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Gift of Lights ceremony takes place

Dec. 09, 2012 @ 11:07 PM

HUNTINGTON -- To Amanda and Daryl Harless, the Ronald McDonald House of the Tri-State feels like a second home.

After their twins Dustyn and Dakotah were born Nov. 14, 2000, the couple spent 85 days at the House, including Thanksgiving and Christmas. The couple, who live in Harts, W.Va., had to make another 21-day stay at the house when Dustyn had eye surgery, and yet another 42-day stay in March 2003 when their daughter Addahsyn was born.

Every Christmas holiday since, the Harless have come to celebrate the "House that Love Built" during the annual Gift of Lights ceremony and holiday open house.

"We come every year and wouldn't miss it for the world," Amanda said of the house, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary. "It feels like home, and we were here Thanksgiving and Christmas with the boys."

The Harless family was just one of the dozens of families that joined volunteers and other folks to pack the house and celebrate the late Sunday afternoon ceremony, during which Ronald McDonald helped turn on the house's outside lights with the magical power of everyone saying their favorite magic words at the same time.

"Fuzzy pickles," Ronald exclaimed with a laugh as the lights sprang to life and before the Girl Scouts (Daisies, Brownies, Juniors and Cadets) from St. Paul Lutheran Church broke into a sing-a-long of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas."

Girl Scout leaders Sarah Bell and Jill May brought over the four troops of girls, who donated some 25 gallons of sealed bags of pop tabs, as well as cartons of snacks that were collected at the girls' annual holiday skating party on Saturday.

"I think when they first hear about it, they just think about McDonald's, but once they come to the house, they come away understanding how they are helping families," May said. "It really humbles them and makes them feel good to help out. They all have big hearts."

Roger Rash, director of development for the house, said while local McDonald's owners provide about 40 percent of the funding for the house, the rest in the Tri-State is garnered from community donations and events such as the annual Chili Willi's ChiliFest, which raised about $44,000 in September for the house.

Rash said the lights ceremony is not just decorations but is symbolic of the glow of a community that had the vision and the continued love to support the house, which in 25 years has hosted more than 11,200 families spending 82,000 nights.

Those staying overnight have included folks not only from the Tri-State but from 31 additional states and five foreign countries.

Rash said since they only have a handful of paid employees (including director Margaret Wilson), they rely on more than 100 volunteers and community goodwill to keep the lights on.

Rash said that support may have to increase, as the house could be in need for a second expansion. In 2005, the house doubled its capacity from 10 rooms to 20.

Currently, about 95 percent of the residents are parents and families who have a newborn in the neonatal unit of Cabell Huntington Hospital. When the neighboring hospital opens the Hoops Family Children's Hospital, they expect demand to grow to the point that they will need to develop the third floor of the house.

"We have 20 rooms, and typically we have at least 15 or more of those rooms filled," Rash said. "When (the Children's Hospital) opens, we think it will always be full and that there is going to be a waiting list."

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