At UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital, parents stare at cream-colored walls and walk through sterile hallways. They grab something fast to eat at the cafeteria so they can promptly return to their child’s hospital room. Sometimes they don’t eat at all.
The Ronald McDonald House of Gainesville provides guest families with the comforts of home, including a home-cooked meal waiting for them in the kitchen.
Volunteers with the Visiting Chef Program hope to provide families with a hot breakfast as well. Although breakfast is often provided on the weekends and once a week on “waffle Wednesdays,” volunteers are currently working to provide a morning meal every single day.
The volunteers are individuals, groups and community members who come and cook a meal for the families staying at the Ronald McDonald House, located right across the street from the hospital.
“When you spend the entire day at your child’s bedside and you walk into a facility that now you’re calling home for whatever duration it is, and to walk into the door and to smell a home-cooked meal… is absolutely priceless,” said Sherry Houston, the executive director of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of North Central Florida. “It’s just a loving feeling…we try to emulate that every single night, 365 days a year.”
To reach new networks in the community, volunteers at the Ronald McDonald House have started a group of young professionals known as The Red Shoe Society to advocate to a younger population, Houston said. Through social media and fundraisers, the group’s goal is to help the Visiting Chef Program and the house altogether. The group held its first meeting earlier this month.
The goal would be to provide breakfast, lunch and dinner, said Judy Bates, who is in charge of the Visiting Chef Program. But in a small market like Gainesville, that is a challenge.
“If we could just get breakfast and dinner every day, that would be good,” she said.
Although breakfast is less expensive than dinner, it is hard to find volunteer chefs who have work schedules that don’t allow for flexibility. All meals must be cooked on the premises or purchased from a licensed kitchen.
“It’s a hard thing to do, but I know there are people out there who know how important breakfast is, and we’re going to make it happen,” Houston said. “We do have a plan, and the more people we educate, the faster this plan is going to be implemented.”
Houston said the key to achieving these new goals is awareness and really getting the name out there and exposed in the community. In addition to reaching out to local restaurants, the program is promoted to companies, churches and organizations at the University of Florida. Many businesses use the volunteer opportunity as a team-bonding event.
“Lots of these families are going through the hardest time of their lives and it’s just something small we can do, but it means a lot to everybody here,” said Michael Williams, who works at Naylor Association Solutions, a local business that has been volunteering as visiting chefs for Ronald McDonald for several years. “It means everything.”
Although there is still room for improvement in the program, the efforts taken to promote the home-cooked meals don’t go unnoticed.
“It’s just a blessing because most of your time is spent at the hospital and you don’t really have time to cook,” said Tanika Coney, who has been living at the house for a month because her baby is in the NICU at UF Shands Children’s Hospital. “It’s really a blessing to have the visiting chefs come in and cook for us.”