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Berkeley Public Health alumna serves children and families in need

UC Berkeley School of Public Health alumna Laura Boudreau has always known she wanted to work directly with people rather than focusing on academic research. That’s why she prizes her role as chief executive officer of the Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC) Bay Area.

Boudreau graduated from UC Berkeley in 1998 with an MSW/MPH in social work and public health. The dual-degree program allowed her to explore a combination of disciplines alongside students from various walks of life, all of which fuels her work.

Ronald McDonald House—an independent nonprofit with hundreds of chapters across the world— serves families with critically ill children who are receiving local hospital care by providing them with overnight accommodations and other resources, including nightly family meals, fitness facilities, cooking classes, on-site schools, and a psychological support program. The program prioritizes families who need to travel long distances for treatment, and especially those of children who are waiting for transplants or cancer treatments which can mean months of hospitalization.

“The idea is to create an entire community for families away from home, sometimes for a year at a time, while their children are being treated at the hospital,” Boudreau says.

Boudreau started working with the Ronald McDonald House at Stanford’s Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital eight year ago. That house eventually merged with the San Francisco RMHC chapter; Boudreau’s team now serves the entire Bay Area. She was just appointed CEO in April of this year.

The Stanford RMHC can provide overnight accommodations for 123 families a night, with families staying for an average of 28 days, though Boudreau says a large number of families stay for as long as 6 months to a year. The Bay Area chapter has a similar house in San Francisco. Though a donation of $10 a night is requested, the RMHC Bay Area chapter doesn’t turn away families who are unable to pay. The organization also offers free preventative dental care to children in Santa Clara and Contra Costa counties.

Currently, Boudreau is organizing a chapter inside UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland.

Oakland is “an area that we know has a significant need and is our focus for our next area of growth,” Boudreau says. “We’ve been doing meals there on a small scale for years now, but over the last year, as we started thinking about the organizations’ growth and where we want to put our resources, we prioritized that area.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, things have changed drastically for the organization, says Boudreau. Instead of communal meals with different families getting to know one another, families now must shelter in their rooms, with meals brought to them. Psychological support is done remotely, and volunteers are no longer allowed to work at the center.

“Everything has changed with the pandemic. Our mission has been keeping our families together and our goal is keeping siblings, patients, parents, and grandparents together, as that helps children heal. During the pandemic, though, we have to keep people apart,” Boudreau says.

But the organization keeps serving families in need, even during an international crisis. And Boudreau still finds inspiration from the families she serves.

“When you think about facing a child’s critical illness, there’s just nothing more urgent for a parent or a family, than to be able to help those families stay together and help their child,” Boudreau says. “It’s an incredible organization to be a part of.”