Tamworth's Ronald McDonald House marks a decade of tireless service

Tamworth's Ronald McDonald House is the house that love built. On Saturday it will be celebrating a decade of service to the local community, and the 2200 families that have sought its shelter and comfort.

It took just one weekend for local volunteers to build a five bedroom house. And that level of community support has never wavered, in fact it is the very lifeblood that keeps Tamworth’s Ronald McDonald House ticking.

The first RMH opened its doors in Philadelphia in 1974 with a simple charter of keeping the families of seriously ill children close together, offering support and shelter in their greatest time of need. This too has never wavered.

The Tamworth RMH generally services the New England North West, offering rooms to families whose children are hospitalised in Tamworth, and live more than 100km from the hospital.

While some families stay for a night or two, others can stay for a few months, but it is all the same to the 70 strong army of local volunteers, who give their time every week, including overnight stays.

House Community Engagement Coordinator Debby Herdegen said to this day “the volunteers still don’t recognise just how much they bring for these families.”

“Every family that comes through this door has a unique story, and we are quite lucky because our RMH gets a lot of lovely stories because we get to see the families go home,” she said.

“We also see some heart wrenching stories as well though.

“The volunteers don’t often get the thanks they deserve, and neither does the community that gets behind us every year – we need them to continue to operate.

“Taking the time to look back at the ten years it is unbelievable to see how much the community have done, and keep doing for the house – it is incredible.”

The build

Hands on deck: Bill Brown came out of retirement to help lay the 9000 bricks. There were so many volunteers they finished in just three and a half hours. Photo: Gareth Gardner

Hands on deck: Bill Brown came out of retirement to help lay the 9000 bricks. There were so many volunteers they finished in just three and a half hours. Photo: Gareth Gardner

“It is just magic – I get a thrill every time I come up here.” 

Those are the words of Bill Brown. The local bricklayer will never forget the day he came out of retirement to help build the house.

Mr Brown started laying bricks when he was just 15 years old, and stopped in the year 2000 when he was 65 years old, although for one day he dusted the trowel off and helped finish “the most satisfying and magic job I have ever done.” 

Gary Sweeney was in charge of the brick works on the house. In the lead up he called Mr Brown, who was 72 at the time and eight years retired.

“He wanted me to come up and meet the bricklayers and apprentices that were doing the house, but he said he didn’t want me to work,” Mr Brown said.

“I said if I am coming up I am bringing my trowel.” 

What happened that day he will never forget.

“It was a 9000 brick house, but when I got up here there were 38 bricklayers ready to go at 7am.

“We had the brickwork finished by 10am, and the sills done by 10.30am – it was the quickest building I’d ever seen go up.

“Then the electricians, plumbers, gyprockers and everyone else went in and did the same thing – it was just magic.

“It all went up in a weekend, and to give parents somewhere to stay that have sick kiddies is a terrific thing.” 

The families

Friendly face: House manager Kel McCrohon has a chat with current occupant Miranda Vanry, whose premature baby Imogen is now on the improve in the special care unit across the road.

Friendly face: House manager Kel McCrohon has a chat with current occupant Miranda Vanry, whose premature baby Imogen is now on the improve in the special care unit across the road.

Armidale mother of three Miranda Vanrey said every single staff member, volunteer and community member that has helped over the years deserves every bit of praise they get.

Three weeks ago Mrs Vanry went into labour eight weeks early, and after being flown to John Hunter Hospital and spending a week at the Newcastle RMH, she was moved to Tamworth for the next three weeks, as baby Imogen continues to improve in the special care unit.

“It really has given us a home away from home – my husband and two older daughters come from Armidale and stay with me on the weekend – to have them here and to have somewhere for the girls to play that is not a hospital ward makes so much difference,” she said.

“My husband spent two nights in a hotel in Newcastle which cost over $300 – we could not afford to do that for five weeks. In here we can do a  grocery shop and use the kitchen – although the volunteers are always cooking cakes, cookies and meals. I have had to find polite ways to say no thanks because there is too much.” 

Tamworth mother Veronica Filby knows all about volunteering her time, and unfortunately, she also knows just how much the Ronald McDonald House organisation and volunteers mean to her, and her family.

Mrs Filby had triplets at just 28 weeks at John Hunter Hospital, tragically the smallest Angus, passed away a few days later, while Lucas battled life threatening complications for over a month.

“Some of my saddest moments were at RMH and they looked after me,” Mrs Filby said.

“Losing my child and organising funerals and things like that – I was able to do that because everyone at RMH were so caring.

“I knew I could got to my room and cry, and get it all out because I knew I was in a good space, and a supportive space – we couldn’t have done it without RMH.”

The Future

Safety net: Tamworth's Shiralee and Chloe Coss have been at the RMH in Newcastle for months as the family continue to battle against a rare cancer.

Safety net: Tamworth's Shiralee and Chloe Coss have been at the RMH in Newcastle for months as the family continue to battle against a rare cancer.

Community Engagement coordinator Debby Herdegen said that while the future of the Tamworth house is simple, it is not the same for the other major house in the Northern Region, Newcastle.

“We sit at about 70 per cent occupancy rate normally, although the last six months has been the busiest period we have ever seen – the house has been full,” Ms Herdegen said.

“We just need to continue what we are doing here in Tamworth, but we do have to get behind the capital campaign in Newcastle, they are struggling.”

While the Tamworth hosue serves people that live at least 100km from Tamworth, the Newcastle house has serviced hundreds of Tamworth and North West families over the years that have children at John Hunter Hospital.

“They have 18 bedrooms there, but are turning away 10 families every night,” she said.

“That is heartbreaking, and some of those families are local, so as a community it would be good to get behind that campaign and support the Newcastle House however we can.”