Theresa Brucculeri has been raising money for Ronald McDonald House since 1983. NewsdayTV's Drew Scott reports.  Credit: Kendall Rodriguez and Debbie Egan-Chin

For Bianca Agron, the days leading up to her son’s birth were a whirlwind of emotion.

There was the visit to her obstetrician. Then the news that the mild preeclampsia and gestational diabetes she’d been diagnosed with made it necessary that her son be delivered early, by cesarean section — at just 30 weeks.

Then, as a nurse from the team at Katz Women’s Hospital at Long Island Jewish Medical Center Northwell Health held her newborn, Greyson, Agron had an anxious question.

“Is he crying?” Agron said, recalling the moment. “I didn’t hear him crying.”

Assured her newborn was breathing, Agron was able to calm down. But it wasn’t long before the realization of the coming challenges hit her and fiance, Lajan Conyer, in those early morning hours of Nov. 12.

Agron said doctors told her that Greyson, who weighed just 2 pounds, 4 ounces, would need specialized care in the neonatal intensive care unit at nearby Cohen Children’s Medical Center until at least Jan. 16. Agron, 31, and Conyer live in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Though less than 15 miles from the hospital, traffic often makes the trip take about an hour, making it tough for Agron, who was recovering from surgery, and for her mother, Sylvia Feliciano-Baksh, who doesn’t drive.

“Was there any place close that the family could stay?” Agron remembers Conyer asking a social worker at Katz.

The answer surprised them.

Bianca Agron inside the room at the Ronald McDonald House...

Bianca Agron inside the room at the Ronald McDonald House in Glen Oaks, Queens, where she has been staying with her family since giving birth to her premature son. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

A short walk

The Ronald McDonald House is just a few hundred feet from Cohen Children’s Medical Center, in Glen Oaks, Queens, along the Nassau border. But in terms of head-clearing emotional space, it might as well be light years.

Each year, about 4,500 families with children facing serious medical issues stay at Ronald McDonald Houses in the metropolitan area, including the 42-room house next to Cohen Children’s. Stays can be as short as one night or can last months, depending on the severity of a child’s illness and treatment. Families come from around the country and sometimes from around the world.

Most, however, are like Agron’s family who, though they might not live far, greatly benefit from having a safe, convenient place to stay, just steps from their sick children.

Currently, there is nothing comparable in Suffolk County. At Stony Brook University Hospital, there are two rooms set aside for families where they can escape the main waiting areas, relax and even do laundry.

But there is no Ronald McDonald House in the county.

Fundraising goals

That could soon change. Matt Campo, CEO of Ronald McDonald House Charities New York Metro, said about $24 million of the $30 million needed to start construction on a projected 60,000-square-foot house has been raised. As with the Cohen Children’s House, it will be within walking distance of the Stony Brook hospital and will feature 30 bedrooms with en-suite bathrooms, a communal dining room, a movie theater, a fitness room, administrative offices and a great room designed with children in mind.

The great room at the Ronald McDonald House in Glen...

The great room at the Ronald McDonald House in Glen Oaks, Queens. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

A groundbreaking is planned for 2024, according to Stony Brook University Hospital.

“The Ronald McDonald House will provide a safe, secure and comfortable environment for families of children who are hospitalized at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital,” said its CEO, Carol Gomes. “We are grateful for our long-standing partnership with Ronald McDonald House Charities NY Metro. The facility underscores Stony Brook Medicine’s commitment to offer exceptional care to meet the needs of our patients and their families.”

There are 386 Ronald McDonald Houses in 49 countries, 184 of them in the United States — eight of those in New York State. Though local McDonald’s franchise owners often donate to help defray operational costs, the homes, like those franchises, are independently operated, with most of their budgets from fundraising.

The board of the Ronald McDonald House in Queens will oversee operations at Stony Brook.

All services at the house next to Cohen Children’s are free. A big reason for that is the work of board member Theresa Brucculeri, 66, of Bayside Gables, Queens.

Brucculeri said she attended a Christmas party 40 years ago with friends at a restaurant in Astoria. The event was a fundraiser to help finance the house in Queens, then under construction and due to open in 1986. The event raised $250.

The Brucculeri family's 40th anniversary Family & Friends Christmas party...

The Brucculeri family's 40th anniversary Family & Friends Christmas party was held on Dec. 10 in Great Neck. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Not long after the party host died, Brucculeri found herself running the annual event.

She is from a big Italian family and said she loved the idea of annual Christmas parties where she could see friends, exchange stories, listen to music, have a nice meal. Celebrate.

A bonus, she said, was that the get-togethers raised money for the charity.

“I have a big family,” she said, “so I could get 80 to 100 people. And soon we had 250 people attend, raising $12,000. Then we had 400 people the next year, 700 the year after that.”

Still, Brucculeri said, she had no real understanding of what the Ronald McDonald House meant — or why what she was doing might be important.

Then, it happened.

A scare makes it real

Brucculeri and her husband, Jack, have two daughters — Tina and Michelle. And right before she was about to host her seventh Christmas party, Brucculeri found a suspicious lump in Tina’s throat. Tina was 14. Brucculeri was terrified.

