The Bencomo family is one of many families grateful to the Ronald McDonald House.
Everybody loves ice cream, but how about a treat that also helps families in need?
Talk about a sweet deal.
Families can enjoy an afternoon of sweet treats on Sunday, April 8, at the Winter Park Civic Center as the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Central Florida will host its eighth annual Ice Cream Social.
The event will include everything from Kelly’s Homemade Ice Cream and Jeremiah’s Italian Ice to Peak Season Pops and The Father’s Table Cheesecake. Guests will enjoy a silent auction, face painting, games, a photo booth and special appearances.
It’s an event that benefits Ronald McDonald House Charities of Central Florida, an entity that provides a home away from home for families with children receiving treatment at hospitals and medical facilities in Orlando.
Orlando residents Kristen and Anthony Bencomo know the charity’s mission well. They were residents at a Ronald McDonald House — not once but twice.
It started in 2006, when Kristen was six months pregnant and began having complications. She delivered the family’s first daughter, Gabriella, through a Cesarean section at 26 weeks, but she only measured 21 weeks and weighed 14 ounces.
“I have pictures where my wedding band is actually on her arm, like she could wear it almost like a purse — that’s how small she was,” Anthony said. “She was one of the smallest babies at Florida Hospital at the time.”
“They told us they weren’t even sure if she’d be born alive, but she was,” Kristen said. “We were whisked away to the NICU and they said, ‘Expect to stay here for three to four months, but in the meantime, we’re going to send you to the Ronald McDonald House.’”
Kristen always had driven past the Ronald McDonald House at 2201 Alden Road next to Florida Hospital but never knew what it was until then.
“My doctor’s office at the time was somewhere over here,” Kristen said. “I, to be honest, always thought it was an orphanage, which sounds terrible now. I didn’t know what it was.”
The house provided the family with a quiet place to sleep, a shower and meals, all conveniently located near the hospital so they could keep an eye on Gabriella.
“We live in east Orlando, and back then it would have taken us 40 to 45 minutes to get here,” Kristen said. “We were called many times at midnight, 3 a.m. ‘You need to get to the hospital right away.’ Many times, she would crash, and we’d have to make some big decisions. Had it not been that we were not steps away, it would have been too late if we were staying at home. The fact that we were so close was just invaluable.”
Gabriella was with the Bencomo family for 12 days before she died.
“She was just too tiny and couldn’t fight any longer,” Kristen said.
“We decided as a couple and as a family that we’re forever indebted to Ronald McDonald House that we were able to spend that much time with Gabriella for those short and long 12 days. If it wasn’t for them, that would have never happened.”
“There’s things that come to you in life when you need them most, and obviously Ronald McDonald House was here when we needed them the most,” Anthony said. “Having those days where you have doctors telling you you have to sign a ‘do not resuscitate,’ and you’re signing forms and you only have minutes to be able to get there because this respirator didn’t work and your kid is struggling. … The day (Gabriella) passed it was like 3 o’clock in the morning, and I got a phone call that it’s not going well and you need to be there. The mere fact that I’m here, and I can actually see that hospital and I can run to it. … There is nothing that anyone can say to me about how important this place is. Obviously, it was a super long walk on the way back, but to be able to go there and to be able to at least hold my kid one last time or heck the first time because she was so small … I would have missed that little bit of time to hold her. I would’ve missed it.”
Two years later, Kristen became pregnant with their daughter Bella. She was delivered as a healthy baby but started having apnea episodes and preemie seizures — Bella was delivered at 36 weeks, still technically considered a preemie.
She stayed for about two weeks in the NICU, and Kristen and Anthony Bencomo were right back at the Ronald McDonald House before they took their second daughter home 12 days later.
Bella is 9 years old today and is in great health.
“We’re very blessed with a happy, healthy 9-year-old daughter,” Kristen said. “I know she doesn’t remember why we were here, but she knows why we were here. She’s getting to be the age now where she can start coming and volunteering with me once a month.”
The Bencomo family has supported the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Central Florida ever since. They attend events like the annual Ice Cream Social, donate meals and buy a wish list of toys for children staying at the house every year during the holidays.
There is no way they can ever repay the Ronald McDonald House for everything they’ve done, Kristen said.
“We’re still living and thriving and giving back,” she said.