Twin Cities charity marks 25 years of service

Patricia Drey

At one point during his childhood struggle with leukemia, University student Jerrad Bergren came so close to death that he received last rites.

Despite facing death and vomiting “nonstop” during heavy chemotherapy treatments, reflecting back, Bergren said his four-year battle with cancer was one of the best times of his life.

The experience taught him to cherish life and showed that many people are willing to help during tough times, he said.

While Bergren spent much of his time at a hospital, his family lived at the nearby Minneapolis Ronald McDonald House, located at 621 Oak St. S.E. in Prospect Park.

The Minneapolis house is celebrating its 25th birthday this year.

What began as an eight-room boarding house with one shared bathroom is now a 48-bedroom complex with a gym, library, computer lab and private bathrooms.

Bergren, who was diagnosed with cancer at age 10 and relapsed at age 12, said his family was amazed by the services and support it received at the house.

“It meant the world to us when we stayed there,” Bergren said. “We almost kind of missed being there, because it was just a lot of fun.”

Since his experience, Bergren said he has been determined to study medicine at the University – so determined that he did not even apply to other schools.

Bergren, a first-year student who hopes to become a chiropractor, still returns to the house, now as a volunteer. After five cancer-free years, he is considered cured, he said.

Barb Haluptzok, whose 3-year-old BryAnna is awaiting a kidney transplant, said she hopes for a similar result – a cured child – and the chance to return to the Ronald McDonald House as a volunteer.

The first-grade teacher took a two-year leave of absence from her job and moved, along with her husband and 5-year-old son, from a town of approximately 200, just north of Bemidji, Minn.

Because Haluptzok’s daughter BryAnna had one cancerous kidney removed and the other one does not work, she goes through four-hour dialysis treatments four times per week.

The family’s initial expectation of spending two weeks at the house became 10 months, and it now expects to stay until BryAnna gets a transplant.

“When you’re put in the situation, you just deal with it,” Haluptzok said. “You’ll do anything for your child.”

Living at the house at times has made the reality that children die more obvious, she said.

On the house’s playground, bricks with inscriptions dedicated to children who died lead up to a playhouse. They also line the house’s sidewalks, showing that not every child leaves cured.

Some families spend their last days with their children at the playground and return there on the anniversary of their children’s deaths, marketing and communications director Tony Saputo said.

The multitude of services available to families at the house – everything from a K-12 school to free haircuts, meals and cleaning supplies – on top of providing a place to stay, helps the charity meet its goal of allowing families to focus solely on helping their sick children get well, Saputo said.

Since April 2002, when the house added 15 rooms, its waiting-list typically has cleared within one to two days, Saputo said.

Families are asked to pay $15 per night to stay in the house, if they can, although the actual per-night cost to the organization is approximately $80, Saputo said.

The funding gap is met through private and corporate donations, with approximately 15 percent of operations costs coming from the McDonald’s Corp., he said.

Saputo said many University groups serve meals, clean rooms or assist in other ways at the house.

Volunteers from the University’s Department of Recreational Sports have served two meals at the house – an experience that benefited house residents and volunteers.

“It kind of puts the daily stuff we go through here in perspective,” said Susie Koza, a recreational sports facilities manager.

“A bad day here is nothing. Some of those people are going through far worse times, and it just kind of helps just to gain a little more perspective on what’s really important.”