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Omaha's Ronald McDonald House doubling capacity after declining more than 1,600 requests the past two years

Omaha's Ronald McDonald House doubling capacity after declining more than 1,600 requests the past two years

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The kids staying at Omaha’s Ronald McDonald House are getting an early taste of college life.

More than a dozen families staying at the house have spent much of the summer living in dorms on the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Scott Campus. On Wednesday, families and staff move back to the permanent facility.

Meanwhile, back at the house, workers are putting the finishing touches on the first phase of a major renovation and expansion.

The project will double the capacity of the house, which is at 620 S. 38th Ave. It will also include new amenities, such as a larger kitchen, a community classroom and an in-house clinic operated by Nebraska Medicine.

“It allows us to practice our mission more effectively,” said Lindsey Rai Kortan, executive director of the Ronald McDonald House in Omaha. “Our job is to protect the families that are here and make sure they have the support they need. … The truth is, (in the old facility) we weren’t able to do that anymore.”

The Ronald McDonald House provides housing and resources to families with children receiving treatment at area hospitals. In the past two years, Kortan said, the house had to turn away requests from families more than 1,600 times.

“That was unacceptable,” Kortan said. “We knew we had to do something, and this is the route that we took.”

Last year, the house launched a $10.3 million capital campaign for the Hope and Healing Expansion Project, which aims to add 20,000 square feet to the existing house and increase the number of guest rooms from 20 to 40. The project also will add office space for Ronald McDonald House staff and for Angels Among Us, an organization that offers financial help to families of children with cancer.

The project also aims to make the experience of staying at the house more comfortable for the families, who are often coming there under stressful circumstances. Living spaces will be bigger. An on-site clinic will provide convenient access to health care, while an expanded kitchen and dining area will give families more individual storage space for groceries. There also will be a chapel-like “contemplation room” that will serve as a quiet space.

For the kids, a floor-to-ceiling glass room will be filled with toys. And an outdoor play area will forgo traditional playground equipment for natural spaces that encourage encounters with flora and fauna.

The expansion was necessary in part because of the growth of certain medical programs in Omaha, said Dr. David Mercer, head of transplant surgery and intestinal rehabilitation at the Nebraska Medical Center. Mercer, president-elect of the McDonald House’s board of directors, said most of the kids staying at the house at any one time are his patients.

The nature of his work, which often includes caring for children before an intestinal transplant or helping them avoid a transplant altogether, involves dramatic lifestyle changes and intense treatment that can take weeks or months, Mercer said. In the meantime, the families need a place to stay.

“We’ve been expanding and more and more patients are coming from all over the country,” he said. “The Mac House has always been looking at what the community needs and what they can do.”

The hope, Kortan said, is for the renovated facility to serve as a flagship location for other Ronald McDonald House chapters across the country. When construction is complete, administrators hope to host a grand opening for the new facility in spring 2019.

But in the meantime, the families currently staying with the house have enjoyed a summer of dorm life at UNO.

Violeta Miranda and her son, Jonathan Taylor, have been staying at the Ronald McDonald House since January. Jonathan, 11, received a multi-organ transplant at the Nebraska Medical Center in 2016, and mother and son returned to Omaha from their home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, when complications arose early this year.

Miranda said she liked the apartment-style living of the dorms but is eager to see the changes to the permanent facility when the children and their families move back in this week.

“I know they’re going to put a chapel in the new house,” Miranda said, “so that’s something I’m really looking forward to.”

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