“We have guests coming.”
That’s how Susan Williamson informed her husband, Richard, that three strangers would be staying in their home for two nights. Weeks earlier, she’d discussed Hosts for Hospitals with him and gotten a lukewarm response.
After all, it does seem like a big ask. The Gladwyne-based program matches volunteer host families with patients and their loved ones. Since its founding in 2000, Hosts For Hospitals has provided 144,000 nights of lodging for 3,486 patient-families. Families travel from 90 countries and all 50 states to receive state-of-the-art medical care through Main Line Health, Penn Medicine, Crozer-Keystone Health System and other medical centers. A stay can range from a few nights to several months and includes access to bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchens.
Through Hosts for Hospitals, the cost is just $20 a night—and that’s a huge savings for those saddled with medical bills. Mike Aichenbaum, the organization’s co-founder, is a leukemia survivor. While the Bryn Mawr resident received treatment at New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, his family racked up $20,000 in rent at a Manhattan apartment.
Aichenbaum knew there had to be a better way—and he found it in the Boston-based Hospitality Homes. That program, created in 1983, served as the model for Hosts for Hospitals. “Staying in a house instead of a hotel provides a sense of normalcy during a time of stress,” says Aichenbaum. “The Main Line area was perfect for this because we have so much medical care here and because we have generous people with large homes willing to participate.”
Bill Wilkinsky and Margit Novack are among them. For more than 20 years, the couple has hosted patient families in their Ardmore and Haverford homes. “Most guests think they’re intruding and they are amazed by what we do,” Wilkinsky says. “But we get so much out of the experience. Meeting these people enriches our lives. Many of them become part of our lives.”
Among them is a woman whose 80-year-old husband had open-heart surgery, followed by a long recuperation, at a Main Line Health hospital. During the second week of her 2018 stay, she asked Wilkinsky how she could repay his generosity. “I said, ‘The first thing is to stop thanking me,’” Wilkinsky recalls. “‘Also, watch Jeopardy with me. I shoutout all of the answers.’”
Sadly, the woman’s husband didn’t survive. But she stayed in touch with Wilkinsky and Novack, even attending their Passover Seder.
The Williamsons have had similar experiences with guests who’ve stayed in their Gladwyne home. They raised eight children there while running Williamson Restaurants in Bala Cynwyd, Horsham and other locations. They welcomed their first Hosts for Hospital guests in 2008. Since then, the couple has hosted hundreds of patients and their loved ones. “We’ve met people from Russia, Germany, Sweden, Austria—and many from the United States,” Susan Williamson says. “Every one of them would be welcomed back into our home.”
Reindeer herders were among the most memorable of the Williamsons’ guests. A Norwegian family of seven arrived in 2014, staying for one week while one of their children was treated at the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential in Glenside. “Reindeer herds are passed down through families in Norway,” Williamson reports. “The family had been doing this for generations. It was fascinating.”
Hosts for Hospitals has also worked with those affected by spina bifida. Pregnant mothers travel here to receive life-altering in-utero surgery not widely available elsewhere in the world. Following the surgery, the women usually need months of bed rest and care from loved ones. These can be the most touching cases for host families. In 2017, a Canadian woman and several of her family members stayed with the Williamsons. “We stayed in touch after she gave birth to her baby—her healthy baby,” Williamson says.
Wilkinsky and Novack hosted a pregnant woman who traveled from upstate New York for the procedure. The long recuperation stretched into November, so they took in all seven members of her immediate family. Others traveled to the area and stayed in a hotel so they could have Thanksgiving dinner together. “The family has that memory, and so do we,” says Wilkinsky. “That’s why we do what we do.”