"You have to be very sensitive to people's needs."
Anita Huber (60) hosts families in unusually difficult situations. She runs the Ronald McDonald Houses in Geneva. They enable parents to live only a three-minute walk away from the university hospital while their children are undergoing treatment there. The House's manager takes care of administration and comforts the families in difficult moments.
Ronald McDonald is not only the mascot of the eponymous restaurant chain. The clown also serves as the symbol of Ronald McDonald House Charities. In Switzerland, the Ronald McDonald Kinderstiftung runs several of the so-called "Houses." Ronald McDonald Houses are located close to hospitals and provide the parents of sick children a place to live. In 1974, the family of an American football player experienced first-hand the importance of this physical proximity. His daughter was suffering from leukemia. The team held a large-scale fund drive for a temporary home – a campaign for which McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc doubled every dollar donated. Ronald McDonald House Charities was born.
Anita Huber has been running the first Ronald McDonald House in Switzerland since 1994. It is located in Geneva. She hails from the hilly and rural region southeast of Zurich and moved to French-speaking Switzerland in 1981, where she worked as a managerial assistant for McDonald’s and switched to the Children's Foundation following some time off. There are now other Houses in Bern, St. Gallen, Basel, Bellinzona, and Lucerne. In 2011, a second House was set up in Geneva, with Anita Huber in charge. The two Houses have a total of ten rooms, each one either with its own bathroom and a shared kitchen or its own kitchen and a shared bathroom on each level. The 60-year-old tells us why she still invests her blood, sweat, and tears in the job even after almost 25 years.
Ms. Huber, you call yourself the "Mother" of the Ronald McDonald Houses in Geneva. Why?
We are, of course, a temporary home for families in difficult circumstances. Unlike a hotel, we are not concerned with managing reservations and checking in our guests properly. Instead, we focus on supporting and listening to the parents, siblings, grandparents, and so on. We have a cup of coffee with them and chat with them so their minds are filled with other thoughts.
So, you are a sort of psychologist or minister?
Whenever I see somebody having a really difficult time, then I try to engage them in conversation. And when I notice that the person would rather be alone, then I, of course, accept that. In this job, you have to be very sensitive to people's needs.
The House is open around the clock, but you only employ one assistant. How do you do it?
We divide up our working days. For example, whenever I am not here on the weekend, the families can call my private number anytime. That rarely happens, however. In addition, every floor of our Houses has an emergency phone set up in partnership with Securitas security services. It has never been used.
Do you know how many families you have housed since you opened in 1994?
Yes, exactly 2,521, and roughly 85 percent of those were Swiss families. The actual number of overnight stays is approximately one-third higher, however, because families sometimes need to stay with us more than once. That might be for a check-up or because of a chronic illness. I see some families every six months. "Unfortunately," you almost have to say.
A certain distance also does the parents good, by the way, especially those who have to stay several months.
How was the new offering received at the time?
At the Geneva university hospital, they first needed to realize what purpose we serve. However, they quickly learned to appreciate what we have to offer because the parents are nearby – on call, so to speak – but they are not constantly sitting directly in their child's hospital room. Today, the hospital actively makes the families aware that we are available. After all, it is scientifically proven that having the parents close by contributes to the child's healing. Nevertheless, a certain distance also does the parents good, especially those who have to stay several months.
What arrangements do families make when their children have to spend a long time in the hospital?
Those families who can count on grandparents or friends to take care of the brothers and sisters are fortunate. So are those whose employers are generous and allow them to take time off under the right circumstances. Sometimes, the mothers are left alone because the fathers have to go back to work. In cases like that, female friends are also welcome in our House.
The Ronald McDonald Children's Foundation in Switzerland publishes testimonials from parents. One mother, who was a guest at the House in Lucerne, wrote the following: "On November 6, 2014, our twins, Vincent and Laurin, were born – a full 11 weeks prematurely. Weighing approximately one kilogram, they had to be put in an incubator and placed on a respirator. For us, it was a time of fearfulness and hoping. After a week, I was told to leave the hospital – without my babies. Unfortunately, there is no way to spend the night in the neonatal ward. So, I was eternally grateful that I was able to move into a room at the Ronald McDonald House near the hospital. The House was my home for more than ten weeks. Besides the proximity to my children, the ability to talk to other mothers in similar situations was soothing in times full of uncertainty."
Ms. Huber, how much do stories like that touch you?
Normally, I am able to distance myself relatively well. Cases that I am repeatedly confronted with are difficult. Those are the families who have to visit us over and over. Sometimes the diagnosis is good, other times it's not good. Situations like that are terribly grueling. Then I suffer with the family.
Is there any case that you recall in particular?
There was one family who spent a year and a half worrying about their oldest daughter, who had cancer. However, the parents only had a six-month visa and were always fighting to get into the country. They left their three-year-old daughter at home with her grandmother. When they finally returned home for good, their little girl was five. On top of that, her big sister died. It was a sad story. Fortunately, the outcome for our families is good most of the time. Premature babies and children suffering from cancer have much better chances today. What's more, hospital stays for many diseases have gotten much shorter.
Do you keep in touch with the families? Do you even become friends?
Those are exceptions. Most families are happy when they can simply go back home and forget this chapter in their lives. Some of them still stop by when they are in the area. A young man once came to the door. Several years before, he had had a skiing accident and was suffering from amnesia. He wanted to understand what his parents did back then when he was lying in intensive care.
Cases that I am repeatedly confronted with are difficult. Those are the families who have to visit us over and over.
The families are grateful for the opportunity to stay with you for a modest amount. How do you cover your costs?
Families pay 20 Swiss francs per night and have to keep their rooms in order. That only covers a fraction of our costs. For the lion's share, we depend on donations, which come from the change collected at McDonald’s restaurants, for example. As the long-standing House manager, I have good contacts in the region. I have gotten to know many donors, both big and small, and have received proceeds from the raffle held during a private football tournament more than once. Finally, the families themselves find a way to express their gratitude. Some set up collecting pots for their children's birthday instead of accepting presents. I am especially pleased whenever the girl or boy then personally delivers the money that was collected.