Growing the blessing

Published On 07/27/2017

Le Bonheur families find a home at growing FedExFamilyHouse

Eighteen-year-old Jacob Meek is a fighter, a teen for whom epilepsy has been a constant adversary. He is also an entrepreneur, a smart go-getter who formed his own corporation for his pressure washing business in Baton Rouge, La.

With that business-focused mindset, it’s no wonder the teen notices the cost of a hotel night – and worries about his parents having to spend thousands of dollars on their frequent trips to Memphis for his treatment.

“With a medical rate, the hotel is still $160 a night, which would be insane to spend for six or seven nights,” says Jacob.

Jacob was born with a non-cancerous brain lesion, and his mom, Tiffany, describes his journey as a rollercoaster ride. From brain surgeries to years of seizures and medications, the Meek family routinely traveled to hospitals outside of Baton Rouge for Jacob’s treatment. They’ve come to Le Bonheur’s nationally recognized Neuroscience Institute multiple times a year since 2006.

FFH_MEEKS_Jacob_0125

Thanks to FedExFamilyHouse, neither Jacob nor his parents have to worry about the expense of hotels and meals during their time at Le Bonheur.

Susan Graf, founder of FedExFamilyHouse, understands the burden Jacob feels. As a child, Susan’s brother underwent brain surgery in a hospital 300 miles from home.

“My mother spent three weeks in a walk-up apartment in a bad part of Philadelphia. I’m sure it was really tough on her. It was tough on the whole family. She was in Philadelphia, and we were in Boston. My aunt came to stay with us. It was a hard time for everybody,” Susan said.

To alleviate the burden on families who travel long distances to Le Bonheur, Susan and her husband, FedEx Corp. Executive Vice President and CFO Alan Graf, worked with FedEx and hospital leaders to launch FedExFamilyHouse in 2010. It’s the only facility in Memphis that provides free lodging to families seeking care at Le Bonheur.

Susan Graf and Meri Armour at FedExFamilyHouse

“When families come here, as you can imagine, the parents are pretty stressed,” said Neurosurgeon Rick Boop, MD, co-director of the hospital’s Neuroscience Institute. “Their kid is looking at surgery, they’re looking at complicated therapies, they don’t know whether their child’s going to live or die, and the last thing they need to worry about is: ‘Where am I going to spend the night? How am I going to afford my next meal?’”

FedExFamilyHouse staff and its many community volunteers have considered all the challenges families face and developed ways to support them. When children are airlifted to Le Bonheur, some parents don’t have time to go home and pack a bag. Families receive welcome bags so they don’t have to worry about not having toiletries like toothbrushes and shampoo. 

Volunteers prepare bagged lunches, so family members can pick them up on the way to the hospital for a long day of appointments. Each family has pantry and refrigerator space, so they can prepare a favorite home-cooked meal for their sick child.

“From the beginning, we have always focused on the families and their needs,” said Jeanine Watts, managing director Global Trade Services, FedEx Express.

Watts has served as chair of the FedExFamilyHouse Executive and Advisory Councils, groups committed to supporting the house through fundraising and advocacy.

“We experienced first-hand by volunteering at FedExFamilyHouse the stress and pain on family members as their children are treated at Le Bonheur. Our goal has always been: do whatever we can to relieve the pain and stress,” said Watts.

FedExFamilyHouse is across the street from the hospital, making it easy for families to go back and forth quickly. Cardiologist Rush Waller, MD, often encourages parents to head back to the house for a chance to sleep without the noises of the hospital.

“Having the parents at the child’s bedside reduces the amount a stress a child goes through. The healing process is much better. But for those patients who have a prolonged hospitalization, it’s much more comfortable for the family to have the experience at FedExFamilyHouse. We encourage the family to get rest when a patient’s going through a very difficult time, so they’re better able to care for their child,” Waller said.

Beyond a quiet place to rest after long days at the hospital, FedExFamilyHouse offers families a place to connect with others on similar journeys.

Families connecting at FedExFamilyHouse

Seventeen years after learning her son, Landon, had tuberous sclerosis (TS), a rare genetic disease that causes benign tumors to grow in many parts of the body, Toshia Keaton finally met someone else who understood. While staying at FedExFamilyHouse, the Keatons, who live in South Carolina, met two other families with children who have TS.

“In 17 years, we have never, ever known another child, another person, with this disease,” said Toshia, her voice cracking with emotion. “In coming to Le Bonheur, we met the first people with this disease. I literally cried. We felt so isolated for 17 years. Meeting other people was just heaven-sent.”

A Growing Need

Since FedExFamilyHouse opened in 2010, more than 126,000 family members have stayed at the house. The length of stay ranges from one night to one year.

The growing need for room at the house is linked to the rising national reputation of Le Bonheur. Since 2010, the hospital has gained national recognition on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals list. This recognition is a result of the hospital’s ongoing investments in recruitment, technology and research in its premier programs, including the Heart and Neuroscience institutes.

As the number of families traveling long distances for care at Le Bonheur grows, so does the need for housing. FedExFamilyHouse is often at 100 percent capacity. Each month about 30 families are on the waiting list for a room at the house.

Last year, the hospital announced plans to expand the house. A fundraising committee led by

FedEx Corporate Vice President Bob Henning and his wife, former Le Bonheur Club President Denise Henning, launched an ambitious fundraising goal of $12 million. Thanks to the generosity of many individuals and businesses, more than $9 million has been raised. Bob says people have been eager to support the campaign because the mission of FedExFamilyHouse resonates.

“We all have either experienced childhood illness personally, as parents or as friends of others whose child requires hospitalization and medical care,” Bob said. “We all can relate to the emotional stress those circumstances produce. We all understand that in a crisis, a kind word of encouragement and a sense of support and haven are truly priceless.”

The Hennings have supported Le Bonheur for more than 20 years. Their commitment grew stronger as they saw Le Bonheur President Meri Armour’s vision to make Le Bonheur one of the nation’s best children’s hospitals come to fruition.

“We have been blessed with two wonderful, healthy children – Caitlin and Matt – both of whom received care at Le Bonheur, and we see our affiliation with Le Bonheur and FedExFamilyHouse as a way to give back by helping children and families in need,” said Denise.

The expansion will triple the size of FedExFamilyHouse. The addition, which will connect on the north side of the house, includes 20 suites and 31 hotel-style rooms for shorter stays. The courtyard will include a play area for children and additional spaces for families to gather, rest and play. Family members will also be able to use a new fitness room. Designed by local architecture firm Looney Ricks Kiss, the expansion will be complete in late 2018.

FedExFamilyHouse Rendering

It’s a welcome addition for families who frequent the house. Stephanie Stanley says her family has been lucky in that there has always been room at FedExFamilyHouse when they’ve traveled to Memphis. She is excited about the expansion of the facility, so more families can be accommodated during their child’s hospitalization.

“There’s only 24 suites, so getting more rooms for families to stay is a blessing for sure, because I know [FedExFamilyHouse] has been a blessing for us,” she says. “I don’t know what we would have done without them.”

Tiffany Meek says when she’s at the house, she’s reminded that it takes a community to make FedExFamilyHouse possible.

“When you walk around here, and you see plaques on the wall about ‘this room is sponsored by,’ and there’s a certain company, or the FedEx Pilot Wives, or a particular family, an organization – it’s very empowering to know that so many people who don’t even know us care enough to give to support this place.”