(My son) has cancer so we're staying here. It's really awesome to have a place we can go, because we don't know where we would be otherwise. —Sarah Valencia
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.
"It's just been a huge blessing for families going through tough situations who have all those medical bills coming in and then have to get a hotel. It's one more thing for them to have to pay for," Heather Jeppsen said. "To stay here lifts a burden. That's what they do. They make you feel at home. You're with people going through similar situations. There's a camaraderie there. You can help one another through the tough things and network."
Now 2 and after receiving a transplanted aortic arch, Gavin's prognosis is good. His parents have been told they can treat him as they would a normal child and that he has a 90 percent chance of making it to age 80.
Since their stay, the Jeppsens have become tremendous supporters of the home and its efforts. Caleb Jeppsen found a job with a company that donates to the homes, and the family's four children collect tabs from soda cans to cash in for money to donate as well.
"We will always give back," Heather Jeppsen said. "I just know we will. We just love them. We love the people. I love it. I think it's amazing what they've done here."
The family may have stayed in a time of uncertainty and stress, but the love and kindness they felt in the home is what stuck with them.
"I have fond memories of this place," Caleb Jeppsen said.
Last year, more than 1,400 families, or 4,000 people, stayed, but another 700 families had to be turned away because there wasn't room to accommodate them. Once the renovated home is complete, it is estimated as many as 2,500 families will be able to stay there and in the new home — the two properties connected by an indoor healing bridge — each year.
The Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Intermountain Area also include family rooms at both Primary Children's Hospital and Ogden Regional Medical Center. Those spaces feature seating areas, a quiet room, stocked kitchen and dining areas, laundry facilities, private showers and four "retreat" rooms for naps or overnight sleeping.
Romano said the organization has raised $10.7 million of its $11 million goal to fund the expansion. They continue to accept donations, have a wish list online that lists the things they still need for home and could always use more volunteers, including for those to bring meals.
They may be simple things — a bed, a bath, some food — but they go a long way.
"It's a very basic human exchange of kindness, but it means everything to the people in that circumstance," Romano said. "We operate in a paradigm of hospitality and kindness, and it's what makes it an authentic home like environment. It's remarkable that the community would rally to make life just a little bit better for folks going through a really tough time."