The staff of the Ronald McDonald House Northland in Duluth is ready to welcome the first families in need into its care. The space officially opened Wednesday with the capacity to host up to five families at a time.

“We’re ready to go and we’re eager to serve as soon as there’s that need,” said program manager Tara Gallagher.

The Ronald McDonald House is on the fourth floor of 503 E. Third St., next to the Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center. Families who stay there are given access to a private bedroom and bathroom, free laundry facilities, a full kitchen and lounge area, plus nine meals per week and a pantry stocked with assortments of foods.

The space is part of the Ronald McDonald House Charities-Upper Midwest chapter, which also includes the Ronald McDonald Houses in the Twin Cities. It will serve children and their families from all over northern Minnesota, plus Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The facility will also be available for children visiting the Northland who need emergency medical attention.

Amy Ament, chief operating officer of the Upper Midwest chapter, said the space can be used to serve families for something as simple as a place to stop in for a cup of coffee, or it can serve as their home away from home for weeks, months or even years, because every child’s circumstances are different. Services are completely free to the families.

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“Nobody expects to go through any of this, and to be able to provide people with free lodging and food and other services at a time when their world is upside down is the least that we can do,” said Jill Evenocheck, president and chief executive officer of the Upper Midwest chapter.

Any child receiving medical care in the Twin Ports can be eligible to stay at the Ronald McDonald House. Gallagher said interested families should talk to their social workers about the steps to take, even if they don’t think they would be eligible for care.

“They’re an encyclopedia of tools and resources, and we’re just one of the many tools and resources that they can use to help support the families,” she said.

Social workers will also manage the wait list for the five rooms, which will be prioritized by the severity of the child’s medical needs.

Because of the pandemic, in-person volunteer opportunities aren’t currently available, but people can still help in the following ways:

  • Donate to the Ronald McDonald House Amazon Smile wish list, which is updated in real time.

  • Contact the Essentia Health Foundation about giving monetary or estate donations.

  • Silverware bundles (disposable fork, spoon and knife wrapped in a napkin and tied with a ribbon) or snack packs (gallon zip-close bags with assorted, nut-free snacks) can be donated. Contact the space about drop-off instructions.

  • Save your pop tabs and donate them to Ronald McDonald House.

Essentia Health Chief Executive Officer Dr. David Herman said the creation of the Ronald McDonald House solidified during plans for the Vision Northland project.

“There is tremendous pediatric care that takes place at Essentia Health and in Duluth in general, and we knew that families really need that kind of support and that type of service,” Herman said. “We knew that we would be remiss if we did not build a Ronald McDonald House in the plans.”

However, they didn’t want to wait until 2023 for it to open with the rest of Vision Northland. The grand opening of the space was originally planned for November 2020, but unexpected factors like delays in equipment and unknown problems with the 96-year-old building pushed it back.

The delay might’ve worked in their favor. Rev. Stacey Jutila, director of Chaplaincy Services at St. Mary’s, dropped by to give the space a blessing Wednesday afternoon and shared that the grand opening fell on St. Scholastica’s feast day.

The building was used by St. Mary’s nuns at the Benedictine Health Center before the Ronald McDonald House Northland moved in on the third floor. Jutila acknowledged that they will be serving families of all beliefs and backgrounds, but still felt the coincidence was significant.

“What a wonderful and positive energy to have in a building,” Gallagher said.

Herman, who has been on the organization's charity board for more than two decades, said the best part about the RMH is the community it gives families in their times of need and after.

“It’s young families that have children and they’re at some of the most vulnerable times of their lives,” Herman said. “Pulling the resources, the support, the caring, the loving that comes with the Ronald McDonald House is incredibly important to any community that cares for children.”

Evenocheck said even though the pandemic has been a terrible event, it has helped them implement even more efficient policies to protect the compromised children and keep their facilities safe.

“May this house be a sign of hope and a reminder that a wide net of love and support surrounds each family whose child is receiving care,” Jutila said in her blessing. “May the house that love built be a beacon of hope on this hillside and in this community.”