They arrive in Boston, Massachusetts, with apprehension and hope, from cities and small towns across the United States and Canada, Europe and Africa. And for the next two months, these families will call the high-rise apartment building at One Emerson Place “home.”
There on one floor, Christopher’s Haven provides seven furnished apartments — and unwavering emotional support — to families of kids being treated at nearby Francis H. Burr Proton Therapy Center, part of Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). “Families come to Christopher’s Haven expecting a decent place to live,” says Martha Bernard Welsh, Executive Director of the nonprofit that has been providing housing for the past five years. “What they don’t expect is the environment of openness and support and care — from family to family. It is such a sanctuary for kids with cancer, for their parents and their siblings.” And the sanctuary is a kind of therapy, she says. Families all know what one another are going through and quickly develop bonds of comfort and support. “They are in a common world,” Welsh says. “Conversations are funny and intense. People become incredible friends and those friendships last.”
Proton beam treatments of children with cancer typically take six to eight weeks. “You come to Boston from someplace in the world — Boston being a very expensive city — and you’re looking at a hospital discounted rate at the local Holiday Inn of $189 a night,” Welsh says. The prospect of spending $12,000 just on housing during a family’s eight-week stay can put parents in a very difficult spot. Some are considering conventional cancer care closer to home “or they’re thinking about selling everything to make it work,” she says. “Coming to Christopher’s Haven is simply a far better solution.” At Christopher’s Haven, families typically pay $30 per night, the generosity of donors underwriting the true housing costs.
Living away from the comforts and normalcy of home is incredibly stressful on most families, Welsh says, to say nothing of the circumstances that have required the temporary move. “This is four times the duration of your typical vacation,” she says. “A couple of kids and adults in a hotel room for that long? Even the nicest hotel wears out its welcome.” The physicians, nurses and social work staff at MGH talk regularly with the staff at Christopher’s Haven to accommodate families who are traveling to Boston for pediatric proton treatments. “We don’t look at any family finances to assess ability to pay,” Welsh says, “the social worker has a sense of that. In the end, it comes down to the medical staff prioritizing who needs our community of support and should stay with us.” Other families will stay at the nearby Hope Lodge or Ronald McDonald House. At Christopher’s Haven, “families are free to live the way they do,” she says. “Furniture is moved around. Kitchens are completely rearranged. They are making their apartment their own. “The model of having an apartment with a key and a lock works,” Welsh adds. “Families need that normalcy. And they need caring friendships nearby to give them strength and comfort. And laughter.”