Jason and Lacey Simpson of Madison County started a whirlwind journey May 8, 2015, when they welcomed their third child, Brody.
“I had a C-section at Huntsville Hospital that morning, and immediately it was one problem after another,” Lacey said.
Brody was diagnosed with a Congenital Heart Defect, or CHD. He had to be flown by helicopter to Children’s of Alabama in Birmingham for surgery. The Simpsons turned to Ronald McDonald House Charities of Alabama (RMHCA) for a place to stay nearby.
“I was so afraid he was going to die, and I wasn’t going to be close,” Lacey said. “When we were able to get a room at the Ronald McDonald House, we were right around the corner from the hospital. It gave us peace of mind, as much as we could have at that time.”
Brad and Laura Smith of Montgomery County found themselves in a similar situation when their daughter, Aria, was born Oct. 29, 2014. She had a heart defect which required open-heart surgery at Children’s of Alabama when she was six days old.
While the couple often stayed in the hospital room, Brad said it was comforting to have RMHCA just two blocks away.
“We’d get a night here and there to snooze on a real bed at RMHCA, where there were no monitors, beeps or other things to worry us every second,” he said. “Knowing we were a short walk from the hospital and that we didn’t have to pay hundreds of dollars for our stay was a blessing. Another blessing was getting to know other families that were right in those battles with us. We leaned on each other and talked about the ‘new normal.’”
The Simpsons and Smiths both stayed at RMHCA for almost three weeks at no cost. Every year, the house provides more than 700 families with a free place to stay while a child is hospitalized for medical care.
“It takes $75 a night for us to house one family,” said Laurie Smith, RMHCA communications coordinator. “With 41 rooms, that’s pretty big power and water bills, but thanks to great sponsors and donors we are able to provide free housing every year.”
Since 2008, the Alabama Farmers Federation’s Women’s Leadership Committee (WLC) has held a pop tab collection contest to support RMHCA and the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Mobile (RMHCM). County committees across Alabama collected over 2,300 pounds of pop tabs in 2015, which could house a family for more than 24 days.
“Our ladies really enjoy the pop tab contest,” said Kim Ramsey, Women’s Leadership Division director. “Several of them have gotten different organizations like 4H and local school children involved. Some of our Alfa Insurance offices are also involved, so each year, the pop tab collection has gotten a little bit bigger.”
Pop tabs from beverage cans, soup cans and pet food can be recycled to generate funds for the houses. Annually, RMHCA raises over $17,000 through pop tabs, while RMHCM raises about $6,000.
Ronald McDonald houses are independently owned and operated, so amenities and housing requirements vary by house. However, the mission of the 357 houses across the world is the same.
“We’re here to keep families together and give them the support they need during a difficult time,” Laurie Smith said. “If you give to RMHCA, the money is staying in Alabama. It doesn’t go to a global organization. It stays right here to help families.”
While they underwent major surgeries early in life, Brody and Aria are both healthy babies who light up the lives of their families. The Simpsons and Smiths hope their need for RMHCA is behind them, but both families are committed to supporting the facility so it will be there for others.
“Any donation, whether it’s a dollar, fifty cents or pop tabs, helps give stability to families who desperately need something,” said Jason Simpson, who asked Facebook followers to donate to RMHCA as a birthday present. “Just by a small donation, you’re helping somebody that you don’t know have some stability in their life.”
At the RMHCA Red Shoe Run fundraiser in January, the Smiths’ team collected more than $1,200.
“We wanted to help give back to families that are still in those battles,” Brad said. “There’s enough on their ‘worry list’ and a decent night’s sleep and fellowship with other families just shouldn’t be on that list.”