Jacob’s journey with the house that love built

Hunter Ellis, Reporter

Although most people imagine the Ronald McDonald House as a big yellow and red playhouse filled with bouncy balls and swirly slides, for many families like Jacob and Shannon McMullen’s, the harsh reality is that it’s a home away from home when something is wrong. Although it might not be the funhouse many people dream of, for many families it is a refuge of hope.

Jacob and Shannon began their journey at the Ronald McDonald House in Huntington four years ago. Jacob was born extremely premature, weighing only two pounds and with encephalocele in the back of the skull which exposed his brain. Jacob had to have brain surgery right away, and after they had repaired his encephalocele he developed hydrocephalus which is extra spinal fluid that collects on the brain. Shannon, his mother, said it is very dangerous if it’s not corrected, and it’s not curable at all.

“The only treatment is brain surgery and usually you don’t just have one,” McMullen said. “That’s something that you will go through the rest of your life. Jacob has had 22 so far. He could have another brain surgery today or it could be in another year or 10 years. We have a long road ahead of us.”

The Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Tri-State, Incorporated is a home-away-from-home for families throughout western West Virginia, southern Ohio and Eastern Kentucky, who must travel great distances to seek medical attention for a sick child.

“I remember telling them when we got here that you’ll probably see us again, this won’t be our only trip but I didn’t expect to come back so soon and so often.” McMullen said.

Jacob is now nine and Shannon said they stay at the house monthly. She said it can be several days out of the month, it can be three weeks out of the month, or it can be all month and then another few weeks. She said the longest they have been away since they started staying here was last summer.

“We were home during June and July” McMullen said as she described how they have spent more time at RMH than at their actual home in the past two years. “Every holiday, birthday, Christmas we were here, so it was really strange for us to be home that long. I remember we didn’t unpack for the longest time because I just knew if we unpacked our stuff we would be right here the next day.”

McMullen said the way they have everything set up at RMH makes her feel so comfortable, even during their very first stay.

“Obviously you’re here because there’s something wrong, you’re here because your child is sick or whatever the case may be, but aside from that they really kind of smooth the way for you.”

McMullen said they try to keep their routine at RMH as similar to their days at home in order to benefit Jacob and at RMH they have everything there that she and Jacob need.

Since 1987, the Huntington Ronald McDonald House has housed more than 10,000 families in times of need. Through the generosity of donors and volunteers, guests are offered a safe haven at the “House that Love Built.”

She said most of their time during the day is spent away whether it’s appointments, procedures or talking to doctors. Then, in the evenings often, different groups come in from Marshall, local churches or other organizations to volunteer, doing activities like providing dinner for the families staying at RMH. She said it’s nice to know sometimes that she doesn’t have to worry about making anything to eat or going to buy anything. 

“Am I going to eat at all? Because I don’t have time, when someone’s there and they’ve made you dinner not only is that a relief that that’s one thing you don’t have to do because you’ve got 101 other things going on but, knowing that these people care enough about you on what’s going on with your family to come and do that, that makes such a difference to know that you’re not here in it alone” McMullen said.

McMullen said they are so grateful for any and everyone who has ever given to this house or any of the Ronald McDonald Houses. She also said she wishes more people knew what the house provided for so many people, and how important it is for some families.

“You may think that you or your family would never need to come to a place like this, but you never know what might happen whether it’s an accident or something terrible and it would be great if people knew about it before they had to find out because of that something terrible happening to them. If they knew what the house was and who they helped and why before they were at the door with a bag because their child is laying in the hospital.”

McMullen said the people who donate to and volunteer at this house have given her and Jacob so much.

“Our livelihood depends on it [this house] and I’m 100 percent serious when I say that if we didn’t have a house to stay in I honestly don’t know where I would stay while he’s in the hospital,” McMullen said. “How would I shower and wash clothes or eat? There’s times where we would leave for doctor’s appointments, come straight to the hospital and have nothing, no clothes, no money or anything and not stay for a day or two, try staying somewhere for weeks with nothing.”

McMullen said when going to a McDonald’s restaurant and when not using a debit card or credit card to pay for an order, use your change to make a donation.

“It might be 35 cents or it might be more than that but either way you’re going to throw it in your car, it’s going to sit there or in the bottom of your purse, put it in the box. That 35 cents can make such a difference to somebody else.”

McMullen values that the RMH has not only given her friends and sense of family within the staff, but also a support system.

“The biggest thing I tell them [other families] is everyone that’s here, we’re here for the same reason. That’s what’s so great about this house, is that you might be getting ready to do something terrifying you with your child, the person upstairs might have done that same thing last week and it’s really important to talk to the other families because you build a support group within the house.”

McMullen said RMH is a good place to be when one is at a bad time in their life.

“Obviously something wrong is going on for you to be here,” she said. “But if I had to go anywhere, it would be here.”

Hunter Ellis can be contacted at [email protected].