As challenging as it is for a sick child to undergo life-saving medical treatment in a city away from home, it’s an added disruption for the patient and siblings to stay current on school work and remain involved in learning.
Ronald McDonald House Jacksonville intends to help ease that burden in a third-phase renovation project expected to be completed by the end of March.
The first two phases expanded the building.
“We are going to create a space that is rich in learning opportunities for children,” said Executive Director Diane Boyle.
The nonprofit serves more than 1,200 families a year who stay there as their children are treated at area medical facilities.
Ronald McDonald House Charities of Jacksonville has been expanding the Southbank facility and the final phase comprises renovations that include the learning center.
Boyle said the center will encourage patients and their siblings to explore the art, science, math and other materials and activities.
The center — a space for informal and experiential learning — will include iPads, computers, educational toys and games.
“It will help to formalize a space for them where children can go on a daily basis,” Boyle said.
The center will help children and their siblings who miss school, are home-schooled or study with tutors.
School is interrupted by illness and sometimes young students stay at the house several times a year during treatment.
Boyle said the facility is partnering with the University of North Florida College of Education and Human Services for the center as well as its volunteers.
UNF will provide volunteer tutors and mentors for the children, said Michelle McCormick, marketing and events manager with Ronald McDonald House Charities of Jacksonville.
In addition, a fitness center is being built next door, separated by a glass wall so parents can work out while watching their children take part in the activities.
There will be oversight by a manager and a dedicated volunteer base will run the programs.
“Learning is so important in a child’s life,” Boyle said.
The center is part of the third and final phase of the expansion and renovation at the San Marco area building.
It includes refurbishing 30 existing bedrooms and replacing its HVAC system,
“Once completed, our vision will be fulfilled as we will be prepared to provide a ‘home away from home’ for all families who need to come to Jacksonville for pediatric health care,” Boyle said.
The city is reviewing a permit for the $1.1 million project. WG Pitts Co. is the contractor.
The agency said on rmhcjacksonville.org the multiyear Jacksonville expansion was completed in September and thanked WG Pitts, Danis Construction LLC and CMS Group LLC for the management and construction.
The nonprofit raised $12.5 million in a capital campaign for the project. The expansion increased the three-story structure from 42,000 to 65,000 square feet.
The website said the expansion included 26 additional guest suites to boost the house to 53 rooms.
The initial rooms are those being renovated. Some room space was reconfigured for other uses.
The existing 30 units being renovated comprise rooms, suites and four that are being converted into bone marrow suites customized for children who receive bone marrow transfusions.
The project also added covered parking and a rooftop garden and increased common area spaces, including a new family kitchen, a commercial-grade volunteer kitchen, a larger dining room with a technology bar and an expanded playroom.
Ronald McDonald House said those areas help to foster the emotional connection between families and allows the nonprofit to extend beyond meeting their basic needs.
The organization said it has housed more than 33,000 families in Jacksonville since 1988 while their children received medical care in the area for treatment of trauma, cancer, cardiac conditions and other specialty pediatric diagnoses.
Before the expansion, Boyle said the house has been at 95 percent capacity for the prior two years as Jacksonville grew its reputation as a destination for pediatric health care. Capacity grew to 97 percent in 2016.
The building, at 824 Children’s Way, is near Nemours Children’s Clinic and Wolfson Children’s Hospital.
The first 10-bedroom Ronald McDonald House in Jacksonville opened in 1988 near what is now the UF Health Jacksonville medical center in Springfield.
The new house opened in 2001 on the Southbank as pediatric health care services were developed there. It was expanded in 2004 to encompass 42,000 square feet.
Ronald McDonald House Jacksonville said the facility expects more families as Jacksonville grows as a regional destination for pediatric health care.
The bedrooms include private baths and a TV and a phone with voicemail.
The house features common facilities, such as kitchen, dining and family rooms, as well as a business center with internet access, free Wi-Fi throughout, a playroom and game room, laundry facilities and an enclosed outdoor playground.
There is van transportation to medical facilities for those without transportation.
Guests are provided linens and access to pots, pans and utensils.
A community pantry is stocked with staples, families have a limited amount of private storage for their food, and dinner is provided by community groups almost every night.
Boyle said families are requested to make a $10 a night donation but no family is ever turned away and “we never ask a second time.”
She said the average cost of providing for a family is $134 a night, with the difference made up through fundraising and donations from individuals, corporations and foundations.
The Jacksonville location is one of 365 Ronald McDonald Houses in 42 countries and regions, including 184 in the U.S.