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The Boxleiter family of Dubuque found a way to repay the kindness of strangers - with food. And more.
When Amelia Boxleiter was born prematurely in 2014, she had serious complications that required her to stay at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics for three months.
Amelia's family - her parents, Shayna and Chris Boxleiter, and her sister, Anna - stayed for weeks at the nearby Ronald McDonald House until Amelia was ready to go home.
'We did not even have shampoo or pillows or anything,” said Shayna, 33.
'Once we were there, there was food, a bedroom, parking,” she said. 'I could get rides to and from Ronald McDonald House to the hospital. I could wash our clothes in the laundry room. Our daughter Anna got to play in the playroom.
'For me, they became the people I would talk to. They gave us stability and consistency.”
Amelia's father agreed.
'Our experience at Ronald McDonald House was great,” said Chris, 39. 'There was no question of where you're going to be, where Anna was going to be. It gave us a relatively stable environment.”
The Boxleiters never forgot that help.
Amelia, now 5, had several follow-up appointments at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. On every visit, the family makes it a point to bring something to the Ronald McDonald House.
'It kind of started small,” Shayna said. 'We knew they had something called a wish list. We'd drop off items every time we were in Iowa City - laundry detergent, dish detergent, paper towels. Things I knew they needed because I used them when I was there.”
On birthdays, they would drop off toys for the toy rooms, including dress-up clothes for the playroom because that had been Anna's favorite part of staying at Ronald McDonald House.
And then came the meals.
Every evening, families staying at the Ronald McDonald House are offered a buffet-style meal that is either made in-house by volunteers or delivered from a restaurant. Those who stay late at the hospital will find leftovers saved in a refrigerator families can access at any time.
The first meal the Boxleiters tackled involved grilling burgers and brats. Chris' family helped out, including his cousin, who also had stayed at Ronald McDonald House.
'It was a beautiful day, with the kids running around outside,” Shayna said.
While cooking for a large group can seem daunting, 'they streamline it really well,” Shayna said. 'You can go on their website and request to serve a meal. And they offer helpful hints, like make enough food for 50, and when to serve it by.”
For Amelia's fifth birthday, the Boxleiters and Shayna's parents had Hy-Vee cater a taco bar because it's Amelia's favorite meal.
They cooked their most recent meal Jan. 18 in honor of friends, who were staying at the house while their preemie son was at the hospital. They made sloppy joes and french fries, with fruit and veggies and dessert. Shayna estimated it took 14 pounds of hamburger and 10 cans of Manwich sauce to make the sloppy joes.
'The kitchens are set up nicely so there are multiple work stations, so we divide and conquer,” Shayna said.
While Ronald McDonald House staffers serve the meal, the Boxleiters' group helped throughout the two-hour dinner, especially the families with young kids, helping fill their plates, getting them refills and cleaning up.
'A lot (of the families) look tired when they come in, but they look so thankful,” Shayna said. 'I remember that feeling. Like you're exhausted and not thinking about eating but then you have this delicious homemade meal ready for you.”
When Amelia was in the hospital, 'we were there over the holidays, and there was a mom and a son, her other son had passed away from a brain tumor. I remember, I was missing my family so much because it was the holidays, and I couldn't believe she took time away from her family to make a turkey for us. It was so touching.”
The family has helped in other ways, too - getting together with family and friends at Christmas to raise enough money to pay the nightly room charge for all 31 rooms at the house. (Families that stay at the Ronald McDonald House are asked to pay up to $20 per night, although no family is ever turned away.)
'We write a letter to them letting them know that we're thinking of them and that their night's stay is paid for,” Shayna said.
'I believe someone did that for us when we were there, so that inspired us to keep doing that,” Chris said.
The Boxleiters also participate in the Red Shoe Run & Walk 5K in Iowa City each year, which benefits the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Eastern Iowa and Western Illinois.
This year's fundraising run & walk will be held Sunday, May 3, in Iowa City. While the girls usually stick to the 'Ronald's Run” - a 100-yard dash before the race - Anna wants to run the 5K this year after watching her mom run the Chicago Marathon in October as part of the Ronald McDonald House team.
'When we got back from running, the whole Ronald McDonald House team was cheering for us,” Shayna said. 'Our kids were there and thought it was the best party in the world. Some of our friends sponsored miles as well in honor of their kids … so it's also like you're running for all those kids. I had a lot to think about on my run, but it's extra special because you're wearing the Ronald McDonald House shirt.”
Shayna, an eighth-grade teacher at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Dubuque, also has rallied her school to collect pop can tabs as a fundraiser for Ronald McDonald House. Last year, with a pizza party as the incentive, her school collected more than 580 pounds of pop can tabs.
'Our girls are great about remembering the pop tabs,” Chris said. 'We'll be on a hike on an outdoor trail and they'll see a can off the trail. It's probably been there for months, and they'll go up there and try to take it off.”
The Boxleiters are committed to helping Ronald McDonald House for many years to come.
'It is one of the only organizations where you can immediately and directly see people's lives being positively impacted by any effort you give, when it is possibly the most difficult time of their life,” Shayna said.
'I really appreciate what people did for us,” said Anna, now 7. 'I'm proud of what we do at the Ronald McDonald House.”