New Ronald McDonald House opens in New Haven across from the Children’s Hospital

NEW HAVEN >> Claudia Candido and her family, not knowing anyone and struggling with a new language, arrived here in 2006 from Venezuela with an appointment for emergency medical treatment for her very sick child.

Her 5-year-old son had rhabdomyosarcoma, an aggressive cancer of the soft tissue, a condition that had not been correctly diagnosed in her home country and was now stage four, having spread to his lymph nodes.

Lacking a support network and fearful he would not survive, she said it was a terrible feeling made worse by a sense of isolation staying in a hotel room.

Candido said a social worker at Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital suggested she contact the Ronald McDonald House, which was then on George Street.

“When we arrived at that house, it was so familiar and warm. All the people came out to welcome us,” Candido said recently.

She and her family are now staying at the new Ronald McDonald House at 860 Howard Ave., directly across from the Children’s Hospital, as her son is back for a procedure.

“I can’t imagine how I could have handled it that year, which was so terrible, without the Ronald McDonald House. This is my family when I come here,” Candido said.

Maurizio Candido, now 16 and cancer-free for a decade, has been here since July undergoing surgery to lengthen one leg and fix a problem with his tibia, the side effects of his initial radiation and chemotherapy.

The Candidos, which includes her husband, Gilberto Candido; another son, Gianfranco Candido, 14; and her mother, Maria Balduini, have come back every year since Maurizio’s initial diagnosis for checkups. Joining them since 2000 for the trips to New Haven is the baby of the family, Isabella Candido, 7.

Claudia Candido said her husband would stay for a month at a time when he could that first year, flying back and forth to Venezuela for his work as a civil engineer. The rest of the extended family was here for that initial 12 months of treatment.

Cathy Zorgo-Bignolas, chapter administrator at the house, said the average stay for families is three to six months, but several have remained for more than a year.

Another family at the facility, has been in residence more than 1½ years, with transplant operations usually requiring the longest stays, particularly for those coming from medically underserved countries.

The new $11.35 million, 27,000-square-foot Ronald McDonald House, which has 18 rooms for the guests and two respite rooms for parents of children at the hospital who just need to take a break, has now been open for a few weeks.

Ten other rooms used for conference space, offices and storage will be converted to bedrooms when the organization gets the funds as part of phase two.

Phase three is a 12-bedroom addition that will be possible with the removal of the adjacent building owned by Yale New Haven Health, but that is not scheduled until 2020 at the earliest.

There was an urgency that more than the 12 bedrooms were needed at the George Street site, as inpatient and outpatient visits to Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital are expected to triple in the next decade.

The new facility, designed by Svigal + Partners, has a huge kitchen where the families can cook their own meals, with refrigerator and freezer space for all. There is a playroom for the siblings of hospitalized children and a spacious dining and living room, filled with color and light, as well as smaller common areas on the upper floors.

It is run by a small staff and many volunteers pulling three-hour shifts, with some groups arriving regularly to cook a meal for the guests or help with the children staying there.

Mostly, they are there to listen and extend their friendship to the families, many of whom travel here from outside the country.

Stocky Clark, the executive director of Ronald McDonald House Charities of Connecticut and Western Massachusetts, said the capital campaign to support the new house had a goal of $2.7 million, but was able to raise $5.3 million.

The house, which is one of about 350 worldwide, gets about 20 percent of its operating expenses from its relationship with the local McDonald restaurants.

He said, in addition, much of the money for the new house came from the 28 owner-operators of the McDonald franchises in the region, who gave $2 million as a group, while there were individual pledges as well.

Yale New Haven Hospital donated the land for the new building and is buying the 501 George St. property. It is also subsidizing the facility with a lease space arrangement of $3.5 million over 10 years to help the organization pay back the $5 million construction loan it took out.

For the new house, all of the office and staff furniture was donated, as were the mattresses.

“It is all kind of remarkable,” he said. Produce, milk and bread for the guests are all regularly donated and the organization is about to start a Pantry Pal Program to keep it full for the increased number of guests.

Clark said many past occupants give back to the house, including one family who furnished one of the laundry rooms on each floor.

The mother told Clark that when her special-needs daughter was born, they had one change of clothes for the 13 weeks she was in the hospital. When a nurse found out about it, she took their clothes home every night to wash them.

“She was crying when she was talking about it 30 years later,” Clark said. “I get that from any number of families.”

He said he doesn’t care about the size of the donation, but only that the donors think of the house and its needs.

“That is the community of caring that brings us all into the field of human services and sustains our own involvement and our own sense we are contributing to our fellow man,” Clark said. He said it is the kind of thing that sustains the staff.

“There is a culture and a soul to this house. There is a feeling, a sense of belonging that permeates the place. Families feel welcome and they feel that this is their house,” he said.

Clark, who splits his time between here and the Ronald McDonald House in Springfield, Mass., said he is often asked if it isn’t depressing to work here, given the parents’ stress of dealing with their children’s serious medical conditions.

“I say no. Every day when I come to one of the houses, I am moved by the grace, the dignity and the courage by what I see in these families. ... They begin every day with a positive attitude and so it a privilege for us to fill that well of hopefulness and optimism about the future,” he said.

Clark said it is difficult to be a parent of a sick child.

“We try to take everything away that we can. Nothing about money. We ask for a donation and we get a little bit, but by and large, we don’t get a donation. We have very low-income families,” he said.

Many of the volunteers have been helping for a long time, including Richard Elder, who is in his 16th year.

Those who have been making regular stops here since its inception in Connecticut three decades ago, are David and Meryl Silver; Ann Orum, Claire DiMartino and Steve Merz, who was vice president and executive director of behavioral health at Yale New Haven Hospital.

Claudia Candido said she can’t say enough about Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital and the doctors who continue to treat Maurizio.

She called Dr. Kenneth Roberts, director of the pediatric radio therapy program, who first treated him,“my guardian angel.”

Candido said she has made many friends here over the last 11 years and visits with them when she comes back annually.

“I am impressed by the generosity of the American people. They are always concerned and worried about us,” Candido said.

She thanked those who donate time. “It is very important. They need the help to maintain this wonderful place,” she said.