She was 20 years old and living in a town more than two hours away, while her husband had to stay behind to work.
"I was all alone," Mrs. Gates said. "But at the house, there were other mothers and other families who were just like me. It was a support system. It was a safe, clean place to be."
The Gates family is among 17 families and community groups who responded to a call earlier this year to help renovate the Augusta Ronald McDonald House that serves as a refuge for families with children being treated nearby.
It is the first major renovation of the 130-year-old home since the charity opened it in 1984, said Betts Murdison, the executive director of Ronald McDonald House Charities of Augusta.
The Gates family was the first to renovate one of the 10 rooms where families can stay, she said.
Now, just inside the door to Room 6 is a framed photo of baby Marilyn, who was born with severe congenital problems and lived only 45 days in the neonatal intensive care unit before she died. Her death was traumatic for Mrs. Gates, but it eventually motivated her to switch from becoming a dental hygienist to becoming a pediatric nutritionist in the NICU at Medical College of Georgia Children's Medical Center.
About 80 percent of the parents who stay at the Ronald McDonald House in Augusta have children in the NICU, said Mrs. Murdison, whose husband is a physician with patients in the unit. Many of those children stay for a long time, Mrs. Gates said.
"We've got some in our NICU that have been there for 11 months," she said. "It's a real strain and I don't think people understand what the families do go through."
But she does. That's why she chose a soothing pale green for the walls and bought spa-style linens and furnishings. There wasn't a closet, so her husband, Rob, built a compact two-closet unit with a desk in between.
"Giving them a desk area is important," Mrs. Murdison said.
Robbie Gates, 7, contributed a framed drawing of an angel holding a star that hangs next to the bed. The family left behind a book with their story and blank pages for other families to add theirs.
"It's not just another room," Mrs. Gates said. "It does have meaning."
That is not lost on the current occupants of the room, the Griffins, who have had a child in the NICU since Oct. 25. Stuart Griffin was born prematurely at 25 weeks old and suffers from a host of congenital problems and other ailments. The child might not be through with all of his surgeries until the end of the summer, Candace Griffin said, and until then, they maintain a daily vigil. They know Mrs. Gates went through the same thing with Marilyn.
"She knows how stressful it is to be in the hospital," Mrs. Griffin said. "She knows how comforting it is to come home to something that is like a home, not just thrown together."
"It is, it's nice," Brett Griffin said.
And it is payback, Mrs. Gates said.
"I see every day our families going through what I did," she said. "And I know it's hard enough to experience a child being sick. That in and of itself is hard. But put on top of that financial strain and separation ..."
Tears stop her for a moment. But she takes a moment and adds, "I just feel like the least that I could do would be to give back something that was given to me."
Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
TAKE A PEEK
The Ronald McDonald House in Augusta, 938 Greene St., will hold an open house from 2 to 4 p.m. June 8 to show off its newly renovated rooms. Donations and volunteers are still welcome. For more information, call (706) 724-5901. There are more than 276 Ronald McDonald Houses in 30 countries providing free or low-cost temporary lodging for families while their children are being treated in nearby medical facilities.
- Gerald Robinson's Benjamin Moore Paints
- North Augusta High School Beta Club
- Leadership Augusta Class of 2008
- Leadership Augusta
- Home Builders Association of Metro Augusta Inc.
- Wackenhut Services Inc.
- Lewis Memorial United Methodist Church/Youth Group
- Tile Center
- Landrum Supply Co.
- Southern Lighting Gallery Inc.
- Master Craft Flooring
- RW Allen and Associates
- Herrin and Associates
- Nationwide Floor and Window Coverings
- Junior League of Augusta
- Renaissance Fine Furnishings
- Weinberger's Furniture Showcase
- Two Men and a Truck
- Eagle Scout Project -- Eric Fisher
- Eagle Scout Project -- Patrick Garcia
- Council of Garden Clubs of Augusta, Ga.
- Johnson Halstead
- Top Ladies of Distinction
- Warren Baptist Church Turner/Schwartz Class
- Rob and Amy Gates
- Parrot Heads of the Savannah River
- Life Together, Stevens Creek Church
- Dr. Bunyapen/Petsch Respiratory
- First Baptist Church of North Augusta/Wood Class
- Rollins Elementary School
Source: Ronald McDonald House Charities of Augusta