When Lisa Hellier’s first-born son passed away, she didn’t realize the impact the Ronald McDonald House would have on her life.
James Hellier was 2 years old when he died in 1996 from a rare genetic illness. His immune system didn’t function properly, so he was more at risk for infections.
The Helliers were from Missouri, but the only home James ever knew was the Ronald McDonald House affiliated with Duke Children’s Hospital & Health Center in Durham, North Carolina.
“He thought he had the biggest house in the world,” Lisa Hellier said.
Hellier remembers the hospital being bleak and hopeless, but the Ronald McDonald House gave her a quiet place to stay, sleep, eat and take her mind off the stress.
“I think my favorite part about the Ronald McDonald House is that the house provides a tangible source of hope,” said Hellier, who is now the administrative assistant at Macon’s Ronald McDonald House. “Because all of the families’ physical and practical needs are met, all of their focus can go to the energy, love and care for the child.”
Hellier, 45, was one of the first advocates for a Ronald McDonald House in Macon. When she and her husband arrived here in 1998, they looked for large homes in the downtown area to start a Ronald McDonald House. After the seed money was raised in 2000, Hellier contacted Bonnie Hopkins, the executive director, about getting involved.
“I wanted to share my story and begin volunteering,” Hellier said. “I spoke at several volunteer organizations and fundraisers and served on the architectural committee to give input of what a family needs during their stay.”
Some of Hellier’s current responsibilities include receiving donations, sending notification cards, coordinating meals and making the schedule for use of the community room.
“I do what needs to be done around here,” Hellier said. “If that means cleaning a room, unloading a dishwasher, checking a family in or giving a tour, I want to help.”
The entire staff at the Ronald McDonald House works that way because the house is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Staff members take turns being on call, covering the late shift and working holidays.
“Business hours do not apply to a child’s needs in a hospital,” Hellier said.
Keysha Smith, the house manager at the Ronald McDonald House, works closely with Hellier.
“Lisa is a former board member and most importantly a former family,” Smith said. “She brings a great perspective from serving in both capacities.”
Every day Hellier comes to work knowing that James’ life mattered and the service the Ronald McDonald House provided her family was valuable.
Hellier now has three sons: 17-year-old Nate, 16-year-old Matthew, and 13-year-old Samuel. The Helliers adopted Nate and Matthew, and Samuel was born healthy. They have been volunteering as a family at the Ronald McDonald House since Samuel was 2.
“It has been a family tradition to give back to the Ronald McDonald House,” Hellier said. “My husband and sons help out with our special events here in Macon, my mother serves the house in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and my sister has worked with one of the houses in Atlanta.”
Every Easter, Hellier and her family are in charge of the meal. They cook, serve and clean up for the families in memoriam to James. Hellier also has several mementos of James in her office and her house.
“James was a huge fan of ‘Sesame Street,’ ” she said. “We have those toys and characters and even VCR tapes of some of the episode specials. However, my favorite is a special blue-gray teddy bear that James had in the last weeks of his life. I keep it in my bedroom.”
Hellier’s dedication to the Ronald McDonald House does not go unnoticed. Lindsey Parker, a part-time worker at the house, said she loves how Hellier is always open about her story.
“She’s an open book, and she is easy to love,” Parker said. “She makes a difference at the Ronald McDonald House by taking the time to ask families how they are and how their children are doing.”
The Center of Collaborative Journalism comprises Mercer University’s journalism and media studies program, The Telegraph and Georgia Public Broadcasting.