Since the first Ronald McDonald House opened in Canada in 1981—making this 40 years of RMHC in Canada—the charity has grown to fifteen more Houses and seventeen Family Rooms within hospitals from Vancouver to Newfoundland. More than 425,000 Canadian families across Canada have made a Ronald McDonald House their home while their child was receiving medical treatment at a nearby hospital. At Ronald McDonald Houses families can sleep soundly, do their laundry, enjoy homemade meals and make lifelong friends. For families otherwise in hospital or pricy hotel rooms, Ronald McDonald House is a much-needed respite from at least some stress and heartache, just when they need it most.
A family arrives on a RMHC doorstep every 20 minutes in Canada, two out of three of them from outside of a city with a children’s hospital, so when those families need a place to stay, Ronald McDonald House steps in to make life just a little bit easier—and a whole lot happier. In honour of them and McHappy Day, RMHC’s largest fundraising day of the year, which takes place on September 22, here are two children: Brave Bella and Connor the Goalie—and their families—to tell us about their health journeys, their time at Ronald McDonald House and how the charity has gone above and beyond to welcome them home during a time of great need.
Bella Thomson is a TikTok sensation whose viral video of her—a toddler-sized artist at a desk drawing an almost suspiciously good fox—has garnered over ten million hits. Bella has a rare form of dwarfism, Hirschsprung disease (an absence of nerve cells in the bowel), and a severe immune condition, but that doesn’t stop her from having a killer sense of humour and sharing it with the world. From Swift Current, Saskatchewan, Bella delights in a cheeky shtick she finds hilarious, given she’s seven years old, and mom, Kyla, happily shares her daughter’s infectious joy to raise awareness for so-called “medical families” like hers.
In her short life, Bella has braved 23 surgeries. A childhood that may have otherwise been spent crammed in hospital rooms, however, was instead spent at Ronald McDonald Houses when—after a long eight months initially in hospital—a room opened up for the Thomson’s to make their own. Though Kyla didn’t know much about Ronald McDonald House until then, she immediately understood its importance. “We just, in an instant, realized how much the House does for families away from home,” she says. Without the added financial stress of travel, hotels, and meals – Bella and her family enjoyed home-cooked meals, warm and homey spaces and entertaining children’s programs, from musicians and movie nights to knitting classes and a spa night. “They did everything that needed to be done so I could just focus on being there for my daughter,” says Kyla.
“Our first stay at Ronald McDonald House in Calgary ended up being more than a year-and-a-half,” she says. And after more than 600 nights, the House and its staff are “literally our home away from home.” Bella learned how to walk there, and then to dance, said her first words and learned how to talk to friends. Even Grandma has come to stay. It’s all been wonderful, says Kyla, but perhaps best of all is connecting with other long-term families who are going through similar struggles that others simply cannot understand. “People try their best, of course, but until it’s your kid, you just don’t get it,” says Kyla. Brave Bella is currently on a bowel transplant waitlist, and whenever it’s her turn, the Thomsons know just where they’ll be: "I’ll be calling up the Ronald House and saying, ‘Hi! It’s us again!’” There isn’t a more comfortable “hotel” in town, she adds.
When 12-year-old hockey player Connor Butt had lingering pain in his left side, his parents, Chris and Nadine, took their son to the doctor. “It didn’t feel serious at the time,” says Nadine, who assumed her son suffered from the obviously and inevitable aches and pains of being his team’s goalie. Connor was treated first for a kidney infection, but when the pain returned, he was sent next for an ultrasound. This ultimately revealed every parent’s worst fear come true: “They found a large mass, 15 by 10 centimetres, on Connor’s kidney,” she says. “The ultrasound technician wasn’t allowed to say anything, of course, but I could just tell by their face that this was very, very serious.”
Everything after that was a whirlwind for the family from Stephenville, Newfoundland. “I spent Mother’s Day waiting at the hospital, we got results the next day, and the day after that we packed up and were gone to the hospital on the other side of the island,” remembers Nadine. There, Connor was diagnosed with Wilms Tumor—though most of us have never heard of it, it’s the most common type of kidney cancer for children—and the Butt family’s life turned upside down in an instant. “Everything else stops,” says Chris, “and you’re just holding on for dear life.”
That same awful moment, however, brought a glimmer of hope from Ronald McDonald House. While waiting for and recovering from surgery, followed by chemo and radiation, Connor and his family were introduced to Ronald McDonald House. “The very first day we would have spent at the hospital, they contacted us and invited us to the St. John’s Ronald McDonald House,” says Nadine. Located right next to the hospital, the Ronald McDonald House in St. John’s has fifteen bedrooms with private washrooms, a fully-equipped kitchen, playrooms and laundry facilities. When Connor’s two-week visit was extended to eight, the House became a comfy home for the Butts, and its spaghetti-making staff became a family who went above and beyond to make a bad situation not just bearable, but even enjoyable.
Of Connor’s many fond memories, his very favourite was his twelfth birthday, which actually started out gloomy. “I woke up really sad that morning, because I really wanted to be hanging out with all my friends at school,” says Connor. Sneakily, his mom suggested he look out the window that morning, where some of his friends waited at the playground below. They’d travelled nine hours to see their friend and celebrate. Atop the cake, was an extra-sweet Toronto Maple Leafs logo—Connor’s favourite team!
For more information on the Ronald McDonald House Charities and how you can support families with sick children from your community, visit their website.
And don’t forget to participate in McHappy Day on September 22, where a portion of the proceeds from every McDonald’s menu item sold all day long goes to supporting RMHC across Canada.