“I immediately called my pediatrician,” Brucculeri recalled. “They did all these tests. Sonograms, scans, biopsies. We spent four days in the hospital at NYU [Langone Medical Center] in New York, waiting for the results to come back. ... One night, I spent sleeping on the floor of her room.”

The lump proved to be a thyroid tumor. Luckily, Brucculeri said, it was benign.

“When we finally got the results, I was like, ‘Oh, my God. Thank you.’ But, it was as if God had put me in that place to see exactly what it was a family was going through. … The light bulb went off,” she said.

Suddenly, Brucculeri understood the relief her fundraising provided to families.

“I joined the board [at Ronald McDonald House],” she said. “I took on a lot of responsibility … I became more vocal. I became more empathetic. I knew this is what my life was meant to be, what I was meant to do — to raise money to make this house work. And I vowed to go on — and to continue to do it — until I can’t do it anymore.”

Today, Tina is 47. Brucculeri has raised more than $10 million for the charity.

Theresa Brucculeri has raised more than $10 million for Ronald McDonald...

Theresa Brucculeri has raised more than $10 million for Ronald McDonald House. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Brucculeri’s latest party, held earlier this month at Leonard’s in Great Neck, raised $200,000 for the house in Queens. Officials said separate fundraisers have been held for the Stony Brook facility.

However, Brucculeri said that, as part of the board of directors, she is now focused on helping make the Ronald McDonald House in Suffolk County a reality.

“That is my dream,” Brucculeri said.

“I would say that, before the situation with my daughter, I knew I was doing a good thing by raising this money,” Brucculeri said. “But I didn’t fully grasp what it was I was doing … What you learn is, something like this happens and all you care about is your child, that your child has to get better ... It comes out of the blue and your child is hurting and you’re hurting.

“The house? It offers so many things on so many levels besides a room.”

What families need

Walk onto the tranquil, manicured property of the Ronald McDonald House at Cohen Children’s, and the first thing you see is a life-size full-color statue of Ronald McDonald seated on a bench.

Step inside the house and in seconds you’re in the great room, with its huge, colorful Victorian playhouse, play area and comfortable sofas where parents and guardians can sit and relax — all under a two-story glass atrium that fills the room with light. Out in the backyard is a playground, with a climb-on model airplane, swings and slide. In summer, families watch movies out there.

The smell of fresh-baked goods and meals wafts through the full-service dining room at all hours, with volunteers preparing home-cooked healthy food throughout the day.

The kitchen at the Ronald McDonald House in Glen Oaks,...

The kitchen at the Ronald McDonald House in Glen Oaks, Queens. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

There’s always fresh coffee.

The 42 rooms, which also are available to patient families from other area hospitals, all have full, private bathrooms. And, thanks to donations from interior design firms, the house was remodeled about 10 years ago — giving each of its themed rooms the feel of a charming hotel, one far removed from the rigors of hospital life.

There’s a New York Mets room, complete with pennants and baseball memorabilia, and a room with a cartoon sun and trees, along with a metal pedal car.

A New York Mets-themed room at the Ronald McDonald House...

A New York Mets-themed room at the Ronald McDonald House in Glen Oaks, Queens. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

One room features a wall filled with iconic places that form the Manhattan skyline: the Empire State Building, the Flatiron Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, One World Trade Center and even the Wonder Wheel at Coney Island. Kids can color in all of those scenes with erasable markers.

“We pride ourselves on being a happy place,” Campo said. “Here families can unplug from that clinical hospital environment, can take a break and still know they’re not far from their loved ones. We have a very simple mission: We want to support them, to make sure their needs are taken care of.”

Of course, not all stories end well at the Ronald McDonald House.

Campo, 46, recalled the story of Katie McBride, 11, whose family spent nearly a year at the house while she fought a valiant battle against cancer.

Katie died 15 years ago, but such losses remain fresh for Campo and other staff members who watch tragic stories unfold.

“Not every day is a happy day here,” Campo said. “Most days are. But some aren’t.”

‘A blessing’

Certainly, Bianca Agron and her family have appreciated all that being able to stay at the house provided for them.

Agron is a kindergarten teacher in Elmhurst, Queens. When she had complications from her C-section, she said she was thankful to have been at the house instead of being stranded back in Brooklyn.

Little Greyson now weighs more than 3 pounds.

Bianca Agron with her son, Greyson, at Cohen’s Children Medical...

Bianca Agron with her son, Greyson, at Cohen’s Children Medical Center. Credit: Agron family

“That first day, not being able to see him in the hospital, it was bad,” Agron said. “Being able to have a comfy bed, our own bathroom, to come down and have a hot meal. ... It’s so good.”

She continued: “You don’t know how blessed you are until you’re in a situation like this. That there is this amount of help out there. We never knew about the Ronald McDonald House. When Greyson came we were like, ‘There’s no way we’re leaving the baby and going back home.’

“Being here,” she said, “is definitely a blessing — and something I will forever be grateful for.”

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