Expanded Ronald McDonald House brings more love, kindness, space for families

Published: Monday, March 31 2014 10:55 p.m. MDT

Ronald McDonald, plays with Cambree, Kenyan and Hadlee Jeppsen in the play room of the new section of the Ronald McDonald House during an open house Monday, March 31, 2014, in Salt Lake City. The expansion adds 42 rooms to the house, including eight long-term suites.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The home was full of light, countless freshly made beds, immaculate bathrooms, messages of love and the scent of warm, baking cookies.

Just outside the kitchen, among many smiling faces, Sarah Valencia sat playing checkers with her 12-year-old son, Kevin. The boy with the deep brown eyes wore a striped shirt and a mask over his mouth.

"He has cancer so we're staying here," Valencia said, explaining what brought them from Fairview to the Ronald McDonald House in Salt Lake City. "It's really awesome to have a place we can go, because we don't know where we would be otherwise."

Since opening in Salt Lake City in 1988, the Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Intermountain Area have helped around 40,000 families. The new "House That Love Built," a 40,000-square-foot expansion of the original Ronald McDonald House at 935 E. South Temple, was opened to the public Monday.

Its four stories feature 42 rooms that can sleep up to five comfortably, family gathering spaces, a spacious kitchen, indoor and outdoor play areas, a computer room, theater room, exercise room, laundry room, deck and sanctuary.

"We have called this 'The House That Love Built,' and quite honestly it's truly been built from love," said Carrie Romano, executive director of Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Intermountain Area. "As I walked around, it's so amazing because … I see the most amazing generosity of folks who have given to build this place, and it wouldn't have been possible without that."

There is the all of the bedroom furniture, including two queen-size beds with pillow-top mattresses, desks and dressers, donated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The flooring from Lumber Liquidators. The art donated by artists and photographers. The tree house and fire station donated and built by Unified Fire Authority firefighters from Olympus Cove. And the list goes on.

The new home is twice as large as the pre-existing one built in 1988 and spans 19,645 square feet. That home will undergo renovations once families are moved into the new one in mid-April.

It is estimated by the end of the year that 72 guest rooms — including eight long-term suites — will be available to families who have children receiving pediatric care for illness or injuries.

The new home was built with the input of a "core group," Romano said, including families who once stayed at the Ronald McDonald House, children, medical professionals and even those in the neighborhood.

Romano said when the original home was built, the needs were different. It was mostly parents who had children in in-patient treatment and needed rooms that fit two to three. Now, half of the children are in out-patient care, and many of their siblings come to stay as well.

"We needed to create fun spaces … (and) engaging spaces, and we also knew we needed some quiet spots because the families who staying with us are away from their schools, their churches, their neighbors, their businesses, their support systems," Romano said. "We want to be that soft landing spot for them and whatever we can do with the physical space to lend itself to that we want to do."

Heather and Caleb Jeppsen, of Willard, stayed at the original Ronald McDonald House for about a month between November and December 2011. Twenty weeks pregnant with the couple's fourth child, Heather Jeppsen learned the boy had a congenital heart defect. If he survived the pregnancy, he would need to be admitted to Primary Children's Hospital immediately.

"He had a 50 percent chance to make it through surgery and 80 percent chance to live until 4," she said.

The family was referred to the Ronald McDonald House to help them stay close to their baby.

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