PEORIA — The Ronald McDonald House near Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago provided tremendous support and comfort to Adam and Christine Simmons while their infant son, Bowden, fought and lost a six-month battle with cancer in 2016.
Today the Ronald McDonald House is still providing comfort as the pair work through the grief. They are both deeply involved in the effort to bring a Ronald McDonald House to Peoria.
“It’s been so helpful putting our focus and energy into something that will help others,” said Adam Simmons while touring the construction site Monday morning with Julie Locke, co-chair of the capital campaign and a board member for the Peoria Ronald McDonald House. “At one of the first meetings we went to we were asked to share our story. I got up and talked, and I got emotional. Someone said ‘a thing like that could break a man.’ I’m not broken anymore, though I still have my rough days.”
While he spoke, Simmons stood in a family suite dedicated to his son. The house will contain 22 of the little suites, each with a living room, separate bedroom and bath. Bowden’s suit is one of five “hero suites” honoring special individuals or groups. Bowden’s mother is choosing the decor for the room, and plans to include a caricature of Bowden. The Simmons had the cartoon drawn during an outing to Navy Pier late in the course of Bowden’s treatment. They asked the artist to draw their son as a superhero with the help of photographs and a quick look at their Bowden, who was in a stroller covered with a blanket.
“Bowden was doing so well he was released from the hospital, and Navy Pier was just three or four blocks, so we took him out in the stroller and had a nice night out,” said Simmons. “The caricature really captured his personality — he was never not smiling. He was just the happiest kid.”
Later that night Bowden spiked a fever, and several weeks later, at the age of 9 months and 11 days, he died.
The heartbroken couple, who had been living in Naperville, moved back home to central Illinois with their 2-year-old daughter Harper. Looking for a way to give back and honor their son, they soon learned about efforts to bring a Ronald McDonald House to Peoria.
“I was the one who originally contacted Ronald McDonald Charities to bring a house here,” said Locke, whose son, Dax, died in 2009 of acute myeloid leukemia, the same cancer Bowden had. “Five years ago I said I was gonna build something if someone else didn’t.”
The Lockes had stayed in a Ronald McDonald House in Memphis in 2008 and 2009 when Dax was treated at St. Jude Hospital.
“We were so blown away by what we saw in Memphis, I said ‘why isn’t there one here?’” said Locke.
Adam and Christine Simmons met Locke for the first time for lunch at Granite City Food & Brewery in the summer of 2017. They immediately bonded over their shared experience and goal.
“We were meant to be together for this project,” said Locke. “They were the first people that joined our committee — global had already approved that we could build.”
There was still a lot of work to be done — a site had to be found and a fundraising campaign launched. Today the effort has achieved more than 80% of the goal, with about $1.5 million left to raise. And the house is taking shape. It’s due to open at the end of November, with a grand opening celebration scheduled for Dec. 16.
“This is where the guest kitchen will be for groups to come in and cook for families,” said Simmons while walking through the first floor of the four-story building. “It was amazing, the groups that came in and made every lunch and dinner. And if you came home late at night, there was leftovers you could re-heat. It was very comforting.”
The seating area will feature a long table where families sit together and discuss the day’s events. A few smaller tables are also available for couples who don’t have the energy to talk.
“The kitchen quickly becomes the life-force of the house,” said Simmons, who lived in the Chicago Ronald McDonald House for about five months. “It’s where you share victories and comfort on rough days.”
The house will also have toy rooms for both patients and their siblings, laundry facilities, and day services for family members who aren’t staying in the house.
“They can come in and take a shower and eat,” said Locke.
The house is projected to serve about 700 families in the first year.
Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.