Pulling together: Ronald McDonald House keeps families close

By Samantha Ludeking, Driftless Journal Production Manager

“I remember when Matt Sweeney would save his can tabs. I’d think, I should start doing that, but I couldn’t possibly save enough of them to make it worthwhile,” reflects Susan O’Hare, one of the Matt Sweeney Memorial Ride organizers.

Sweeney, who died in July 2022 from injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident, was a big supporter of the Ronald McDonald House (RMH). He was quoted as saying “It’s a small effort that makes a big impact!”

Donations and can tabs for RMH were collected during a memorial ride in honor of Sweeney this past August.

“I would bet that Matt would have never imagined the huge impact he had on his community. That his legacy would continue even after he is gone. That his community would continue to show up again and again and make donations in his memory. The point is that this action of saving tabs, which may seem like very little to some, adds up and results in a huge impact,” said O’Hare.  

The money earned from recyclable aluminum tabs allows RMH programs to keep families close to their children being treated at hospitals far from their homes. Families can rest and recharge, interact with other families going through similar experiences, enjoy home-cooked meals and receive compassionate hospitality from staff and volunteers — all just minutes from the hospital where their child is receiving care. Stays can be as short as one night or as long as several months, and sometimes extend to a year or more, depending on the child’s illness and treatment.

RMH gets the going rate for pop tabs which varies based on the demand for aluminum. Although the entire aluminum can is valuable, the tab itself is much cleaner and easier to collect in large quantities. The tab of a standard soda can is made of high-quality, high-grade aluminum. By itself, it doesn’t mean much, but when everyone pulls together, pop tabs add up and become a valuable donation. 

If you’ve ever wondered if saving tabs or dropping coins in those donation boxes would actually make a difference, the answer is “Yes”. These are the reflections from Driftless area families who have been supported by RMH. 

Feller Family

“I had heard about the Ronald McDonald House but never knew how incredible it was until I needed to stay there. We had pregnancy complications that started at 24 weeks with our youngest daughter, Ayla, that lead to her being born at 31 weeks at a tiny, but mighty, 1 lb. 10 oz.,” began Emily Feller of rural Decorah.

“The day she was born I remember some of my first thoughts being, is she going to be okay, how will I stay here (in Rochester) to be by her incubator daily, can we afford a hotel room for that many nights, how will I commute daily? But most importantly, how will I make my oldest daughter Nora feel loved through this?” 

After sharing her thoughts with her husband, Jake, and a nurse, a social worker came to tell the couple that the RMH had room available. 

“I was extremely emotional being discharged from the hospital while my baby was still in the NICU, but off we went to see the House,” continued Feller.  “We walked in the front door where we were greeted by name, they welcomed Nora with a stuffed animal and activities to take to the room, and they asked how Ayla was doing – a greeting that brought me to tears. The house was absolutely incredible from day one. We stayed there a total of 51 days.”

“While I stayed at the house I had a daily routine and it became home to me. I would wake up in the morning, eat breakfast in the community kitchen, grab some snacks, and head to the NICU. I would go back to the house for lunch and sometimes a quick rest as I was recovering from an emergency c-section. They always checked to see if I needed anything, and if there was anything more they could do, not just for me but for my family. I would usually join the community meal at night and chat with other house guests to see how their loved ones were doing. We laughed together, cried together, celebrated victories, and mourned losses – together.”

The Fellers spent Thanksgiving at RMH, “The holiday away taught me so many life lessons. It did not matter where we celebrated because that Thanksgiving at Ronald McDonald felt like I was surrounded by family. Seeing all the families there, gathered around for dinner, was incredible. I sat there with a full plate, a full heart and tears streaming down my face. I remember Nora asking me why I was crying, and I responded about how blessed we were to experience that place and all those people.” 

“The Ronald McDonald House was something we experienced at a very scary time of our lives. I never imagined having a baby who is born at 1 lb. 10 oz., and I never imagined needing to stay at the Ronald McDonald House. But my family and I feel blessed to have experienced it. Since we have left the Ronald McDonald House, we collect pop tabs. I am the teacher at South Winn who has a bucket in my classroom year-round, because after Ayla was born the school rallied around Ayla and the RMH. They collected pop tabs and students remember that and still bring me pop tabs. It is a simple and easy way for anyone to give back. We have also made donations yearly for the families who are staying there. A simple note, some candies, anything to know you are thinking of them and cheering them on goes a long way. I don’t just say that, I know that because I lived it. One of my favorite things was little surprises in my mailbox, a note, a chocolate, it reminded me that I could do it and that I was not forgotten.”

Einck Family

“Our world turned upside down,” said Amber Einck, as she recalled the day her five-year-old son Rhett was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia T-Cell, March 31, 2023.

