“Gaby was four when she was diagnosed in June 2016, and her birthday is in October so she’s five now,” says Keira Kucherean. Her life changed dramatically when she was told that her daughter Gabriella has medullary pilocytic astrocytoma, a type of brain stem tumor, and that she would need ongoing treatment in Vancouver.
Because the hospital in Whitehorse doesn’t have the means to provide the care that her daughter needs, Kucherean and her husband Stephane Gingras had to pack their bags. “We were on month 10 of owning our house when we found out,” she says. The couple started a Go Fund Me campaign to help with the cost of accommodation, but it wasn’t enough. That’s when a friend told her that the Ronald McDonald House in Vancouver is open to Yukon families in need of a place to stay while in the city for treatment.
Amanda Stehelin, a Whitehorse native and mother of four, has a similar story.
Stehelin’s youngest son Marek was diagnosed with leukemia three years ago at the age of two and a half. “The initial treatment is three and a half years of chemo and he still has to be seen once a month for two years. We’re going to be going down for regular checkups until he’s 18 years old,” she says. “There are not a lot of options in Vancouver for accommodation. Yukoners only pay $12 per night [at the Ronald McDonald House]. We couldn’t have survived without it.”
For Kucherean and Stehelin the Ronald McDonald House provided a much needed sense of normalcy while dealing with the difficult emotional, logistical and financial situation that they suddenly found themselves in. “It’s very open and welcoming and as relaxing as it can be. Marek is excited every time we go. It’s made a phenomenal difference both emotionally and financially to have access to the House,” says Stehelin.
Stehelin was one of the first Yukoners to stay at the Ronald McDonald House when they expanded three years ago, and now she goes every month for a few days while her son is getting treatment.
Kucherean is currently in Vancouver with her daughter while she’s being treated at the hospital. They’ve been there for the past nine months. She takes her daughter to the B.C Children’s Hospital once a week and is grateful that she doesn’t have to commute from Whitehorse to see her child.
“It’s easier to stay here to keep her safe,” Kucherean says. “You walk in with the clothes on your back and everything else is provided for you.”
One of her favourite things about the Ronald McDonald House is that her family gets to bond with people who share similar experiences. “You make lifelong friendships and you get to be bald together. It’s a sense of hope for the families for the kids, it gives a sense of community, you create a bond with other people.”
Kucherean says that being around other children suffering from similar ailments makes a big difference for her daughter, too. “She feels normal in her own environment. My daughter has three or four friends that she hangs out with regularly. It’s also a safe and clean place for my daughter who is immunocompromised.”
Kucherean says that the staff and volunteers normalize the activities that the children go through at the hospital through interactive games. “They take it [the experience of going through treatment at the hospital] and they play with it and are much stronger because of it. The staff know your name and they know your kids’ name. We couldn’t have asked for a better place to be. The people here are fantastic.”
Kucherean says she’s thankful to everyone who donates time or money to the Ronald McDonald House charity. “Without that we wouldn’t have a place to stay and our family would be financially broken at this point. Thank you for donating so that families like mine can have a safe place to stay while they’re here.”
She says that although the Ronald McDonald House is located in B.C., there are many Yukoners using the facilities because they can’t afford accommodation in Vancouver. “It’s definitely for the Yukon.”
Stehelin and her family all get to stay together when they’re at Ronald McDonald House when they’re in Vancouver.
“We take [all Marek’s siblings] down there when we can – it’s the same price no matter how many there are so all the kids get to feel included,” says Stehelin. She’s in Whitehorse right now with her son and the rest of her family. “There are so many people in need. It only happens to someone else until it happens to you. That’s when you realize what a difference [donating] makes.”
Stehelin wants to drive home the importance of any donation, no matter how small, “It makes a difference; your five or 20 or 100 dollars makes a difference,” she says. “We’re very grateful to have so much community support from Yukoners.”
Stehelin is impressed at how many Yukoners are using the facilities in Vancouver. The last time she was there she noticed that “over the course of 45 minutes there were seven families from the Yukon in the hallway.”
Mike Thorpe, owner and operator of the McDonald’s restaurant in Whitehorse says that the new Ronald McDonald House opened in Vancouver three years ago.
“The old House only had 12 rooms and was oncology exclusive,” he says. “The new one meets standards for a broad scope of patients. This expanded number of Yukon families who could take advantage of it.”
Thorpe says that 90 Yukon families have used the facilities with an average stay of nine months, with the longest stay so far being one year. “It provides a warm and welcoming place where families can stay,” he says.
Thorpe says it’s rewarding, “Knowing that we’re helping families when they need it most and of course the Yukon connection makes it a closer, more emotional feeling.”
Each year his staff compete to raise the most money for the Ronald McDonald House in a charity drive.
“All money donated goes directly to help those families in B.C.,” he says. “We’ve brought our winning teams down to Vancouver each year. They interact with families down there and really connect with the families at Ronald McDonald House.”
Thorpe’s most cherished memories of his involvement with the charity come from interacting with the children.
He remembers meeting Marek for the first time. “He’s going through a lot but, you wouldn’t know it from speaking with him. Making those personal connections is very special.”
Thorpe says that the charity recognizes the importance of the Yukon connection. The name of the charity was changed a couple of years ago to include the Yukon. It’s now called Ronald McDonald House B.C and Yukon. The annual fundraiser for the Ronald McDonald House in Vancouver is happening from April 14th to May 3rd in Whitehorse. For more information you can visit the McHappy Day Whitehorse Facebook page.