You always think it will happen to someone else. From out of nowhere a life-threatening illness, a terrifying automobile accident. Everyday life is suddenly shattered into shards of time that involve frantic early morning commutes to hospital intensive care units, appointments to consult with specialists and hours merely holding little hands and praying for health. Where to eat and where to sleep become overwhelming decisions.

For parents trying to keep their lives together during a crisis with a child, there is no price that can be set on the comfort that Ronald McDonald House provides.On Saturday, Feb. 23, the fourth annual Ronald McDonald House Red and White Ball will begin at the Red Lion Hotel at 7 p.m. Co-chairs are Mark and Kathleen Miller. Committee members are Robert G. Christopher, Chuck Coonradt, David Nemelka, John Hewlett, Mike DesMarais, Carla Coonradt, Nancy Scott, Brenda Yamagata and Barbara Woolf. Red Lion chef Franz X. Kubak will present his most delectable Salmon Filet of Phylo, and sounds of the Jerry Floor Orchestra will resound throughout the ballroom. But what this elegant ball is really all about is the "home away from home" for 1,000 families served each year at Ronald McDonald House.

Robert G. Christopher, general chairman for the fund-raiser, worries that the Ronald McDonald House is too full. "We turn away a half-dozen families a day because we simply don't have enough room," he said. "Any one of the three hospitals we serve, Primary Children's, the University Hospital or Shriner's, could fill us up. That's why we need to raise new capital funds to build an additional 12 bedrooms."

In five years, all but $150,000 of the original $1.4 million cost for Salt Lake's Ronald McDonald House has been retired. The Salt Lake house operates on a yearly budget of $120,000. One-third of the budget comes from the $10 nightly charge that is asked for a room at the house, "although we certainly never turn away anyone who is needy," said Christopher. Another third is donated by the community. Ronald McDonald House receives no federal, state or city funds and is not a recipient of the United Way, although people can designate funds to go to the Ronald McDonald House when they donate to United Way. The last third of the budget is donated by the independent operators of McDonald's fast-food restaurants.

There is just one full-time employee. It may not be found on her resume, but there is a special compassion uniquely qualifying her as manager/director of Salt Lake's Ronald McDonald House. Karen Huber's son fell 240 feet off a mountain several years ago.

During a lengthy hospital experience with her son, Huber found that she had lost her support system. "Friends kind of pull away from you because they don't know how to deal with trauma," she said. Her son is now home, walking and talking, though he is still dealing with head injuries. But as the manager/director of Ronald McDonald House, Karen Huber is truly in a position to know just how much the house means to parents and families.

"This is much more than a place to sleep, take a shower and do your laundry. The most important thing is the support you receive from other families. Here, everyone's going through the same kind of trauma. They will sit for hours and talk and comfort each other. They cry together and laugh together, check in on each other's children at the hospital," Huber said.

Huber is such a believer in this support that she took families home with her while the house was under construction. "This is a wonderful facility, much needed in our community. Salt Lake has some of the top trauma centers west of the Mississippi. We are always at least 90 percent full and often turn away three to eight families a night.

"Our families have their own room like a hotel room. They can their own food and prepare it here," she said. "We try our hardest to make it a home atmosphere. Sometimes they feel like they're more at home here than at their real homes."

Huber feels that much of the trauma a family must deal with comes as the father must leave to go back to work, leaving the mother as the main caregiver. "Mothers here see this is a normal response and that they are not being abandoned. The fathers are relieved because of the security of the house, with a combination lock on the front door and locks to each room," she said.

Another family problem is one faced by siblings of the striken child. So much attention is given to the injured or sick child, it's good to be able to share the feelings that come up with other brothers and sisters in the same situation. "This is beneficial to the families in the long run," Huber explained.

Huber does a lot of public speaking and always asks for help with the Share a Night Program. "We charge a minimal $10 fee, but if a family can't afford it, the fee is waived. We rely on donations from the community to help with those families. I ask if people can spare $10 or $20 or even $2,000 to support the families who need assistance," Huber said.

"I know how devastating this all is to the families. There's no way you can imagine what it's like. It's worse than any nightmare you could have," Huber remembered. "But through other families you get a lot of strength and encouragement - life does go on."- The fourth annual Red and White Ball will feature door prizes of a trip for two to Hong Kong, courtesy of Northwest Airlines, and a Red Lion Getaway, with dinner for two at Maxi's Restaurant, a carriage ride and lodging in the Red Lion's Honeymoon Suite. Tickets are $125 per person. Black tie invited. For more information, call 484-8866.