A motorcycle crash figures into the story of how Grace Guest House came to be in South Buffalo.
Retired U.S. Marine Corps Gunny Sgt. David Celej nearly died in the 2013 crash in North Carolina. His father, who lives in Western New York, stayed in a hospitality house near the hospital where Celej spent several weeks recovering. The father returned to work and raved about the temporary haven – and inspired Cynthia Battista, a National Fuel co-worker.
“It answered a prayer for me,” Battista said. “I had been searching for that thing that I knew I was supposed to do, but didn’t quite know what it was. As we talked, the lights went on.”
Grace Guest House welcomed its first guest last month in the former St. John the Evangelist rectory, just west of the Seneca Street entrance to Cazenovia Park. It serves families traveling from the outlying towns of Erie County, and beyond, in need of temporary lodging while a loved one is being treated at Mercy Hospital or Erie County Medical Center.
Battista, of West Seneca, is founder and president of the nonprofit that runs the two-story, nine-room guest house.
A framed photo of Celej, his wife, Erin, and their daughter, Chloe, hangs outside the cozy dining room in the renovated rectory, near inspirational needlepoint signs with comforting quotes from Mahatma Gandhi, John Lennon and Mother Teresa.
Battista came up with the tagline that also hangs in several spaces: "Come. Stay with us. Rest a while."
The Van Tyne family bought the church and rectory for $125,000 from the Diocese of Buffalo after the church closed them in 2009, Battista said. The family considered launching a bed and breakfast in the pastoral residence and poured tens of thousands into renovations there before selling it to the Grace Guest House.
Hook & Ladder – a development company comprised of city firefighters – bought the former church and has begun a mixed-use commercial and residential project.
Those wishing to stay in the guest house should talk with a hospital social worker, call the house at 829-7240 or visit graceguesthouse.org.
Visitors can stay up to 30 consecutive days, though all so far have spent a week or less, said Kevin McLaughlin, director of mission and philanthropy. The recommended donation for a suite is $60 per night; for smaller rooms, $35 or $40. Nobody is turned away for inability to donate.
Battista, 55, started her volunteer life as a teenage candy striper at Our Lady of Victory Hospital. She has been a den mother for Boy Scouts, a Girl Scout leader, and a Mercy Hospital "cuddler" for special needs babies. She and her husband, Robert, a lawyer, who live in West Seneca, have three children, Brianna, 26, Rob, 24, and Jimmy, 15.
McLaughlin, 56, a former priest, left parish ministry 22 years ago and got married.
"God's got a wicked sense of humor," he said. "In spite the fact that I stopped wearing a black shirt, every one of my jobs since has been associated with ministry." He has worked primarily in fundraising, including with the Mercy Hospital Foundation and at his high school alma mater, Bishop Timon. He and wife, Dianna, have two daughters, Keanna, 20, and Makayla, 16.
Q. What do people tell you they remember about this guest house space?
Battista: They talk about how their kids were baptized or they were married in the church next door. Generations did that but most of them did not get behind the scenes here in the rectory. If anything, you only got to go in the front, so they love to see what this all looks like. It was a mystery before.
Q. What’s provided during the stay?
McLaughlin: They’re able to park behind the house. We have the transportation van (donated by the West Herr Auto Group). We have an assortment of breakfast items. We have food prepared by volunteers. We’ve tried to create a home environment, not a hotel. That’s been the response of the guests we’ve had.
Q. What are the amenities like?
Battista: Everyone has a private bedroom that is just beautifully furnished. Currently, three bedrooms are on suite and it will soon be four. There’s a beautiful dining room with a fireplace. The Butler Pantry has stocked foods. Visitors can help themselves, as they would at home. Spectrum donates cable TV to us and guests can watch TV in the parlor on the second floor. We have a lot of people in ministry, including Kevin, who are available as well. ... To have company, a companion, is also something we can provide.
Q. What conditions do patients have that require stays nearby for loved ones?
Battista: Mercy Hospital specializes in heart, stroke and neurological conditions. The majority of their patients are about 55 years and older. We’re not expecting a lot of children but we welcome anyone of any age. … Because we’ve started the dialogue with ECMC, I don’t have a sense of their population or where they come from.
Q. Where have guests tended to hail from and what do you expect in the future?
McLaughlin: Our first guest came from Olean. The family came from down in the Glenwood area and from as far away as New York City. We get a lot of people presenting from Dunkirk, Jamestown.
Q. Where does your funding come from for this project?
Battista: Completely from the community. We hold a fundraiser in the fall, Juice and Jazz. We had an invitation-only breakfast where there was “a big ask” and people pledged more than $125,000 to be donated over three years. We also get individual donations. … For 2018, the budget is about $260,000. That’s a pretty significant bump up because now we’re staffing around the clock. We’re going to apply for some grants next year, now that we’re open. We receive a lot of unsolicited donations, as well, and program revenue from those staying at the house. We know we’re not going to be fully occupied and we know not everybody is going to have the means to make a donation.
Q. Can you talk about the staff and what roles they play?
McLaughlin: Cindy and I are full-time and we have seven part-timers.
Battista: The part-timers manage guest services. They’re trained on the reservation system we’re using. Because we’re so small, we don’t have a housekeeper, so they turn over rooms and clean. We all do whatever needs to be done.
McLaughlin: Our motivation is to serve those in need, those who are away from home, and try to do it as quietly as we can, being as present for people as we need to be.
Grace Guest House will focus its mission on farther-flung families with loved ones in hospitals outside the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. Despite the closing early this year of the American Cancer Hope Lodge, two similar hospitality houses remain open to serve the campus: Kevin Guest House, 782 Ellicott St., and the Ronald McDonald House, 780 W. Ferry St. Several local hotels also coordinate lodging for patients or their loved ones who need accommodations during a patient’s treatment. Many Roswell Park Cancer Institute patients and families may be eligible for lodging placements through the Cancer Society’s Extended Stay America program, and families that qualify for more assistance are able to benefit from an “Angel Fund” maintained from donations to the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation.
Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon