The Waits family has every reason to be thankful this year, as they gaze at their 8-month-old daughter, Mabry.
"We really can't imagine life without her now. I mean, this time a year ago is when the diagnosis came, when I was pregnant with her," said Sheradon Waits, Mabry’s mom.
Mabry was born at the end of March with a complex heart defect. At just 5 weeks old and with the pandemic in full swing, Mabry needed life-saving surgery. Waits and her husband, Seth, drove 1,000 miles to bring Mabry from their home in Dallas to have the surgery in Chicago.
“It was never a hesitation about whether this family, if they could make it here, that they would have a place to stay with us,” said Holly Buckendahl, CEO of Ronald McDonald House Charities of Chicagoland and Northwest Indiana.
Coronavirus precautions forced changes at the Ronald McDonald House in downtown Chicago. Communal dining became catered or carryout, but the facility never closed.
"We lost about 26,000 hours of volunteerism," Buckendahl said. "The heart of our mission is run on core volunteerism, so that's a huge price to pay."
Determined staff continued to support the families, meeting their basic needs and offering emotional support.
“I actually became friends with one of the guys who sits at the front desk, Josh,” Waits said, tears filling her eyes. “Every day when I would walk in from the hospital after 10 hours of being up there with her, he would say, 'Hi, how are you,'" Waits said.
“The job that they did and the help that they gave us, not just the room, but the care and the concern and the support was very, very helpful,” Seth Waits said.
Since March, 1,200 families have relied on the Ronald McDonald House.
“They provide it for free or with a donation if your family is able to, but they don't make you pay, so they survive on donations and fundraising," Waits said.
Buckendahl says 40 percent of the charities’ fundraising happens in these last months of each year.
“When we come up on something like Giving Tuesday, which is a huge opportunity for us and such a critical way for us to honor that day," Buckendahl said, "our goal is to raise $100,000 that day which will go a long way to help provide the amenities and food and basic needs for families that we serve."
The generosity of strangers carries out a mission that supported the Waits family, whose journey isn’t over yet. Mabry is meeting milestones but will have another surgery next year, and her parents know just where to turn.
"I seriously cannot imagine what we would have done without Ronald McDonald House," Waits said.