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Today's Family Magazine

Red Treehouse helps young families dealing with illness

By Deanna Adams

The last thing parents want is a sick child.  And when that happens, they often are not aware of all the help and resources that may be available to them. Yet, there is one place that serves as a one-stop resource center with a sole mission to connect families with needed services. 

Red Treehouse is a branch of the Ronald McDonald House® of Cleveland, Inc., and partners with Ohio Family and Children First to guide families dealing with children and young adults — prenatal through age 25 — who suffer from illnesses and disabilities.  The organization helps them meet their health care needs and overcome the challenges they face.

Among the many resources available through Red Treehouse include everything from sharing knowledge about community organizations, determining financial resources and health insurance, as well as housing, living arrangements and transition planning.  They can also provide an emotional support animal, if necessary. 

The agency’s program manager, Julie Wilson, likens her job to a ship’s cruise director, in that she’s the one to seek out when searching for answers.  “I connect families with all the resources they need to support them in various ways during the most difficult times,” she says.  “When you’re suddenly faced with an ill family member, you often don’t know where to turn.”   

Wilson speaks from experience. She came to her position three years ago by way of a personal battle, when she found herself dealing with the trauma of caring for her critically ill husband.  “When he was diagnosed with brain cancer, I was faced with so many challenges.  I was suddenly a caregiver and it was a very eye-opening experience,” she says.  “It’s an important and significant role but it’s often overwhelming.  I soon learned how many organizations are actually out there if only people knew about them.”

Red Treehouse, a nonprofit organization that serves Ohio, Western Pennsylvania and North Central West Virginia, also provides an active online and social media community support system to help those exploring resources and events.  This includes links to webinars, workshops, conferences, and educational guides, such as instructions and information for parents of children with a rare disease, along with emergency medical alert accessories and pediatric palliative care when needed.    

“Your life really shifts when you go through these kinds of trauma,” Wilson says.  “It often changes the way you live, the way you see life. That’s why, after my husband passed, I felt a strong urge to be purposeful. I wanted to focus on helping people who are experiencing these moments of crisis and feel lost.

“We don’t just give support, we give people the essential tools to manage and help deal with all the things thrust upon them. Having connections through many resources really does make it bearable.” 

Red Treehouse was named as such because it exemplifies strength and resilience and serves as a collection of branches to connect people and resources.  As stated on its website, the treehouse is red — the color of “love, energy, power, passion, life and vitality” through which to help children and young adults “achieve positive outcomes and well-being.”

Like Wilson, Helen Rapp also came to Red Treehouse in search of guidance with not one, but two family health matters.  “As the mother of two grown children with serious medical issues, I know what a valuable resource Red Treehouse is to families,” says Rapp.  “In 1995 at the age of 11 months old, my daughter Holly had corrective open heart surgery at the Cleveland Clinic.  From the first day we learned of Holly’s heart defect and throughout her surgery and early years, we needed access to a lot of information that families can get from Red Treehouse. We needed medical information to understand a condition we knew nothing about, and we needed to find a support group to get us through a very scary period.”

That scary period was followed by another soon after when their other daughter, Jane, was born prematurely, which ultimately resulted in her being diagnosed with cerebral palsy. “My daughters, now 27 and 26, are doing very well, but these medical issues became serious challenges to our family and really shaped who we are today.  We learned that navigating the systems that you need to help your child with special needs is very complex.” 

And so, at age 51, Rapp decided to go to law school.  “It should not be this hard for families to access the services their children need to simply live.” 

Today, Helen Rapp serves as a volunteer at Ronald McDonald House. “As a parent who is probably representative of the families who stay at the House or utilize the wonderful family rooms, I know that Red Treehouse is a critical resource and I’m very proud to have the opportunity to volunteer with the team to make it even better.”

For more information on their services, go to