By Gary Wright
Reprinted by permission from Schuster Media Group
My introduction to Family House came quite literally out of thin air. It was June 30, 1999. After several days in Colorados breathtaking high country, our family was to spend the night in Colorado Springs before flying back to Peoria the next day.
My wifes heart attack that evening changed everything.
A medical crisis is stress enough. To have it detonate hundreds of miles from home is positively numbing. My son and I followed the ambulance through a tangle of darkened streets to an unfamiliar hospital. We sat through the explanations and the diagrams and the disbelief, then tried to rest overnight in the coarse fluorescence of the Coronary Intensive Care waiting room.
Once my wifes condition stabilized, we were confronted with some practical details. For example, we would be here for a week. Where would we stay? Was there a hotel nearby? The answer was Stearman House. This neatly kept, 50s era home is maintained through the good graces and charitable contributions of benefactors who have surely walked a few miles in someone elses shoes. It is situated on the edge of the hospital property, a five-minute walk to the ICU. It offers six bedrooms up and two down, with all the comforts of home. All this at a fraction of the cost of an economy motel.
This personal experience with a hospital hospitality house resonated deeply. Since my Colorado ordeal had made me a constituent, I quickly accepted the opportunity to serve on Peorias Family House board last year.
Built in 1894 as a private home by industrial magnate Peter Spurck, Family House is an imposing, 8100-square-foot Victorian architectural treasure. The soaring, four-story red stone exterior seems to have anticipated the homes lofty 20th century mission of providing low-cost accommodations and emotional ballast to families of patients in Peoria hospitals and nursing homes. The $15 per-night guest room cost has not increased in 10 years.
What began as a project of the Junior League of Peoria, with support from the three city hospitals, became a reality in 1985 when Family House, 1509 N. Knoxville Avenue, opened its doors to the first resident. Family House offers 14 guest rooms, six bathrooms, a private apartment, four living room/lounges, kitchens, laundry and playroom. The homes gracious appointments include rich oak woodwork, elegant marble fireplaces, and original stained glass windows. A survivor of the relentless commercial progress along North Knoxville Avenue, Family House exudes permanence, serenity and stability. Fittingly, this is precisely the right prescription for out-of-towners who have been wrested from their own homes when a loved one is hospitalized in Peoria.
But Family House is much more than a $15-a-night room. Its an emotional mooring point where people with common experiences can bond and commiserate. Its a 24-hour refuge with free hospital shuttle service and a dedicated staff ready to provide assistance. And yes, its an escape. A welcome reprieve from the sterile, clinical, urgent and chaotic grasp of the hospital environment. Caregivers need a period of solitude and reflection. They need a chance to regenerate, interact with people who are not patients, project and process their own concerns and anxieties. Family House gives them the private space they seek when they want to pull back. And emotional support when its time for them to reach out. Residents may stay for a night or two, or much longer, depending on the patients medical situation. One lady made Family House her home for ten months.
Guests embark on two journeys when they check into Family House. The first is that anxious trek from their own homes to face the uncertainties of a loved ones hospitalization in Peoria. The second is an inward journey into self. It leads to reflection, evaluation, and a quest for regained equilibrium. Because the Family House mission transcends simply providing low-cost lodging, it is a destination where the rigors of both journeys can be softened.
Executive Director Peggy Murphy says Family House room occupancy averaged 85% last year. Roomers are mostly from Illinois and neighboring states, but Family House has welcomed visitors from 26 states, including such far-flung locations as Texas, California, Alaska and Hawaii. In the year 2000, Family House hosted 1350 residents representing 788 families. Fifty percent of these are attending children who are receiving medical treatment at Peoria hospitals. Cardiac care patients families account for 28% of the roomers. Patients also come from afar to receive care for neurosurgery, general surgery, trauma, premature births and other preemie problems.
Operating and staff expenses are an unpleasant reality even for non-profit organizations. Family House is able to sustain operations thanks to the selfless contributions of a core group of private and corporate benefactors. A major annual fundraising event is the Carolyn Mannlein Memorial 5K race. Ms. Mannlein was a dedicated volunteer in Family House’s formative years. This years event, held May 19 at the Clubs at River City, attracted 300 participants including 190 runners, and netted more than $16,000. Other organizations, like the Phi Gamma Delta Fraternity at Bradley University (see sidebar) give of their time with special events and efforts to fuel the continuing mission. The Family House crusade will endure as long as hospitals admit patients.
Among the challenges that lie ahead is how to respond to an Illinois Department of Transportation project that will reconfigure Knoxville Avenue to accommodate the overhaul of I-74. The construction will virtually eliminate the homes front yard and sharply reduce access and egress options.
The Knoxville project could be providential. With consistently high occupancy rates and pinched property boundaries, it will be increasingly difficult to deliver the Family House formula to all who deserve it. The board of directors is considering various relocation and building options. Whatever the outcome, the basic imperatives must be met: low-cost lodging, proximity to the hospitals, resident comfort, privacy and safety.
As a Peoria area resident, you most likely will never use the services of Family House. But you can be proud that your community, like Colorado Springs and so many others around the country, has recognized and embraced the concept of the hospital hospitality house. To more than 1300 guests last year alone, Family House represents the very best of Peoria.