Koret House: family solace, volunteer opportunities

After spending all day at the hospital watching her 13-year-old daughter battle cancer, Dill Celis welcomed the chance to sit down to a home-cooked meal prepared by a group of young Jewish adults.

"This is the first time anyone has come and made dinner for us," said Celis, seated at a table in the dining room of the Koret Family House where she has been living with daughter Tamra for the past three weeks.

Located across the street from the internationally recognized pediatric cancer clinic at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center, the house provides free, temporary lodging for out-of-town families with seriously ill children who require specialized medical treatment. Launched in 1981 with a grant from the Koret Foundation, the house sleeps 10 families and is almost always filled to capacity.

Each year in the United States, more than 10,000 children, ranging from newborns to teenagers, are diagnosed with cancer.

"The ones whose families are staying here are the ones who are really, really sick," said Clifford Berg, executive director of the Koret Family House.

"We feel so safe here," said Celis, a San Joaquin Valley resident. "When your world has been turned upside down, to be able to stay at a place that feels like home is truly wonderful. I don't know what we would have done without it."

Celis and her daughter were among several families who enjoyed a potluck dinner prepared, delivered and shared last week by volunteers from the Young Adults Division of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

The dinner was sponsored by YAD in conjunction with the JCF Women's Alliance second annual Mitzvah Magic week of volunteer opportunities in the Jewish and general communities.

On Sunday, April 27, as part of the S.F.-based Sukkot in April project, co-sponsored by Congregation Sherith Israel and Jewish Family and Children's Services, YAD will return to the Koret Family House for a day of home and building repair.

Craig Grassmeier, who came to the house from the Lake Tahoe area to get top-notch cardiac care for his infirm 2-week-old, was happy the residence was available to his family. "It would have been so depressing to have to stay at the hospital or in a hotel," he said.

The house also provides satisfaction to volunteers, including Adam Rinde, YAD social action co-chair. "In the day-to-day business of life, we often forget that there are people who are going through difficult times," he said. "Volunteering at the Koret Family House is an opportunity to provide a sense of comfort to families undergoing crisis."

An Oakland resident who works in San Francisco, Rinde organized the potluck dinner and upcoming building repair project with co-chair Pam Minden.

"You just won't get this feeling from more typical singles events," said Minden. A native San Franciscan, she has also served potluck dinners through a similar YAD program at San Francisco's Ronald McDonald House.

"I always get hugs from the families when I leave," she said.

According to Berg, families staying at the house normally prepare their own meals in a communal cooking area. However, parents often find themselves so exhausted after a long day at the hospital that they are too tired to deal with making dinner.

For 11-year-old Alma Distefano, the YAD dinner was an unexpected surprise. The San Francisco resident had come to the home to do what she always does: play with the kids.

"I volunteer here every week. Sometimes I go with the kids to the hospital. Once there was this girl I got really close with…but then one day she was gone."

Noting that the staff at Koret Family House is limited to himself and a resident manager, Berg emphasized the importance of the house's large network of volunteers. They provide services from food preparation and entertainment to household repairs and fund-raising assistance.

Berg said his goal is to match a volunteer with every family. "We want to create a sense of community for families who are so far away from home. In an agency like this, we always need volunteers."