Each month one member of our Mother’s Group arranges a night out, a catch up strictly for Mums only. Sometimes we go out for dinner, or it might be Indian takeaway. Future plans include the movies, yum cha and a rather unlikely but terribly decadent day at the spa.
The other night we went to McDonalds for dinner. Not only did we eat there, but we cooked as well.
Before you throw your arms up and deride us for cutting down virgin forest in South America to grow cows, let me explain.
Most of you would be familiar with the concept of Ronald McDonald House. Many of the major children’s hospitals in the country have one, and they are designed as a home away from home for the families of sick kids who are undergoing treatment at hospital. Most of us know they exist, but if you are like me and have never had a seriously ill child, you would probably have never set foot in one.
The Ronald McDonald House at PMH in Perth is not just a suburban house with a few extra bedrooms. It is a colourful compound with self-contained units, a playground, toddlers TV room, teenagers retreat and a kitchen big enough for the dozens of families which may be staying at any one time.
The weekend house manager told us that sometimes the diagnosis of a sick child can happen so fast that parents don’t even have time to pack a toothbrush. If they are a rural or remote family, they are sent to the nearest airfield and arrive in Perth, disoriented, probably frightened and sometimes thousands of kilometres from home and family. The last thing parents want to be worrying about after a day in hospital with their sick baby is what to cook for dinner for themselves, and often, their other children who have also been uprooted from friends and school, from their normal lives.
This is where the Make A Meal Program comes in. Almost every night of the week, every week of the year, a group of people come in and cook a meal for all the families staying at Ronald McDonald House. These are not professional cooks and it’s probably more like an episode of It’s A Knockout than MasterChef. We were a group of Mums on their night out. Following us that week would be a school group, a group of friends, a family group, a women’s business group and one of the Perth professional sporting teams.
The Perth Make A Meal Program is the most successful program in Australia, and so popular there is a two month waiting list just to get a place. The volunteers must provide all the ingredients for a two course meal, with different main options. If the house is full, this could easily cost $250. Our group of 6 put on two massive meatloaves, two vegetarian quiches, two sweet potato frittatas, an enormous salad, and two huge chocolate self-saucing puddings with double cream. All up our shopping bill was around $120.
We turned up at the house around 4.15pm and immediately set to work. The six of us have been friends for years but we had never cooked together. Jo, who arranged the night was super organised, and had not only provided each of us with shopping lists costing around $20, but also photocopied multiple recipes and organised us into groups to tackle each dish. Half of us had brought along a bottle of wine, and by quarter to six we had settled down with a glass of something fruity and a packet of TimTams while the dinner cooked.
This was not meant to be a sombre night. We had a ball and met some fantastic people. By quarter past six families had started arriving in the dining room, and minutes later one of our group was cuddling a newborn and chatting with the parents. Dinner was ready by 6.30pm and after everyone had served themselves, we heaped our plates and went to join the families in the dining room. Even though there was the inevitable awkwardness not always knowing what questions to ask, and the sadness knowing each of these families had a seriously ill child a few hundred metres up the road, ultimately we were all parents and we talked about our favourite topic – our children.
After the families had dispersed, the dishes were stacked in the dishwasher, and the leftovers labelled and bundled into the communal fridge, the manager came to thank us. Not all groups end up sitting with the families and eating their dinner, they cluster in the kitchen and don’t mingle, he told us. He was especially grateful that we moved so freely with the families. I’d like to pretend that it was easy to do, but I am sure in the back of my mind I was afraid that the guilt and relief that I felt – because I was able to go home that night, that my children were healthy and safe and tucked up in bed - would be plastered across my forehead like a neon light.
I doubt the families even think about this. It’s arrogant to assume there would be any sort of resentment. Everyone we spoke with, and most of those we didn’t, had smiles on their faces. Many approached us after dinner to thank us. A group settled down in front of the television, many headed off to bed. It could have been any house in Australia, except this one was a little larger, a bit more special. Obviously I couldn’t see into the private rooms of the families any more than I could see into their hearts, and I am sure there is a lot of pain and grief and anger. I am sure that sometimes the emotions are not private at all, and they shouldn’t have to be.
But that night, for us anyway, Ronald McDonald House felt like a happy place. I am proud that we were able to make even a small contribution. If cooking meatloaf for a couple of dozen strangers doesn’t rock your boat, then I am sure there are other ways to help. If I had any feedback to the organisers of the Make A Meal Program it would simply be to make available a copy of the menus that had been provided over the previous few weeks, just so we were not unknowingly dishing up the same BBQ or Sticky Date Pudding that families had endured three times in the same week.
Later that night, I stopped and watched my daughters as they slept soundly in their bed and cot. I’m not the sort that prays regularly, but I am always willing to acknowledge how grateful I am for what I have. And that night it was fierce gratitude that my children are healthy but also the comfort in knowing that if circumstances changed, there would be a place like Ronald McDonald House just up the road.