A home away from home | December 19, 2008 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - December 19, 2008

A home away from home

Palo Alto family lends guest cottage to families with hospitalized children

by Karla Kane

There's no place like home, the adage goes, but Palo Altans John and Danielle Mewes try their best to give families with children being treated at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital the next best thing.

The Mewes family has been opening the cottage in front of their Old Palo Alto home to out-of-town guests with hospitalized children since 2000.

Guest families, many of whom have been turned away from the Ronald McDonald House and would otherwise either need to stay in a hotel or be separated from their child, pay no rent and can stay for as long as needed. Amenities include a living/bedroom, full kitchen and full bathroom, detached from the main house.

The Meweses got the idea to open their guest cottage after they had an experience with a hospitalized child. They thought about how difficult that situation must be for families who come from out of the area. Their cottage was seldom used by their own family, so it seemed a natural step to offer it to others, they said.

"Our daughter was a preemie, so we experienced how scary it is to have a child in the hospital. It's so hard; so emotionally draining," Danielle Mewes said. The couple contacted the hospital about sharing their guest unit. They felt it might be therapeutic, both for themselves and for the families that would stay there, she said.

"When you help someone else, you also help yourself. It's something we could do pretty easily," she said.

For the past eight years, they've had almost constant long-term guests, save for a period of renovation to make the unit more comfortable.

The Meweses make sure to give their guests privacy, only interacting with them on a casual basis. This not only gives the guest families plenty of personal space, but also prevents the Meweses from become overly emotionally intertwined with the lives of their guests, she said.

"We usually get to know the families a bit but we're careful to keep boundaries and not become hugely involved. They live their own lives," she said.

The Meweses' children, ages 12 and 15, do take an interest in the younger kids who stay at the cottage, and some families have kept in touch over the years. "We really leave the relationship up to them," Mewes said of her guests.

Erin Champion, Lucile Packard Department of Housing manager, is responsible for placing families with the Meweses. So far, every family has been a good fit.

"Erin is never wrong. She finds us the nicest people and we've never had a problem," Mewes said.

The cottage's current occupants are Nick and Clare Villacreses, whose 20-month-old son Zachary was diagnosed with a rare form of liver cancer in October. The Southern California-based family was told Lucile Packard would be the best place for their child to be treated, but that his treatment would include eight rounds of chemotherapy, a surgery, then further rounds of chemo.

"It's a really long procedure. And the idea of staying up there for six months freaked us out. Hotels are so expensive; it was very scary," Clare Villacreses said. The couple contacted their social worker at the hospital and after an interview process, they were granted the Meweses' guest unit.

"We didn't know what we were going to do. It was a godsend to be offered the cottage," Villacreses said.

The Villacreses family finds their accommodations "very comfortable." And though it's hard to be away from home, Palo Alto is a beautiful place, Villacreses said. The family has to be cautious with activities, as Zachary is at risk of infection, but trips to local restaurants and parks, along with walks around the neighborhood, have become enjoyable parts of the family's routine.

"It's so much better having a place to come home to. It's your place, not some cold hotel," Villacreses said.

The couple takes turns staying with Zachary in Palo Alto, alternating every few weeks to stay with their two older children in Laguna Nigel.

"It's a really trying situation to be in a strange town with a sick child and to try to find a place to live. Everyone has been so nice and accommodating, and I want everyone to know how much what they're doing means. It means an awful lot," Villacreses said.

For Mewes, the rewards of sharing their home with others are great.

"It teaches us a lot and gives us as much as it gives them. My kids can see that life can be hard, but you deal with it. It's just amazing to be helping people in a relatively easy way that helps them in a huge way," she said.

Editorial Assistant Karla Kane can be e-mailed at kkane@paweekly.com.


Like this comment
Posted by Lisa Dunlevie
a resident of Portola Valley
on Dec 19, 2008 at 2:08 pm

I was moved by this story and felt compelled to write to admire, applaud and thank the Mewes family. Providing your guest house is an incredibly generous gift which directly impacts families with a need we all hope to never have.

Like this comment
Posted by Cate
a resident of another community
on Jan 27, 2009 at 12:29 pm

My family, too, has been misplaced for a year and a half so far. It is wonderful that the Mewes family has been so generous to so many families in need. The displacement and solitude a family feels is often overwhelming.

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