Put yourself in the place of a young family living in rural California who suddenly finds that their seven-year-old may have leukemia or another serious life-threatening disease, and his only option for treatment is at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital, 150 miles away.
Imagine having to get ready to go within hours, arranging home and work coverage, sibling care, transportation, pet care, changing appointments, etc. - all while being frightened about whether your child is going to survive. Imagine a hurried trip to San Francisco, and then dealing with the hospital emergency room, the admitting process, a crying, apprehensive child, new doctors, multiple tests and learning of and dealing with the diagnosis of cancer. Suddenly, at the end of a long and harrowing day, exhausted, hungry, and aware that almost everything in your life has changed, you realize you and your spouse and three-year-old have little money and no place to stay.
Prior to 1981, parents participated in a nightly lottery for a mat to sleep on the floor of a UCSF conference room. If that was unavailable, they slept in their cars or, if they could afford it, expensive rooming houses near the hospital. Responding to this vulnerable population, Dr. Arthur Ablin, his wife, Debbie, and others co-founded the first Family House in 1981 to house 10 families per night. A second house opened in 2002 to house 24 additional families, all free-of-charge.
However, this is still not enough. Housing 34 families per night provides free, temporary housing for fewer than half of the families who need it.
Children are referred to large, specialized, research and medical centers like UCSF because treatment for their rare disorders is not readily available in small, local communities. Young families must travel and relocate for days, weeks and even several months at a time to ensure their child receives the best possible care available.
The average child with cancer is seven years old; their parents are typically young and struggle to pay for basic family needs. While many children in California with serious illnesses have some type of medical insurance, there is no insurance that covers room and board for weeks or months in San Francisco during a child's hospitalization. That expense can be crippling, and often impossible to meet for a young family.
Because life-threatening diseases of childhood are relatively rare, families often feel isolated and unsupported throughout diagnosis and treatment. Not surprisingly, they find enormous relief and understanding from other families with the same or similar problems. Family House brings such families together so that compassion, empathy and mutual support are available in abundance.
"Serious illnesses in children do not discriminate on the basis of socio-economic status or ethnicity. Family House ensures that all kids and their families have the opportunity for cutting edge care and the best we have to offer." - Dr. Michelle Hermiston
Parents struggle for normalcy during their child's treatment and need the compassionate support that can only be given at a place where people understand what they're going through. Family House has been described as a "sanctuary for families," a place of comfort where they can live with dignity during one of the most difficult times in their lives.
"Sounds strange, but living here has been one of the richest experiences of my life. Everyone's so real here and everyone cares about each other. We all have our down times, but we support each other through them. If one of the children is having a bad day, another child's mother or father will say, 'Don't worry, he'll be better tomorrow. I know - because I've been there too.'" - Sophia's father
Sharing a meal, watching television or just talking: It's the simple things that create community. Many families find that the immeasurable value of staying at Family House is the bonding, sharing of experiences and emotional support-stories, advice and empathy create lifelong bonds. Their "family" at Family House becomes the community parents and children have left behind in their hometowns.
Working hand-in-hand, Family House and UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital create a community of family-centered care. Access to innovative research and treatment at one of the best medical and research facilities in the world is made possible for our low- income families because of Family House. And because families come from all over the country and the world for treatment and clinical trials, this community of support opens its doors to as many families as possible with open arms.
"You make special friends here, and I'll really miss everyone when we go home. I've made some discoveries of my own since I've been here - small moments shared at Family House provide the most comfort. The great big events don't happen very often, and most of them are overrated anyway. Fresh flowers on the table, preparing a meal with other families - it's daily things like this that are important." - Raul's mom
Eleven-year-old Leslie Parra and her family have been in and out of Family House since early 2011. At the age of four, Leslie experienced a life-threatening aneurysm. Her doctors referred her to UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital, where she has gone through five brain surgeries in four years, as well as radiation therapy. The radiation therapy is proving effective, and Leslie is getting well.
Leslie's mom, Kathy, appreciates everything Family House does to make their lives easier. Before coming to Family House, they had stayed at similar organizations, but for Kathy there is no comparison. "We're so comfortable here, that sometimes I wish we could stay instead of going back to Salinas." Her favorite part of Family House is the staff and how sensitive each one is to the family's situation. "They have the right heart for this kind of work and they are always there for you," she says.
Kathy continues, "Through all of this, Leslie has shown everyone what it means to be strong and brave. Because of Family House, we can give her the emotional support she needs to look beyond her illness and distress to see a healthy future. Family House helps us lessen constant worry and troubles, because of its culture of kindness. Since we don't have to worry about expense, we can concentrate on our daughter."
Approximately 75% of the families who stay at Family House are low-income (qualifying for Medi-Cal), and come to Family House already struggling financially. To ensure a level of dignity and comfort, Family House offers an array of services and programs beyond free housing to help ease the financial burden of living far from home.
Services and Programs include:
"For two years, our family struggled with all sorts of basic costs to get back and forth to the hospital - last year alone we spent $32,000 in gas, tolls, parking and minimal food purchases to get back and forth to San Francisco. It just about put us over the edge until we came to Family House." -Madison's mom
The mission of Family House is to serve as a home away from home for families of children with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses by providing physical comfort and emotional support free from financial concerns. Thank you for your support. Please click here to learn more about how to get involved.