stayed at the new Ronald McDonald House on Howard Avenue, across the street from the Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital. The state-of-the-art house is a showstopping 27,000-square-foot space that will have its official opening in September, but started hosting families over the summer.
In addition to its modern bells and whistles, the new house is closer to the hospital than the previous one, which was located for the past 30 years at 501 George St., just under a half-mile away. It is also bigger than the previous house, which had only 10 rooms. The new house has 20 rooms, including two respite rooms designed for parents to nap or shower in when they step away from their child’s bedside at the hospital. Ultimately, the new house will have 42 rooms; 12 additional rooms will be renovated within the existing new building, and 10 rooms will be added in a connected building that has not yet been constructed.
The facility has an impressive exterior with tastefully cartoonish colors and giant, larger-than-life flat sculptures of families in various states of play and support. Inside, natural light streams into open spaces including various playrooms and relaxation areas for family members of all ages to unwind.
Stocky Clark, executive director of Ronald McDonald House Charities of Connecticut and Western Massachusetts, says the expansion was prompted by the hospital. “Because they are expanding and consolidating other pediatric units around the state, this is going to be the center for a lot of centralized care,” he says.
Over the next decade, pediatric visits to Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital are expected to triple. The world-class children’s hospital does not merely draw people from across the state, but in many instances people such as the Candidos who have traveled internationally for visits and procedures.
Clark says the job of those at the Ronald McDonald House is to complement the work being done at the hospital. “It’s not about the child who is in the hospital, because the folks at the children’s hospital are taking incredible care of the patient. But what about the siblings? A lot of care and attention is given by our volunteers and staff to make sure the siblings are well taken care of, and feel a sense of home and belonging.”
Planning for the house began in earnest in 2012. Richard Popilowski, director of the capital campaign for Ronald McDonald House Charities of Connecticut and Western Massachusetts, worked with McDonald’s franchise owners in the region as well as other donors to raise the funds necessary. One campaign launched in support of the house was based on french fries sales from McDonald franchises in Connecticut and western Massachusetts.
“We wanted to come up with a novel way to get the McDonald’s owner/operators involved. We came up with this concept of [donating] two cents per pound of fries that they get from the distribution house and we are now at $1.5 million from that campaign,” he says, adding that the ongoing effort is expected to raise more than $2 million by 2019.
Yale New Haven Hospital donated the land the facility is on and will be subsidizing the house for 10 years. Cynthia Sparer, senior vice president of operations and executive director of Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital, says the house and the hospital have an important working relationship that always keeps the needs of the patients and their families at the forefront.
“What we share in common is the children and family. It’s the same children, it’s the same family and we’re each doing what we do best to care for them. So it brings together the house and the hospital around this common cause,” she says.
Claudia Candido knows better than anyone else just how important that cause is. “The first [house] I was visiting for 10 years and we felt at home,” she says. “In this house we feel the same. It’s beautiful, it’s brighter, you have more facilities and most importantly the hospital is across the street.”
Claudia adds, “It’s the same people here as [the old house], and they offer the same support and love, and they care about us. We are so happy they can have this house.”