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Organization aiding terminally ill children, families finds new home in Mission Bay

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Spokesperson Marshall Lamm (right) and Alexandra Morgan, chief executive director of Family House, give a tour of the new family housing facility for children with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. (Emma Chiang/Special to S.F. Examiner)

When doctors told Bay Area native Brooksley Bigart in January 2014 her 2-year-old daughter had acute lymphoblastic leukemia, she was in disbelief.

“It’s the biggest shock that you could have. It’s something that you would never expect,” Bigart said.

At the time, Bigart ​had been living in Los Angeles but had to come to the Bay Area to take care of her parents after they were involved in a serious car accident.​ ​The news of her daughter’s illness ​kept her in​ San Francisco, where she spent three weeks living and sleeping in her daughter’s hospital room at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital.

“There’s nothing to compare it to,” Bigart said. “You’re in a hospital room, there’s no chance to really do anything but be in the hospital, and you are trying to make it feel like home but it’s not.”

After speaking with the hospital’s social workers, Bigart said she and her daughter, Ronin, were recommended to Family House, a free home for the families of children undergoing long-term care for life-threatening illnesses. The two spent nearly a year at the home, where there is no limit for how long families can stay.

“It’s completely inaccurate to call it a resource,” Bigart said. “It’s really a home for us, it’s a family.”

Bigart and her daughter are just one of hundreds of families in the past three decades that have used the free lodging and services provided by Family House. The nonprofit organization hopes to help hundreds more in the newly built Nancy and Stephen Grand Family House in Mission Bay.

A ceremonial ribbon cutting for the building March 2 will give members of the community a first look at the project that has been 10 years in the making, funded completely through a four-year $42 million capital campaign raised by private donors, local foundations and corporations.

Located just south of AT&T Park, the facility will more than double the number of people the program can accommodate on a nightly basis and replace the organization’s original locations in the Sunset district, according to Family House spokesperson Marshall Lamm.

The idea for Family House began in the 1970s, when doctors began developing better ways to treat cancer and other terminal illnesses, said Family House CEO Alexandra Morgan.

The first Family House opened in 1981 at 2nd Avenue and Irving Street, near the UCSF Medical Center’s Parnassus campus. A second location was founded in 2002, a few blocks away at 10th Avenue and Irving Street.

Morgan, who has worked with the nonprofit since 2001, said before Family House came along, the families of sick children spent weeks, sometimes months, living in hospital rooms or out of their cars if they could not afford to rent a hotel room.

Though the nonprofit is not associated with the UCSF Medical Center, Family House relies on referrals from the hospital’s social workers to locate families most in need of their services, Morgan said. To qualify, patients’ families must live more than 50 miles from San Francisco, be under 21 years old, and usually of low-income status.

“We obviously can’t pay people’s mortgages or rent but we try to help them out any other way we can,” Morgan said.

The Nancy and Stephen Grand Family House will be outfitted with 80 bedrooms, increasing the capacity from 107 people to 250 people per night, according to planning documents. Patients and their families will be able to access communal kitchens, fully furnished living rooms, access to computer labs, an outdoor garden and other amenities when the building is fully operational in late March.

“Just being organized will make it easier for families to cope and deal with the tragedy they are going through,” Lamm said.

Spanning 92,000 square feet over 5 stories, the new building will replace the two original Sunset locations.

Since its inception, the organization has depended completely on private donations to run its facilities, according to Morgan. Volunteers, as many as 2,500 a year, also help Family House address the daily needs of families who rely on the organization.

Anna Lark lived in the Family House on 2nd Avenue with her parents and four siblings in 2001 while her brother was being treated for acute myeloid leukemia. She said Family House helped her family remain intact during three years of her brother’s treatment.

“All sense of normalcy, going to school and all that stuff, completely changed,” Lark said. “Without Family House, we wouldn’t have been able to stay a family. We wouldn’t have been able to stay within a few blocks from each other.”

Lark returned to Family House to work as a volunteer after she enrolled at San Francisco State University in 2010, driven by the impact the volunteers and staff members had on her childhood.

Last year, she was hired as a family resources coordinator and is one of 16 staff members at the organization.

With the ribbon cutting ceremony for the Nancy and Stephen Grand Family House only a few weeks away, Lark said that she is busy preparing for the increased number of individuals that Family House will be able to house.

“I’ve been focusing on really getting to know each family and their stories,” Lark said. “It will be harder to know every single person but the thing that is special about Family House is making that special connection.”