Six year old Raka Wiremu-Williams is sound asleep on a couch at Ronald McDonald House South Island.
It’s been a big day for the brave little cancer sufferer, who with his mum, Rachael King, is taking respite in the friendly, supportive environment of the House after spending nine weeks in isolation at Christchurch Public Hospital.
Raka has no energy left to eat tonight, but at a nearby table in the bright, cheery dining room, Rachael is enjoying an appetising meal that has been prepared by volunteers from the Papanui Baptist Church.
The church group is participating in the Family Dinner Programme, which gives companies, organisations or groups the opportunity to help ease some of the stress faced by families who stay for free at the House, their ‘home away from home’ while their children undergo hospital treatment.
The volunteers provide and cook the food for a main course and dessert of their choice, which are generally simple meals such as lasagne, roasts, shepherds pie or barbecues.
Once they have served the meal buffet style, the volunteers eat with the families then clean up afterwards. Rachael and Raka are from Wellington but they’ve been in Christchurch since January when he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia.
If having a child with a serious illness isn’t difficult enough, being so far away from support networks and her other children aged four and nine makes it doubly challenging for Rachael. She says that the volunteers who help with the dinner preparations at Ronald McDonald House are “lifesavers”.
“Raka wouldn’t eat at all when we first came to Christchurch but at the family dinners he eventually sat down and started to eat. It’s so important that the children get the nutrition they need to help them deal with their treatments.”
The programme also helps to ease the financial burden on families and provides an opportunity for them to socialise together and to talk to people outside the hospital environment.
I share dinner with Rachael and her fellow Wellingtonians Mike Palmer and his spirited 15 year old daughter Jess who is fighting rhabdomyosarcoma, a soft tissue cancerous tumour in her foot.
She is about to start her fifth round out of nine gruelling chemotherapy treatments, As we tuck into the delicious chicken, barbecued meats and a huge selection of salads and vegetables provided by the volunteers we share chemo war stories (I’m a 10 year breast cancer survivor).
There is also plenty of laughter and lighter moments around the dinner table as Mike and Jess are like a father-daughter comedy act, constantly joking with each other. Mike says that the Family Dinner Programme provides parents with valuable practical help that enables them to focus their energy on their children’s recovery. “Jess might stay in hospital for up to three nights when she is having chemo so it is great that I can come back to the House for some home cooking then go back to the hospital to support her.”
Mum-of-six Kerry Spencer of Hawarden is another grateful parent. Her tiny two week old baby Joshua was born at just 29 weeks and is under neo-natal care at the hospital.
Kerry was hospitalised for five weeks before Joshua was born and anticipates spending another couple of months at Ronald McDonald House South Island before Joshua will be strong enough to leave hospital.
“It is great to be able to come back here to a really good quality meal. I’m breastfeeding but after spending all day at the hospital I would tend to take the easy way out if a meal wasn’t provided.”
The volunteers get just as much out of the programme as the families say Anna and Russell Pickersgill-Brown, who organised the group of volunteers from the Papanui Baptist Church.
“We used to volunteer here regularly with a local bank and this is the first time that our church group has come,” says Anna. “Personally, it’s a blessing when you’re giving to others.”
Russell says that providing the meal is not a difficult exercise and that it is both “humbling and a huge privilege” to serve the families.
Attending the dinner reminds me of how grateful I was for the meals and baking that turned up on my doorstep when I underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments a decade ago.
It’s made me determined to do something to help the staff and other volunteers who support the brave and inspiring families at Ronald McDonald House.
Perhaps some friends and I will volunteer for the Family Dinner Programme or I’ll drop in some baking or other food items for the pantry or fridge/freezers that are freely accessed by the families?
It can be difficult to think of ways to make a difference to people when they are going through a stressful time, but as the programmes at Ronald McDonald House South Island show, through the joy and comfort of food, it is definitely possible.
For more information about how your business, organisation or group can volunteer for the Family Dinner Programme or to find out other ways you can help Ronald McDonald House South Island phone 03 377 3311