Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) While the Ronald McDonald House of Missoula has provided “hope, heroes and high-fives” to families dealing with childhood cancer and disease for nearly a decade, on Thursday night, it turned the page with a raucous night of music to raise funds for the organization.

The sold-out event, held at The Wilma, also shined a warm light on the personal stories of survival and the challenges families face while watching their children endure what can be a grueling stretch of medical care.

“There's difficult days, but we get to see so much good happening every single day,” Amy Peterson said backstage during the event. “It's beautiful to watch these families. When they come to us they're beat, broken, hurting and scared. But once they stay with us, we develop these incredible relationships. They become family.”

Peterson, the CEO of the Ronald McDonald House of Western Montana – located on the Community Medical Center Campus in Missoula – started with the organization in 2015, not long after her own 6-year-old nephew died of cancer.

The child's 14-month battle introduced Peterson to the organization in Denver and prompted her to join the upstart Missoula program. Originally from Billings, she had no experience in the nonprofit sector, and no experience fundraising. She didn't know anyone in Missoula other than her sister.

But she did have a story and she knew the power of helping families that are experiencing a challenging time.

“It's been an incredible opportunity to turn something so hard into something so good,” said Peterson. “Since I arrived in 2015, we've quadrupled in size, in fundraising and in the services we provide. Now we're doing things like this (event). But there's always more to do, more support and more programs we can provide.”

Stories of hope

The Ronald McDonald House in Missoula broke ground in 2018 on the expansion and renovation of its former home, which had become dated and worn with use. The $3.1 million project was finished the following year.

Amy Peterson, the chief executive officer for the Ronald McDonald House of Western Montana, has overseen the home's operation since 2015. But she became personally familiar with the program in 2008 when her nephew was diagnosed with neuroblastoma. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

Leading up to the project, the need for the program's services had already pushed it beyond its capacity. It had to turn away 72 families before the expansion due to a lack of space. But the new facility now offers nearly 3,000 additional room stays each year in the home's 12 rooms.

Andy English, the grandfather of Olivia Armerding – an 8-year-old hospital patient who played a starring role in Thursday night's fundraiser – praised the organization for helping his family over the past several years.

Olivia, born with Hydro Encephalitis, underwent her first surgery at just nine days old. Since then, she has undergone 20 different surgeries and eight trips on Life Flight to Seattle, some on a moment's notice.

“It was a tough time. You're searching for answers, but there are no answers. You have to stay positive and keep the faith,” said English. “It was a rough go – a very scary go.”

But the ordeal came with more than heartache and watching the girl go through so many grueling surgeries. It was also hard on the family.

“We're all crammed in the hospital room. You have nowhere to go. You have to eat fast food and eat out of the vending machine. You have no place to shower. I was sleeping on the floor on the tile, sometimes without a pillow. But you get so tired, you just fall asleep,” he said.

But English said the Ronald McDonald House helped bring some ease to an otherwise difficult time. Sometimes a bed, warm food and a shower can lift spirits.

“It truly is an amazing cause, and it makes a big difference for a lot of families going through a very tough time,” he said. “A lot of us don't ever think about it. But Ronald McDonald puts a bright light on the whole situation.”

A helping hand

Even with its renovation and expansion, the local Ronald McDonald House has been running full for over a year, and it currently has a waiting list. It's also working to cover the cost of the services it provides – an effort that received a boost on Thursday night.

Roughly 250 Montana families have turned to the home in the past year. Families that stay at the facility during their child's treatment can make a suggested $25 donation each night, but no one is turned away, even if they cannot contribute. Still, it costs the facility $125 a night to house a family, leaving a gap that fundraising must fill.

The home also relies upon community volunteers to cook a warm dinner each night for the home's guests in its "Meals from the Heart" program.

“One of the biggest things in our world is the meals,” said Peterson. “Parents going through something so horrific don't often take the time to eat. A lot of those families wouldn't eat if we didn't have the volunteers coming and cooking meals.”

Lizzy, another survivor and former guest of the Ronald McDonald House, said the organization made a difference in her life. She gave back on Thursday night by singing a rendition of “Rainbow.”

“I'm here because the Ronald McDonald House wrapped me up in warmth and hope when my family and I needed it the most,” she said. “The house and the services it provides are sunny spots on the darkest days.”

Peterson said the organization works to raise $300,000 each year and on Thursday, it sought to raise around $50,000. To do so, it received the help of Keys on Main from Seattle and Salt Lake City in a dueling piano show that, once the drinks began to flow, had attendees dancing between tables.

As it turned out, Aaron Buckner, a pianist and member of Keys on Main, had met Olivia in Seattle during one of those hospital trips. It was Olivia's birthday – a birthday spent away from home – and Buckner visited her hospital room to play a special rendition of Happy Birthday, complete with a balloon bouquet.

“We are warm beds instead of parents sleeping in hospital waiting areas. We are nutritious, home-cooked meals instead of moms and dads eating out of vending machines. We are hot showers. Sometimes that's the only place a mom can go to break down and cry. But most of all, we're a support system for these families,” Peterson said.