10-year-old Ayla has spent most of her life wanting desperately to feel “normal”. She has experienced behavioural struggles, stress, anxiety, and anger that has taken a significant emotional toll on both her and her family.
“It got to the point where she would hurt herself to stop herself from hurting us,” says Mom Julie.
In early 2020, when Ayla was eight years old, she was admitted to Alberta Children’s Hospital to the mental health unit, but it was right before COVID-19 hit, and they weren’t able to properly assess Ayla before she was discharged.
“She wants to know what it’s like to have real friends, to be able to function at school and not have stress and anxiety,” says Julie.
“I’d literally have to take her kicking and screaming to school, where two teachers would meet us, and we would have to physically remove her from my car.”
It took another year, due to COVID-19, before Ayla had the opportunity to get into a 10-week treatment program with the Alberta Children’s Hospital, requiring her to be there every day for eight hours.
“After running out of options for treatment in Olds, we were really hoping this program would give us some insight into what was going on with her,” says Julie.
“But our family was broken,” she added. “This was our last hope.”
For the first two weeks, Julie looked for accommodation in Calgary so they could make this day program work, until the hospital suggested she try the Ronald McDonald House.
“’Oh no,’” Julie remembers thinking. “’That’s for people whose kids are very sick. We’re not taking a spot at the Ronald McDonald House from somebody who deserves it’.”
“My mind was at: ‘it’s mental health, we’re not having brain surgery or chemotherapy treatments’,” Julie explains.
“It wasn’t until I spoke to staff there and they said, ‘what makes you think that any other family deserves a helping hand more than you?’ And, wow, that hit me hard.”
“I didn’t realize I was a part of the problem by not enabling our family to get the help we needed.”
“I realized I had just bought into that bad outlook people have about mental health by stating ‘well, she doesn’t have a physical ailment’.”
In that one conversation, Julie says the Ronald McDonald House changed her perspective.
“In that moment, I realized I needed help. It was the start of flipping the thinking about myself, my family, and the support we needed,” she explains.
The Children’s Day Treatment Program was life-changing for Ayla, and life-changing for the entire Sutherland family who is now functioning in a much healthier way, Julie says.
But “we wouldn’t have been able to sustain the positive influence that the program had on us if it weren’t for the Ronald McDonald House,” she adds.
“It would not have been as successful, just because it wouldn’t have been possible to be in the right mindset.”
Julie says while there may be stigma surrounding mental health, she never felt that stigma at RMHC Alberta.
“Mental health may not be generally accepted, but we were. The premise of the Ronald McDonald House is to support the family in need – whether that is mental or physical.”
Ayla spent 10 weeks attending a treatment program for mental health at Alberta Children’s Hospital; 53 nights of which were spent living at the Ronald McDonald House.
“I shudder to think where we would be at right now if we hadn’t been at the Ronald McDonald House,” says Julie.
“You have the medical support of the hospital for your child and that’s one thing; but the support for those supporting the child is needed more than you know,” she adds. “I always believed that to be true, but didn’t know the extent to which it was true until I was in it.”
Julie, who is a registered nurse herself and works in mental health, says she has experienced a lot of judgment over Ayla and their situation.
“I get a lot of, ‘you’re a nurse, how could you not have known, how could you not have done better?’”
“The Ronald McDonald House was a critical piece to my mental health and emotional wellbeing. They allowed me to be vulnerable, and they didn’t judge.”
“With that personal experience, I am better at what I do now because of the Ronald McDonald House.”
For Ayla, the Ronald McDonald House felt like home.
“It’s a place where Ayla felt comfortable, she wasn’t embarrassed, they made her feel proud and helpful.”
House staff made Ayla her very own Volunteer nametag and she watered plants, cleaned dining room tables, and even showed new families the ropes.
Julie says Ayla was especially touched by the attention staff paid to her, and how cared for she felt.
“We have never been treated so unconditionally and more accepted than we were at the Ronald McDonald House. They didn’t treat us any differently than anyone else.”