Lasagna At The Anti-Hospital

by Maggie Baird | 4/2/15 7:40pm

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Source: Ali Dalton, The Dartmouth Staff

Walking into David’s House for my second visit, it’s difficult to believe I haven’t been here a thousand times. The feeling of home is immediate, almost overwhelming. Three women bustle around the kitchen, making a lasagna that smells like my mother’s, and a three-year-old is paddling around, getting ready to dye Easter eggs.

The women are volunteers from Hanover’s U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory who have come to prepare a home-cooked meal for the residents. They are part of a veritable collection of organizations and people that help make this place possible.

David’s House was founded in 1984 after its namesake, a boy named David Cyr who was treated at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center for leukemia. David was a foster child who was adopted by Dick Cyr. After a series of remissions and a three-and-a-half year battle with the disease, David Cyr died at the age of five. During his frequent visits to the hospital, David’s father, Dick Cyr, met many parents with children staying at the hospital who slept in hospital room chairs because they couldn’t afford long stays at hotels or chose not to leave their children. Cyr saw the need for a house for parents near the hospital, and began fundraising for the project a week later.

Once you know where you’re going, David’s House is impossible to miss. It’s a massive, bright yellow home in the middle of the winding roads that surround the modern hospital. It’s a building built to provide a reprieve from the hospital and for parents to enjoy.

Think of a Ronald McDonald’s House for families at DHMC: David’s House is for anyone who has children receiving treatment at the hospital and needs a place to stay, rest or grab a meal. With its new nursery, David’s House can now cater to families with infants.

Danielle Bernadini is the mother of the young girl who was occupied with food coloring when I met her. Bernadini delivered another daughter at 30 weeks, and she plans on staying at David’s House with her 3-year-old for 10 weeks.

“If [David’s House] was not here, I would not be able to be this close to my child,” she said.

Like those parents that Dick Cyr saw when visiting his son in the hospital more than 20 years ago, Bernadini is unable to afford the expensive hotels in the area and lives more than two hours away from DHMC.

The house has helped nearly 13,000 families since its inception, Georgie Sawyer, the volunteer services manager at the house, said. These figures don’t include day guests, who might come for a shower, a meal, a nap or a “change of pace,” she noted.

There are many communal spaces in the house, including playgrounds and living rooms for families to use. Siblings of the children in treatment, who often need a place to play and escape the hospital during long stays, might make particular use of these group areas.

The house doesn’t take reservations and doesn’t require a fee for its residents, although there is a $20 suggested donation. Parents can submit room requests in advance, but nothing is reserved or confirmed until their arrival.

“Once people are in a room, it’s theirs until they don’t need it anymore,” Sawyer said.

As a result, families — especially new moms who might remain at the hospital for several weeks — have a safe place to return to.

The house doesn’t receive any funding from the government, so it relies on a donor base, as well as gifts from previous guests.

Meals at the house are not a fancy affair, but they are one of most important services at David’s House. “Cook and baker” volunteers come in frequently to cook meals for the residents, and these individuals range from solitary good samaritans to entire sports teams.

It’s important for the house to be a private place that residents can treat like home, so just providing meals is an excellent way to help the residents while also maintaining a distance.

The house also boasts a full pantry filled to the brim with options for families to prepare their own snacks or meals. Each of the rooms also has a box in the fridge and in the cupboards where the families can store anything they need and feel like they’re in their own space.

The volunteers cook off of a menu developed by Healthy Eating Active Living, a DHMC program that created “easy choices” for volunteers to cook and for residents to eat on the go or reheat. David’s House tries to provide healthy meals as often as possible. Residents might not always be thinking about nutrition when grabbing something before heading back to the hospital.

The College’s women’s tennis team frequently volunteers at David’s House and have also held several fundraisers. Back on campus, Bob Dallis, the women’s tennis head coach, told me that parents are “always anxious... to get a decent meal” — by cooking, volunteers can truly help residents.

The team’s chicken stirfry has become something of a favorite. They branched out last term, however, and made turkey meatloaf from the HEAL recipe book.

As Marie Darling, one of the Research and Engineering Laboratory lasagna cooks, said, “When you’re cooking for people you don’t know, you want something that’s a little more mild in flavor.”

Sawyer tries to stagger volunteers when they come in to cook so that the residents will always have something to eat, whether a fresh meal or healthy leftovers. Many school groups will prepare meals together at home and bring them to the house, frozen and ready to be used whenever necessary.

It’s a massive kitchen — there’s ample space for volunteers and families can cook at the same time so residents can have as many options as possible. The kitchen is open, with two main counters — one is a central island and the other is tucked into a U-shape on the wall — so that volunteers can cook without disturbing residents who may want to cook for themselves or be alone.

Everyone I interviewed described the benefits of having a place that feels like home for families who live far away and who have long stays at the hospital. Julienne Keong ’16, a member of the tennis team, said that she noticed the house “caters to the kids a lot.”

She has a point. Each residential room has a theme, from bunnies to pirates. The rooms are all decorated and filled with toys related to the theme, and the common areas are also stuffed with toys. The opening foyer is filled with knit hats and stuffed animals that children are free to take. And there are flags for every country from which people who have stayed at David’s House have hailed.

The collection is quite impressive.

It’s not a perfect space — Bernadini wishes that there were more structured activities for her three-year-old, and she said that it’s difficult to engage smaller siblings for extended stays. She said the house is great for older kids, though, and that she appreciates the benefits of being able to stay in the house.

A recent addition to the house, which raised the total number of rooms to 20, has allowed many more families to stay. Sometimes they reach capacity, but the house has a strong relationship with the Upper Valley hostel in Hanover. Making use of the hostel is very rare, however, and Sawyer said that the house has reached a happy balance with the current capacity.

Hospitality volunteers like Emilie Hall, who volunteers from 4-6 p.m. on Wednesdays, help out at the house to welcome families and organize day-to-day logistics. Hall was struck by how much David’s House “does feel like a family.”

“It’s nice to know that our community can come together like this,” Hall said.

David’s House is the anti-hospital. A place full of happiness, good food and children, the house is a refuge for people going through difficult times in their lives.

The importance of a meal is empowering at David’s House. The volunteers feel inspired by the house while the residents have one less thing to worry about. Even a simple vegetable lasagna or chicken stirfry can remove hours of stress from parents’ lives. Marie Darling said of her lasagna, “it’s going to be a remarkable meal.”

Remarkable, indeed.