On Christmas Eve 2016, the Hartong family checked into a house near Akron Children's Hospital where they'd live on and off until the following summer.
Their 5-month-old, Amelia, had been diagnosed with a brain tumor days earlier. During the next eight months, as she soldiered through surgeries and rounds of chemotherapy, one of her parents slept in her hospital room, and the other stayed at the Ronald McDonald House.
Melanie and Corey Hartong, of Tuscarawas Township outside Massillon, shared their story Saturday at a fundraiser for the Ronald McDonald House of Akron.
"It was a huge key in keeping us together as a family," Melanie Hartong said.
The Ronald McDonald House of Akron gives families of hospitalized children private rooms and bathrooms prepared with linens and toiletries, plus access to communal living areas, free laundry facilities and a fully stocked pantry and kitchen. A hot meal is served at 5:30 p.m. every day.
"We provide literally everything," said Jennifer Knechtel, special events manager for the house.
Families are asked to pay $20 a night but only a fraction do. The actual cost to operate a guest room is about $100 a night.
There's a continual waiting list to get in.
Last year, 601 families stayed at the house while their children were hospitalized. More than 50 of those families were from Stark County.
The average stay is nine days, but the Hartongs lived in Akron for close to 100, while Amelia logged about 200 days of inpatient care at the hospital.
"You're living your worst dream and you've lost the privacy of your own home," Melanie Hartong said. " ... However, it's a million times better than trying to figure out, where am I going to take a shower in the morning?"
Melanie and Corey would take turns staying with Amelia, often switching places in the middle of the night. They also were trying to maintain some sense of normalcy for their son, Blake, who was with them on the weekends.
The Ronald McDonald House staff would greet the family with smiles and offer suggestions for fun activities — like catching the fireworks when the RubberDucks played at home or watching an outdoor movie at the park. To this day, Blake thinks of the house as a resort-like vacation spot, not a scary place he stayed when his sister was sick.
By May 2017, Amelia was nearing the end of her treatment. She'd already had two craniotomies to remove her tumor and several rounds of intense chemotherapy, but she needed a bone marrow transplant so she could withstand her high-dose chemotherapy. It was a critical time for her health, and she suffered nearly every possible side effect the doctors warned the Hartongs about.
The Hartongs checked into the Ronald McDonald House and kept their room for 85 days straight.
"You really don't realize how much home means to you until you can't go home," Melanie said.
On those days, just having a private place to eat dinner together as a family, play a game or read their son a bedtime story made a difference. The Hartongs could connect with each other, and they were close to Amelia.
And being in the house with the other families reminded them to stay positive.
"It is a great reminder to be thankful for every single day because even though you might be having a really bad day, someone else is experiencing something worse," Melanie Hartong said.
In early August 2017, the Hartongs got to go home for good. When they did, a cancer-free Amelia returned with them.