Her family finishes eating a lunch of salad and spaghetti, and Amy Kingery pulls her daughter onto her lap to give her a kiss.
“Hey Bella," she tells her. "Mommy is going to go back to baby brother to feed him, OK? I love you.”
“Bye-bye, Mommy!” the little girl responds and returns to playing with a stuffed toy monkey.
Bella's father, Jacob Kingery, keeps a watchful eye on her as he fills the kitchen dishwasher in the Ronald McDonald House on Lansing Avenue in east Columbia.
The house is a temporary home to the Kingery family while son Benaiah is in the NICU at Women's and Children's Hospital. Born premature on Dec. 3 at 33 weeks, he would remain in the hospital for the rest of the month.
The Ronald McDonald House allowed the Kingerys to stay less than a mile from their son during his treatment in the neonatal intensive care unit.
This year, the house will celebrate its 35th anniversary after moving from its original location and growing from 10 guest rooms in the early days to 18 rooms today.
“We decided we were going to take this opportunity to celebrate in 2018 as the house turns 35,” said Executive Director Terri Gray. “Celebrate that service.”
Throughout the year, the house will commemorate not only the progress that came with expansion, but the families who have lived there. A series of activities are planned, including an open house on May 21.
The house will also hit the road during the year with plans to bring activities to locations where they receive a high number of families, including the Lake of the Ozarks, Sedalia and Kirksville.
“We want to be where they are,” Gray said.
35 years of service
The Ronald McDonald House of Mid-Missouri opened its doors in 1983 at the corner of Stadium and Monk Drive, serving 2,000 families during the first five years.
When Women’s and Children’s Hospital opened on Keene Street, those working at the house began planning a new facility that would put families a short walk away from the hospital. The building on Lansing Avenue opened on Oct. 30, 2013.
During her nearly five years as director, Gray has overseen the building project and various fundraising efforts. The move to the new facility was the largest project she’s managed.
The newer, larger house was a major improvement, she said. More guest rooms, as well as improved amenities and the convenient location, made it more comfortable than the previous house.
In order to stay at the Ronald McDonald House, families must have a child under the age of 21 receiving treatment at a Columbia medical facility; live outside Boone County; be referred by a nurse, doctor or social worker; and pass a background check.
Since 2013, the house has served at least 1,557 families who have stayed for a cumulative total of 22,000 nights. The average length of a family’s stay is 10 nights, and most come from Pulaski, Cole, Camden, Adair and Miller counties.
“This past year, we’ve been running at 88 percent occupancy,” Gray explained. "We used to have nights where we had to turn people away."
She said she witnesses inspiring, heartwarming experiences on a weekly basis.
“I can’t even count them or articulate them,” she said. “You’ll run into a family who is appreciative, or who is struggling, and we’re able to provide a service for them.”
Facing illness together
Worldwide, more than 300 Ronald McDonald Houses have been built to serve families whose children are going through a major medical crisis. The organization was founded in 1974; in 2016 alone, it helped more than 5.5 million families.
According to the organization's website, the houses are built "on the simple idea that nothing else should matter when a family is focused on the health of their child.”
Every Ronald McDonald House offers home-cooked meals, private bedrooms for each family and playrooms for children. Some offer accredited educational programs, recreational activities, non-clinical support services, sibling support services and special suites for children with suppressed immune systems.
The organization's reach extends beyond the houses. It also offers family rooms inside hospitals and vans called "care mobiles" that can provide community services like immunizations and vision screenings.
Missouri has 10 Ronald McDonald Houses — three in Kansas City, three in St. Louis, two in Springfield, one in Joplin and one in Columbia. There are also various Ronald McDonald House Charities chapters throughout the state, several hospital family rooms and one care mobile.
Those who run the house in Columbia say they continually focus on improvements for guests.
“We’re really doing a lot to make sure the families are treated well, and that the house is all family-centered,” said Angela Huntington, director of families.
The house is thankful, Huntington said, for the support it receives from the Columbia community. Donations are generous, she said, and volunteer groups will cook meals for families in the house kitchen and provide other services.
“When we ask for help, people show up,” Huntington said. “If we need a gallon of milk, we post on Facebook, and suddenly, we have 10. Columbia is a very philanthropic community, and we appreciate their kindness.”
In years to come, Gray said she hopes the house can find ways to help even more families in need.
“Our goal would be to expand our services by adding a wing of guest rooms or a family room at the hospital,” she said. “To have some way we can expand our services in line with our mission."
Huntington’s goal is to continue making sure all guests are comfortable and well cared-for.
“My personal goal is to always keep improving the quality of service we provide, and to always make sure we’re providing hospitality at the level where everyone feels taken care of,” she said.
“It’s my goal to maintain a warm, inviting environment.”
In December, the Kingery family was making its second stop at Columbia's Ronald McDonald House.
They first arrived four years ago when daughter Blessing was born with a chromosomal abnormality from which she died a few months later.
This time, they brought an additional member of their family for the stay — 2½-year-old daughter Bella, who made use of the playroom's many toys and books.
The family lives in Fayette, and Amy Kingery said it’s far more convenient to live at the house and care for her newborn son than to drive 45 minutes back and forth to Women’s and Children’s Hospital.
“It’s easy to make a quick trip over (to the hospital),” she said.
The house kitchen is another of her favorite things about the property because it’s one less chore to manage.
“It’s nice that there’s so much food leftover from dinners, so food is something I don’t have to worry about," she said.
Bella’s presence added a new layer to what might otherwise be a stressful situation. They focused, she said, on making sure the little girl knew she was loved while her mother cared for Benaiah in the hospital.
The biggest upside of the Ronald McDonald House, in Amy Kingery's view, aligns with the principle on which all the houses were founded:
Nothing else should matter when a child’s well-being is in question.