In 2020 three-year-old Angela Baraz was diagnosed with leukaemia, and her Lithgow family then underwent the hardest time in their lives, travelling to and from Westmead Children's Hospital.
That was, until, Ronald McDonald House Charity was able to help them out, and with McHappy Day only weeks away, Angela's mother Nikki Baraz is asking people to donate generously.
Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC) is an independent charity that helps seriously ill children and their families.
The cornerstone program of RMHC, the Ronald McDonald House, provides a 'home away from home' for families of seriously ill and injured children being treated at nearby hospitals. The Houses keep families close by giving parents and siblings the opportunity to stay together to support their sick loved ones.
"They were a godsend to be honest, they basically, you know, were there for us at the most difficult times in our lives, and they allowed us to stay together as a family over weekends, so my other two kids and my husband were able to come and when my daughter was discharged we could actually spend a few hours together," she said.
"They were just amazing, to say the least."
Mrs Baraz said the team were helpful in every way you could imagine and would go out of their way to make sure her family were okay.
"It's not just a job that they had to do, it came from the heart. So you could tell when someone does their job, and they do it well and beyond what they're expected to do," she said.
"They absolutely were the right people in the right place. I sort of always think of them as little angels that were looking after us."
Getting the help Angela needed
Angela and her family spenta total of 272 nights at RMHC GWS and will be back in the future for more appointments.
Angela was first diagnosed during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and with restrictions, the family was told by the Westmead Children's Hospital team that Ronald McDonald wouldn't be accepting new families at that time.
"It was super difficult being torn apart and going through what we had to go through but it just happened that my daughter was having a major operation at the time and she had some complications, and I was just having a walk and I found Ronald McDonald's at the back of the hospital," she said.
"And I thought, you know what, I'll just go and ask you know there's no harm in asking and Amy the family coordinator was wonderful, absolutely wonderful, she took the details down and said, I'll see what I can do. I'll get back to you. Within an hour, she showed me one of the units they had. And I said, you know, whatever you've got, I'll take it."
With less than 15 minutes Amy returned to Mrs Baraz and said 'I've got something available if you'd like to take it'.
"They always wanted to help you and make sure that if they couldn't, then they'd be asking somebody else," she said.
Mrs Baraz continued to work remotely while staying by her daughter's side when she was sick and if she was having some difficult issues, or needing something, the staff at Ronald McDonald were there to help her.
"I didn't expect them to do that," she said.
"They would always stop in the corridor and say, 'How's Angela going?' or 'Have a nice day, I hope she goes okay today with the procedure', they were just so very kind."
This type of kindness was what made it easier for the Baraz family to go back time and time again.
"When my daughter gets admitted to hospital and we are there for weeks on end and it's time for her finally to get discharged, she says 'We are going home' and that home for her is Ronald McDonald House, that was a safe haven for her because she had all her toys set up there and it was a place where she felt comfortable as well," she said.
When Angela was first diagnosed at three years old, it was a very daunting process for everyone in the family.
"We know that we've got Ronald McDonald there that will take us back and keep us safe and happy with the rest of the family," she said.
Not just McHappy Day
Each year, all McDonald's restaurants across Australia host McHappy Day, supporting Ronald McDonald House Charities Australia.
McHappy Day is the largest annual fundraiser for Ronald McDonald House Charities in Australia, helping seriously ill or injured children and their families stay together and close to care while undergoing treatment or surgery in hospital.
But Mrs Baraz said it was important that people donated year round and not just on the day.
"I still remember when we were there during Christmas, and we couldn't meet with the family, we couldn't have anybody at the house, it was just us, the five of us and we were grateful to be together. Let's put it that way. We were safe and happy together," she said.
"But the amount of people were pulling up donating stuff to the families there at that time, at Easter time, Mother's Day, Father's Day, all the special occasions and in between as well.
"It made a huge difference to us that other people were thinking of us, it made us feel like we weren't outcasts. So it's not just McHappy Day, if people can help throughout at any time they can, then any help goes a long way."
Support during a difficult time
Mrs Baraz confirmed that she definitely wouldn't have been able to get through the most difficult time in her life if it wasn't for the Ronald McDonald Charity.
"I mean, I had family support, but with Ronald McDonald by our side, it just made it a whole lot simpler knowing that, since we go to the hospital all the time we were going to be on time," she said.
"So I didn't have to worry about parking, I did that for the first two months and it was a nightmare, with the traffic to get there on time to our appointment and not be delayed, whereas living down there it took me two minutes, and I'm there at the clinic.
