When Beth Salusso was 29 weeks pregnant and had a hemorrhage, she was airlifted from Butte to Missoula for emergency care. She spent five days in the hospital when doctors recommended she stay at the Ronald McDonald House for the rest of her term.

While there, Salusso met Jessica Janecke, also of Butte, who was diagnosed with placenta accreta. The doctors said she couldn't go home and moved her to the Ronald McDonald House. The two expecting mothers and their families became fast friends at the facility, which provides family programming and lodging during health care emergencies.

“We leaned on each other for support,” said Salusso. “We're so thankful for the Ronald McDonald House. It gave us a little normalcy in this hard, difficult time.”

The Ronald McDonald House in Missoula joined forces with Community Medical Center, the AbbVie corporation and the Jane Heman Foundation on Monday to break ground on a $2.7 million expansion of the facility.

The project will double the size of the current house and add eight new family suites, enough to accommodate 2,920 additional room stays a year. For a facility that turned 72 families away during their time of need last year for lack of room, the expansion came as welcome news.

“We won't turn a family away for their inability to pay,” said Beth Clark, board president of the Ronald McDonald House. “But we often experience more and more the heartbreak of putting a family on a wait list or turning them away because we don't have room.”

The organization's partnership with Community Medical Center will also provide a separate wing to support and house the families of adult cancer patients undergoing care at the hospital's adjacent cancer center.

Dr. Dean French, CEO of Community Medical Center, said the hospital's staff are often confronted with families who have no place to stay during a loved one's treatment, or who drive long distances to receive care.

“When a family is confronted with a child who has the needs of our facility, our doctors, our nurses and our therapists, we daily barrage them with difficult choices and words they don't understand, and there's a lot of not knowing,” French said. “When they came and said they'd like to expand, we breathed a sigh of relief. This was one of our easiest decisions.”

Monday's ceremonial groundbreaking was supercharged by several recent gifts, including a $957,000 donation from AbbVie, a research-based pharmaceutical firm. The firm is gifting $100 million to 32 Ronald McDonald Houses across the U.S. and went in big on the Missoula facility.

The gift helps the project reach 82 percent of its capital campaign.

“This is the largest gift ever given by AbbVie, the largest gift ever received by Ronald McDonald Charities, and this house is one of only 32 out of 365 chapters worldwide receiving funds,” said Roger Welshans, chairman of the capital campaign committee. “When they got in and got involved, like I did, you get captured by what this organization means and what it does.”

Several dozen people, many familiar with the Ronald McDonald House's programs, endured a cold rain to attend Monday's ceremonial groundbreaking of the facility's $2.7 expansion. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)
Several dozen people, many familiar with the Ronald McDonald House's programs, endured a cold rain to attend Monday's ceremonial groundbreaking of the facility's $2.7 expansion. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

The Ronald McDonald House in Missoula serves families from across western Montana and eastern Idaho. It currently provides 2,419 room nights a year, though that will more than double with the expansion.

Amy Peterson, the chief executive officer for the Missoula facility, has overseen the home's operation since since 2015. But she became personally familiar with the program in 2008 when her nephew was diagnosed with neuroblastoma.

While he didn't survive, the experience changed her life.

“Our lives were suddenly flipped upside down,” said Peterson. “During his diagnosis, he endured 14 grueling months away from home, undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment. What they gave us that nobody else in the world can give is compassion and the community that comes with it. They brought us together when it felt like everything else was falling apart.”

While AbbVie provided the largest single gift to the expansion project, the effort receive a significant boost from other local and regional donors, including a $650,000 contribution from the Jane S. Heman Foundation.

Bob Thomas, a foundation trustee, described Heman as a Stevensville philanthropist who was frugal when it came to personal spending but generous when it came to the needs of others.

“Jane's goal was to leave a legacy that could help people long after she was gone,” Thomas said. “She believed in education and health care, and that guides our board with the decisions we make today. We constantly remind ourselves that we're only facilitators for her caring and her forward thinking.”