For Geri Lee and her daughter, Sydni, the Ronald McDonald House is more than a place to sleep: It is a home, and the upcoming Ronald McDonald House Party is more than a fundraiser: It is a family reunion.
“The staff and volunteers of the Ronald McDonald House became like family to us, and this party will be like a family reunion ... I am really looking forward to it. There is nothing we can ever do to repay what they did for us, but we will do anything we can to pay it forward a little bit,” said Geri, who will be a guest speaker at the House Party 2019, which begins at 6 p.m. Friday, Sept. 20, at the Ronald McDonald House, 2155 E. Allen Road.
Geri and Sydni are one of nearly 600 families annually who are guests of the Tucson Ronald McDonald House, which hosts families who live at least 30 miles from Tucson while they are seeking medical care for children age 21 or younger. Families receive services free of charge as a result of support and donations from the community.
The Payson family spent 157 nights — 139 consecutive — at the house in 2018 after Sydni, now 17, was diagnosed with familial hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis, a rare disorder in which the body produces too many activated immune cells, resulting in damage to the liver and other organs. Treatment is similar to that for leukemia, with chemotherapy to knock out the damaged immune system, followed by a bone marrow transplant.
“I had taken her to the hospital in Phoenix and within 24 hours, she was crashing. The disease attacked her central nervous system and sent her whole body into crisis mode. They immediately ambulance her to Tucson and we were there from April to October. Within 24 hours, I left my job and my house and our lives changed completely,” said Geri.
As Sydni underwent 13 weeks of chemotherapy and more than 40 blood transfusions in preparation for a bone marrow transplant that she received in July 2018, the Ronald McDonald House became Geri’s new home and the staff and volunteers became a backbone of support.
She said the house provided a haven, with home-cooked meals and a hot shower after 12 to 15-hour-days at Sydni’s hospital bedside. Just 10 minutes from the hospital, it also afforded a full kitchen and laundry facilities as well as a secure computer for online banking and other tasks, all within an extremely sanitary environment that was vital to Sydni’s compromised immune system when she was able to receive outpatient treatment.
“If it had not been for the Ronald McDonald House, I think that mentally and emotionally it would have been that much harder. You are already under the pressure of everything that is happening and fighting for your child’s life, but there are still bills coming in and everyday things that need to be handled, which is just more pressure and stress. It was very humbling. I have never been in a position to receive charity and I don’t know what I would have done without it,” said Geri.
She emphasized that small treats — lotions and toiletries, massages, haircuts, inspirational messages and gift cards to local restaurants — provided by the Ronald McDonald House staff and volunteers were equally wonderful.
“It really feels like they are there for you 24/7. They are all such loving, caring individuals who try to make things in the house homey, and I would do anything for any of them,” Geri said. Ultimately, she believes that they helped to give her and Sydni, whose transplant is fully now engrafted and has been able to return to her senior year at Payson High school, an incredible gift.
“They enabled me to save my home in Payson. I couldn’t have afforded two places at once. You have no time to prepare for something like this, and because of them I was able to have a home to bring Sydni back to,” Geri said.
The Lee family perfectly exemplifies the significant social return on investment that the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Southern Arizona seek to provide to the community, said Scott Matlick, director of business development.
“For a family of two like Geri and Sydni, we estimate we save them about $220 per night in meals, lodging and other incidentals such as laundry and transportation. So for their family that could amount to almost $35,000 in savings,” said Matlick.
That return on investment is exactly what inspired Jeff Murtaugh, a member of the board of directors and chair of the House Party, to become involved with the nonprofit. Murtaugh is CEO of Realty Executives, the number three real estate company in Tucson slated to do $1 billion in sales this year.
“Our real estate company is only 8 years old. As we got bigger and bigger, we were being hit with many requests for donations, and knowing where the money went and how each dollar we gave was used was a concern to me. When we realized all the money we gave to the Ronald McDonald House was staying here in Tucson and being used primarily for the benefit of Arizonans and others in the region, we knew it was a great cause that we could get behind,” Murtaugh said.
Murtaugh said agents with Realty Executives have the opportunity to donate money to Ronald McDonald House Charities of Southern Arizona at house closings and groups of agents and employees have volunteered to cook meals for guests at the local house.
“We are not just writing checks. Frankly, I think it is a feel-good thing for people to know where their money is going. We have the ability to go out and cook meals and meet the parents and the kids and see the building where they stay. We wanted to get more people involved and it has been great to see the buy-in. This is everything we were looking for,” he said.