"So they took the worry and the stress out and they made it so easy for us, you know, to just concentrate about what my daughter was going through.
They are just absolutely beautiful people.Nikki Baraz
The family had to stay at the Ronald McDonald House for 12 months, and in that time Mrs Baraz said the stress would just start to add up.
"I wasn't working so to speak, I was doing things remotely but if we were to rent somewhere close by it would have cost us an arm and a leg," she said.
Mrs Baraz also found comfort in becoming friends with other family members staying at Ronald McDonald House.
"Most of them are going through what we went through, but there's a few that have got different sorts of diagnosis," she said.
"But you know, you get connected with the other families and they do understand exactly what you're going through and they feel for you and you start to tell them where you're at on your journey. So it helps them a bit, so to speak.
"You get to make new friends that you wish you'd never met them under those circumstances."
Mrs Baraz said when COVID-19 eased off in 2020, there were volunteers that used to come in and cook up a meal for the family once a week.
"It was so lovely, they were individuals or companies that would come and help and that would take the pressure off trying to eat out or not bothering to eat and skipping meals, it's called 'Meals from the Heart', so people can donate to that as well," she said.
"It is another huge help, and something people don't really think of."
A new life for Angela
Angela has been a pillar of strength for her family, even when she didn't understand what was going on.
"In the beginning she missed home because she was going to day-care here at Lithgow Gowrie and she's a social butterfly then she was torn away from all that overnight.
"Her whole life changed, basically, all our lives changed," Mrs Baraz said.
"So she had to cope with being away and we had to explain to her why she couldn't go back home, because we weren't allowed to come home."
The family was away from Lithgow for three months before Angela was allowed to come home for a few hours.
"She wasn't allowed to do much and you had to explain to her why she couldn't go back to Gowrie, why she couldn't see her brothers and why she couldn't do the normal things that she used to do," she said.
"But she's amazing, she took it all in and it's taken a bit of time but now she knows if we have to go back, because she has a check up once every six weeks, that she will be okay.
I was falling apart, but she actually kept me together.Nikki Baraz on daughter Angela
"She says 'Oh, that's okay. I can do it, mum.' She knows what to do when they have to still perform the procedure on the anesthetic and all that sort of thing. She takes it all in and she's focused, very determined that she wants to get better and beat it and go to school and be a normal kid again."
Mrs Baraz said Angela continually amazes her.
"Especially towards the end of the whole thing you miss home and you miss the rest of the family and I was falling apart, but she actually kept me together," she said.
Donating helps families everywhere
In 2020, McHappy Day raised over $5 million for Ronald McDonald House Charities Australia.
"I just encourage the people if they can donate to Ronald McDonald charities, please do so," Mrs Baraz said.
"They are doing an amazing job and people probably don't realise how much it means to families like us.
"It's something that we'll never, ever forget and we actually vowed that, we would love to give back and we've started doing that already.
"It's just putting a smile on their faces and knowing that you're thinking of them means a lot."
Mrs Baraz said that the donations help things most people would take for granted, such as being together as a family and spending time at home together.
"That was a great deal to us, so if people can actually donate and not just for McHappy Day but throughout the year then they would be doing great, great job," she said.
"It's not just helping the child but their families as a whole because it affects every single family member on different levels."
Since the journey from Lithgow to Westmead Children's Hospital takes up to nearly two hours, being able to stay at Ronald McDonald House meant it kept the Baraz family together.
"Being away for 12 months I missed out on a lot with my boys where all of a sudden, it's like, 'Oh they grew up, oh my goodness' but if it wasn't for Ronald McDonald to keep us together, then I wouldn't have been able to see them not necessarily every weekend, but most weekends, then it would have been a lot worse," she said.
Mrs Baraz said it was hard for her sons when they would come and visit the hospital.
"If they'd come in and my daughter was in hospital, they would ask if they could see her but we had to say 'no sorry guys, you can't, I'm sorry', so they would feel the disappointment that they weren't able to see their sister," she said.
Australians can support this year's McHappy Day fundraiser by:
Picking up a pair of $5 Silly Socks or Helping Hands for $2, $10 or $50 from McDonald's or via McDelivery.
Buying a Big Mac on Saturday, November 13, from McDonald's or via McDelivery, with $2 from every Big Mac sold going directly to RMHC.
Making a donation online by visiting www.rmhc.org.au/give
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