“I literally slept in the hospital bed with Rhett after he was diagnosed. I couldn’t leave him,” Amber explained the first nine days of Rhett’s inpatient treatment. Amber and her husband Shane stayed by their son’s side at St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester. “We were able to walk to RMH to shower and take turns trying to give ourselves a break.”

After Rhett’s initial hospital stay, he and Amber were able to stay at Ronald McDonald House in Rochester, Minn., for eight weeks, needing to be as close as possible to Saint Mary’s during the first half of treatment. Shane had just bought out his dad’s business, Leon’s Auto Repair, so he needed to return to Decorah to work and take care of the other four children at home. 

“Shane and the other kiddos would take turns coming up on the weekends,” explained Amber.

“I’m so thankful for the staff and all the volunteers. They gave us a safe, clean, very welcoming environment with activities for all ages. If you needed something they would have it. We continue to use Ronald McDonald during our busy parts of treatment. I am forever grateful for what they do for families.”

While there is a long road and more RMH stays ahead, Rhett will soon be returning to school and Amber back behind the chair at ri’aH Salon and Spa in Decorah where she is co-owner. 

“Rhett talks about Ronald McDonald regularly. It obviously has made a great impact on him during what was the scariest time of our lives. The best part is, I have made lifelong friends with other families going through the same situation. They are a big part of my life now. I don’t know what I would do without them. When Rhett ends treatment in August 2026, I hope to do my part and volunteer. Seeing your child sick and others fighting for their life changes a person. It’s a scary lonely journey I hope no parent must ever experience.”

Durbin Family

Shannon and Bryce Durbin and family stayed several weekends at the Ronald McDonald House in Milwaukee, Wis., in 2023, when one of their children spent several weeks in a residential program helping with OCD. While the family sometimes felt guilty using the space when their child wasn’t being treated for anything life-threatening, they knew that they would not have been able to afford the visits without the use of the Ronald McDonald House.  

“In addition to an affordable place to sleep, the Ronald McDonald House had things for the kids to do that helped eliminate costs for entertaining them while visiting. There was an arcade, toy room, giant Legos area, movies and planned events. The community kitchen also allowed us to meet with other parents visiting their children in the same program and connect with them.”  

The facility also offered free zoo, museum and Milwaukee Brewer Tickets, though the family never took them up on these. “We felt very cared for,” said Shannon.  

Lechtenberg Family

Even though seven-year-old Lewis Lechtenberg, son of Justin and Karla Lechtenberg of Decorah, and his family never stayed at the Ronald McDonald House during his five years of treatment for a rare brain cancer called Anaplastic Ependymoma, they are huge supporters of the RMH. 

“We have friends we’ve met through Mayo who’ve utilized the house. We know it makes a difference,” explained Karla. 

The Lechtenbergs have been delivering tabs to the Ronald McDonald House in Rochester two-to-three times a year since 2018. Many of the tabs come from the congregation at Decorah Lutheran Church where the family belongs. 

Instead of tossing that tab in the trash, think about saving it. Tabs add up and make a difference in someone’s life. Locally, tabs can be dropped off at Decorah Lutheran Church, Waukon Lions Club, Village Farm and Home in Waukon, Knotty Marie’s Bar, Dorchester,  Hesper Lutheran Church, and at Driftless Multimedia (110 Washington St., Decorah).

Five-year-old Rhett Einck of Decorah is pictured at Ronald McDonald House in Rochester, Minn., where he stayed during his treatments for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.

About Ronald McDonald House Charities Midwest MN, WI, IA

Ronald McDonald House Charities Midwest MN, WI, IA and the Ronald McDonald House in Rochester provide a “home away from home” and support to families seeking medical care for their children at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. The 70-room house is the largest Ronald McDonald House in the state of Minnesota, the 13th largest in the country (out of 184), and the 18th largest in the world (387).

Since its beginnings as Northland House—a 12-bedroom home started by four Rochester-area families—RMHC Midwest MN, WI, IA built a new building (1995) and expanded that building twice (2004, 2019), all to meet the growing needs of families from around the state, the Midwest, the United States and the world.

The RMHC organization also provides financial support through grants to local organizations in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa. Governed by a volunteer Board of Trustees, RMHC Midwest | MN, WI, IA is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and has been in operation since 1980. 

For more information, visit www.RMHCMidwestMWI.org.

“It’s a small effort that makes a big impact!”

– Matt Sweeney

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Alison Flack
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4 months ago

The Matt Sweeney Benefit Ride and tabs has been an amazing thing to bring communities together for a good thing of helping people. I hope it keeps going and getting bigger and better. I’m sure Matt would love that and will be riding along on every ride from Heaven.