For the past 33 years, the Kevin Guest House in Buffalo, N.Y., has been known as “the little house with the big heart.” Providing an affordable haven of comfort and hope for families of patients undergoing treatment at area hospitals, the charming 1865 Victorian-style home also holds the distinction as the first hospital hospitality house in the nation.
“We offer a home away from home for families in medical crisis, serving five hospitals along Buffalo’s medical corridor,” says executive director Wayne Zimmerman, 47. “Instead of being isolated in a sterile hotel room while under stress, a guest at KGH is surrounded by a nurturing and supportive atmosphere” attended by two full-time staffers and four part-time employees.
The home was donated by Cyril and Claudia Garvey of Sharon, Pa., and christened in memory of their 13-year-old son, Kevin, who died of leukemia in 1972 while being treated at Buffalo’s Roswell Park Cancer Institute. A star Little Leaguer and budding comedian, Kevin had a knack for charming people.
“He was an exceptional little boy who loved to tell jokes and had a way of laughing at himself,” says his older brother, Denis, now 55 and living in Charlotte, N.C. Cyril died in 1996, and Claudia lives today in Colorado.
During Kevin’s treatment, his father saw a need that wasn’t being met by the hospital. “Dad felt the pain of parents sleeping in the hospital lobby and eating from vending machines,” Garvey says. One day while driving to the cancer institute, Garvey’s parents spotted the house and decided to purchase it. Their plan was to donate it to the community as a place of comfort for family members of Albany hospital patients who couldn’t afford other accommodations.
Volunteers helped renovate and furnish the home, and the doors opened in 1972. Its immediate success caught the attention of fast-food giant McDonald’s. The corporation sent representatives to Buffalo to learn about the home when the company was drawing up the blueprint for its own Ronald McDonald House in Philadelphia, which opened in 1974.
The Kevin Guest House also became the model for the American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge (found in 15 states, plus Puerto Rico) and Fisher House for families of military personnel (serving major military hospitals throughout the United States), and also sparked the development of other need-based hospitality facilities, which today number about 400 nationwide.
Each year KGH welcomes about 1,200 guests from across the country and worldwide, accommodating up to 21 people at a time at a suggested donation of $20 a night. Guests can prepare their own meals, do laundry, and even use the computer in the cozy library to check e-mail or do research on the Internet. “Comfort dogs” Garvey and Gracie always are ready for a heartwarming cuddle.
“KGH became my surrogate family and helped me keep my sanity,” says Ruth Henry, 70, of Randolph, N.Y., a guest during her husband’s hospitalization in 2004. “The staff welcomed me with open arms and provided a place to get away from the stresses and challenges my husband and I faced together.”
Lisa Kane, 46, of Syracuse, N.Y., found KGH an oasis during her husband Sean’s cancer treatment. “Our twins had room to play, we could relax in the garden and enjoy a beautiful summer evening,” she says. “The staff made our time in Buffalo the best it could be. What they do is so important to the healing process.”
Zimmerman says the Garveys’ small dream has turned into a national phenomenon. “There is a special magic about this place,” he says, “a spirit here we often say is Kevin looking over us.”
Visit www.kevinguesthouse.org for more information.