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Changing of the guard at a ‘home away from home’ for families of children with cancer

From left to right: Peg Enright, Mike Emerman, Dawn Emerman and Andrew Richards. Photo by Artemisia Luk
November 28, 2023

Dawn Emerman first came to The Boston House in 1979. She was 4 years old, and she arrived from Maine with her mother and younger sister, Danielle, who was being treated for medulloblastoma at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Boston Children’s Hospital.

The Boston House, then a Ronald McDonald House, became their home away from home, a haven on Kent Street that provided lodging and emotional sustenance for families of children with cancer or blood disorders. They affixed an “I support Ronald McDonald House” bumper sticker to their car, and wore buttons supporting the house. Even after Danielle died of the brain tumor in 1980, Emerman’s family returned to visit.

“I just grew up with that knowledge and that influence, knowing: ‘This was an important place in my family to my life,’” Emerman said.

This month Emerman and her husband, Mike Emerman, took over as co-executive directors of The Boston House. They succeed Peg Enright and Andrew Richards, a married couple who recently retired after 38 years at the helm.

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Before assuming their current roles, Dawn, 48, was assistant director. She has been a continuous presence here since she volunteered as an undergraduate at Simmons College and was hired as communications coordinator after she graduated in 1997. Mike, 51, who was program and operations associate, has worked at The Boston House since 2017.

One of the Emermans’ first tasks is to reopen the 10 rooms closed during the coronavirus pandemic and build a culture that balances a return to community with safety for children with weakened immune systems.

What Dawn notices, still, is the quiet. It’s been three years since the pandemic began, and the ambient sound of children, once the background to her workdays, hasn’t returned.

“It’s really, really different,” Mike said. “It’s almost impossible to remember when you’d be sitting at your desk and somebody would sneak up from behind you.”

“Like a kid,” Dawn said.

Decades of growth to meet a need

The house opened as the country’s eighth Ronald McDonald House in 1979, the same year Dawn and her family first stayed here.

“The house was much smaller [then],” Enright said, with room for 10 families in the main house. In 1985, the opening of seven studio apartments in a carriage house allowed the house to accept stem cell transplant patients, whose immune systems are so vulnerable they must follow months of strict protocols for isolation following the treatment.

Whether it’s welcoming stem cell transplant patients, adapting to a pandemic or other challenges, Boston House relies on advice from clinicians at Dana-Farber and Boston Children’s.

In 2017, when Ronald McDonald House Charities pivoted to include children with other diseases, the Brookline board of directors voted to continue the original mission, ending their relationship with Ronald McDonald House Charities. For years, the house charged families $10 a night, but since 2020, a grant has provided the funding to eliminate the fee altogether — a policy the Emermans hope to maintain.

The house, built in 1868, is spacious and grand, with fireplaces and dark patterned carpeting. Baskets of blankets are tucked into corners. The kitchen includes two stoves, bowls large enough for a church potluck, and two coffee makers. The playroom is downstairs along with a TV room, a laundry room with four washing machines and two dryers, and an ice-cream freezer fit for a dairy bar.

Enright and Richards lived in a second floor apartment and raised their two children, now 34 and 36, here. They started as the only staff in a house that could accommodate 10 families. Today, The Boston House has a staff of six, including the Emermans. It can now accommodate 22 families between the main house and carriage house.

In their early years at the helm, when the house was small, “we were downstairs most of the time during the day,” Enright said, on hand for children, parents and other relatives. “We just grew in capacity, and individually Andy and I grew,” she said.

She and her husband, who is a psychologist, learned “when to engage a family and when to leave them alone,” Enright said. “When to sit with them, but not talk about the child or the illness”

According to Boston House policy, staff cannot visit with families off-site and cannot attend the funerals of children who’ve stayed here.

“Every person that walks through that door is probably having one of the worst days of their lives,” said Julie Stanley, who first stayed at the house in 2008 when her 13-year-old daughter, Torey, now 28, was newly diagnosed with an inoperable non-germinomatous germ cell tumor, a brain cancer. Richards, she added, was “just that kind face and that gentle voice.” Sometimes the comfort came from laundry detergent or free Red Sox tickets or meals cooked by volunteers. “If you didn’t have a toothbrush, they had a toothbrush. If you needed shampoo, they had shampoo,” Stanley said.

Deborah Pierce, a former board member, stayed here in 1996 when her son, Zachary, now 43, was being treated for pilocytic astrocytoma, a type of brain tumor. “How do you react and how do the people in the house react when … somebody is out in the morning, and they come back and their child has died at the hospital?” she said. “They come back to this house with kids who are still around, still surviving.”

Until 2020, when the pandemic forced the closing of the main house bedrooms and guests had to keep their distance from one another, The Boston House’s rooms were full. Children milled around while their adults made coffee and breakfast in the communal kitchen. Someone might be watching television in the living room while another family pulled a game from a built-in bookcase and a toddler played with plastic produce in the toy kitchen.

“When we were at capacity, it felt like a home,” said Dawn.

A shifting job

In addition to working to keep vulnerable young patients safe while bringing back families — and their sounds — the Emermans will focus on another mark of the pandemic. Of the 100 volunteers who pitched in before Covid, only about half plan to return. Cultivating volunteer relationships and replenishing the roster are high on the new executive directors’ to-do list.

Meanwhile, as Enright and Richards prepare for retirement, they are moving out of The Boston House.

“We’re still going to live here for a while … maybe for six weeks,” Enright said. “It’s been difficult to pack up 38 years of living here, four human beings, while we still run the house,” said.

For their part, the Emermans will continue to live at their Somerville home with their 13-year-old son.

As she takes on her new role, Dawn has a soft spot for siblings. “I’m always concerned — are they getting enough attention? … I can see what they’re going through,” she said, adding that amid the house’s capacity limits, her goal is to keep families together.

The Emermans want to maintain the house’s homey environment, where everyone feels welcome in a place that’s not the hospital, and not quite home. They want to provide a connected and safe space for whatever comes.

People tell Dawn that she’s made a difference in their lives.

“I don’t need to make a difference in somebody’s life,” she said. “I don’t need to have that for myself, but I want it for the house.”