As parents, we strive to create a loving home that is warm and safe for our children. Yet a serious childhood illness can take families far from home in search of treatment. One Houston mom set out to build a house of love and warmth for these families.
The journey started for Liz Kelley in 1976 when her ten-year-old son was diagnosed with T-cell leukemia. For the next three years, Sean underwent chemotherapy and countless bone marrow biopsies and spinal taps. Katy ISD allowed Sean to take his core classes all in the morning, so that he could receive his treatments every afternoon at Texas Children’s Cancer Center, under the excellent care of Dr. Donald Fernbach.
“We lived in Houston and were so grateful that we had the best medical center in the world. But we also saw other families who had to travel long distances from home to come to our hospital. One of the parents could stay in the room with the child, but other family members had to stay in hotels or waiting rooms. It was such an incredible emotional and financial burden on the whole family,” comments Kelley.
Liz and another parent, Don Mullins, who tragically lost his son to cancer, repeatedly asked Dr. Fernbach what they could do to help. Ultimately, the three teamed up to build a Ronald McDonald House in Houston. The house would provide a home away from home, where families could spend time together, have privacy and receive emotional support. The goal was to build 21 bedrooms with private baths, a community kitchen, a tot’s room, a teen room, a living room and a school room.
The corporations of Houston donated generously to the cause, but some of the most touching donations came from individuals. The students at C.E. King High School in Baytown heard about the project. Their librarian had a daughter who had died twenty years earlier of cancer, and the students decided to raise $15,000 to build a room at the new house in their librarian’s honor.
They had car washes,dance-a-thons, and babysat. They gave up mums at homecoming and corsages at the prom and donated the money that they would have spent.They wore badges that said, “We care. We share.” In a very short period of time, they raised the money. “It was one of the highlights of our fundraising experiences,” recalls Kelley.
“Our dream was realized when we opened our doors in May of 1981, having paid for the house and set up an endowment of 1.2 million dollars. We had an incredible amount of help from this wonderful city,” she says.
In 1997, the house moved to a new building in the Medical Center with 50 bedrooms. In 2002, twenty bedrooms were added at Texas Children’s Hospital for ICU patients and their families. There are also 14 bedrooms at Children’s Memorial Hermann. These ICU facilities mainly service local families.
In total, it is “a true treasure from the people of the City of Houston,” states Kelley.
Sean won his fight with cancer and currently lives in Austin with his wife and three children. He is the Chief Operating officer-Pediatric Specialty Services at Dell Children’s Hospital. Sean’s younger brother, Patrick also lives in Austin and has three children. Patrick is Chief of Service, Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at Dell Children’s Hospital. The Kelley’s youngest child, Shannon, lives in Houston, has three children, and she is a pediatrician in the Houston Medical Center area. Liz and her husband Rodney are realtors, serving the Memorial area for Coldwell Banker United, Realtors.
Liz maintains her interest in The Ronald McDonald House and continues to serve on the board. Now her daughter Shannon has joined her in that as well. Liz says that the “Ronald McDonald House has been one of the highlights of our lives. I would never have done it if it weren’t for our children. But once you get there and see the families, you would do anything to help.”
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