'It will always be a part of our lives': Families reflect on their time at local Ronald McDonald House

Jul. 31—The Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Four States in Joplin celebrated its 24-year anniversary last week noting its services have impacted over 3,400 families from 38 states and two foreign countries since its opening on July 27, 1998.

The local charity organization operates the Ronald McDonald House at 3402 S. Jackson Ave., which acts as families' "home away from home" while their children are receiving medical care. The house has primarily served families of premature babies from a 65 to 70-mile radius. Families are asked for a $10 nightly contribution but are never turned away based on the inability to pay.

In 2017, the Ronald McDonald Family Room opened on the 6th floor of Mercy Hospital Joplin for family members of pediatric or Neonatal Intensive Care Unit patients who need a home-like setting while in the hospital. The 850-square-foot family room offers a space for sleeping, a kitchen with food and drinks, laundry and shower facilities, and a seating area with a television.

"When you look at the number of families that we've actually served and continue to serve, it's really an honor and a privilege to be there for families during a highly stressful time," said Annette Thurston, executive director at Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Four States. "They walk through the door as strangers, but we embrace them, love them, have comfort and care, find out what their needs are and oftentimes, we know what their needs are before they even do. To be here to provide that is a tremendous feeling of satisfaction."

Visitors from nearly 300 communities across the Four-State Area have stayed at the Joplin house, including the Shoulders family in 2006.

"It will always be a part of our lives," said Leslie Shoulders.

Tim and Leslie Shoulders, of Oswego, Kansas, had premature twins James and Elizabeth at 31 weeks in July 2006. Babies are considered premature when they're born before the 37th week of pregnancy.

"We started seeing a doctor here in Joplin and everything was going well until about 31 weeks, and they thought I was going to go into labor," said Leslie Shoulders. "I ended up going into labor that night. The social worker at the hospital referred us to the Ronald McDonald House, and we had never heard of it at the time."

James weighed 3 lbs and 11 oz while Elizabeth weighed 3 pounds and 6 ounces. Two days after they were born, Leslie began staying at the Ronald McDonald House and got to take the babies home a month later in August.

"We took them home on oxygen and apnea monitors," said Leslie Thompson. "That was scary, being new parents and having to take all of this equipment home with you. They were on the sleep apnea machines until the end of October."

The two twins are healthy today and celebrated their 16th birthday last weekend. The incoming high school juniors are aiming to take dual credit courses. James wants to be a farmer, and Elizabeth has been inspired to become a NICU nurse. They also have a younger sibling, Lilly, who's 10.

The Shoulders family said they're grateful for the generosity and support extended by Ronald McDonald House in their time of need and have been working to pay it forward to the charity ever since. Leslie Shoulders described their time at the house as wonderful and that they were treated like family.

"We never expected this to be a part of our lives 16 years later," she said. "We stay in touch with them."

Despite living an hour away, the family makes trips to the Joplin house to donate aluminum soda pop tabs, which can be recycled for money to assist with lodging costs. The Joplin recycling program has raised over $33,000 since 1997. They also help cook meals at the house and are involved in the annual Big Red Shoe 10k, 5k & 1 Mile Walk in September.

"We collect pop tabs at our grade school where they had attended and where Lilly attends now," said Leslie Shoulders. "We only have 120 kids in the school, but this year we brought 200 lbs of pop tabs over."

Lauren Thompson and her fiancé, Shane Rice, of Chetopa, Kansas, had their son, Kane, delivered on June 19 at 23 weeks, and a friend told her about the house while she was in the hospital. Kane is six-weeks-old and weighs 2 pounds and 2 ounces. When he was born, he weighed 1 pound and 3 ounces. Premature babies are usually allowed to go home from the hospital once they weigh about 4 pounds and are able to maintain their own body temperature.

In order to go home from the hospital, premature babies need to maintain their own body temperature, which usually correlates with 4 to 5 pounds. The family hopes they can take Kane home by October, his actual due date.

"I wouldn't be able to come up here every single day if I had to come from home," said Lauren Thompson. "He's in NICU right now."

Lauren and her mother, Leslie Thompson, are current residents at the Joplin house after checking in earlier this summer. Leslie Thompson, who lives in Broken Arrow, Okla., said she's excited to be closer to her daughter and grandson. Especially with inflation and the price of gasoline, the mother and daughter said the house has alleviated a lot of their financial worries.

"I stayed at a hotel for about three days, and it got very expensive," said Leslie Thompson. "I was really worried how I was going to be there for my daughter."

Lauren Thompson said it has become her second home and has helped put her mind at ease during a stressful time. She also mentioned that the amount of support she receives from staff and other families helps keep her hope alive.

"There's no way that we would make it without the Ronald McDonald House," she said. "We're only a minute away from the hospital, and they also offer me rides. We've heard so many success stories, and it definitely makes me feel a lot better. There was a baby who weighed 1 lb and 6 oz when he was born at 24 weeks, and now he is 17-years-old, and he's 200 pounds."

Leslie Thompson said she plans to volunteer at the Ronald McDonald House in Tulsa because of the impact it has made on their family.

"It's invaluable, honestly, and we want to help spread the word," she said. "They make you feel completely comfortable here, and it makes a big difference."

The Ronald McDonald House and Family Room are managed by 181 active volunteers. Throughout its 24-year history, over 1,000 volunteers have contributed 106,000 hours of time to the Joplin charity.

Lynn Simmons, of Mississippi, moved to Joplin in 1991 and has been volunteering at the local Ronald McDonald House since it first opened 24 years ago. The operating room nurse at Mercy Hospital Joplin said her volunteerism at the house gives her the opportunity to take care of families both inside and outside of the hospital setting.

"I was already a Ronald McDonald House volunteer in Jackson, Mississippi, and I started volunteering for them down there while I was in college," she said. "I've been with Mercy since 1991, and I've been in the operating room for nearly 28 years. Nursing isn't just about changing beds or giving medication. It's about serving the whole family and all of those support people. I've also volunteered at the Ronald McDonald House Family Room at Mercy, so we serve a lot of the NICU families there. I was the first person to volunteer in that room."

Simmons said it's been an extremely rewarding experience to take care of the entire family, and volunteering has provided her with a sense of purpose. She has found her true calling. Collectively, Simmons has donated over 3,300 hours to the local charity.

"We're called to put other people first and volunteering here, it's just an extension of that, and I'm able to serve people who aren't bedside, but yet still need just as much support. To me, what I do in the operating room, it's high intensity and high acuity care. Coming here, it's kind of the calm side of what I do."

Thurston said the Ronald McDonald House wouldn't have been able to thrive for over two decades without the endless support from the Four-State communities, donors and volunteers.

"When I look at everything here that's done by volunteers, we are really still the only house within our worldwide system that operates the way that we do," she said.