Dear Pope: Check out these hosts for the hospitalized

Pope Francis will stay at St. Charles Borromeo seminary while in Philly for the World Meeting of Families. A visit with Hosts for Hospitals would be a good idea, columnist Ronnie Polaneczky says. (MATT ROURKE/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

GREETINGS, Pope Francis!

Pope Francis will stay at St. Charles Borromeo seminary while in Philly for the World Meeting of Families. A visit with Hosts for Hospitals would be a good idea, columnist Ronnie Polaneczky says. Gallery: Dear Pope: Check out these hosts for the hospitalized

Your itinerary was announced yesterday - and, wow, you'll be one busy pontiff during the two days you're in Philly for September's World Meeting of Families.

So I feel bad asking you to squeeze one more obligation into a schedule already packed with Masses, speeches and face time with seminarians and prisoners.

Still, I'm hoping you'll stop by the home of Mike Aichenbaum. He lives in Bryn Mawr, just 5 miles from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, where you'll be staying during your visit.

You and Aichenbaum are kindred spirits, Your Holiness. The man is doing God's work with love, compassion and generosity.

And, if I may be honest, you kind of owe him.

Aichenbaum is executive director of Hosts for Hospitals, a nonprofit that recruits local residents to offer free lodging to families who travel here for desperately needed medical treatment.

His services are going to be critical during the World Meeting of Families, because hotel rooms within a 100-mile radius of our city already are booked for the six-day extravaganza.

If you weren't such a rock star, Your Holiness, there'd be beds to spare. But every time you open your mouth these days, you say something so unexpected and surprising, more folks love you.

No wonder we have to keep re-estimating the number of visitors you'll attract to the World Conference. At first, we figured a million pilgrims would flock here. Now the projection is closer to 1.5 mil.

Props to you!

Except that the crowds will hinder out-of-town patients needing medical treatment in Philly - a global mecca for cutting-edge health care - because they'll have nowhere to stay.

Staying here is expensive, by the way. Patients may already be in wobbly economic straits, unable to work because of illness. Hotel costs can worsen their financial plight or force them to skip treatment altogether.

That's why the big-hearted volunteers with Hosts for Hospitals open their homes to patients and their families, for free.

At minimum, hosts provide a comfortable bed or pull-out couch and access to a bathroom. But they often offer so much more (as Aichenbaum says, "bed, bath and a little beyond"): meals, rides around town, comfort in a time of crisis. Sometimes, deep friendships develop, especially in cases where patients must return for follow-up care.

"Our volunteers say they get more out of the arrangement than their visiting families do," says Aichenbaum, who co-founded Hosts for Hospitals in 2000 as a way to pay forward the many kindnesses shown him and his family when he was diagnosed with Stage 3 cancer.

Granted, Your Holiness, Philadelphia is blessed with a variety of medical-hospitality houses that offer free or low-cost lodging to out-of-towners.

There's the 30-room Gift of Life Family House in Center City, for transplant patients. There's AstraZeneca's 37-suite Hope Lodge in Cheltenham. There's Fox Chase Cancer Center's own seven-apartment Coventry House for cancer patients and their kin. And this area is blessed with three Ronald McDonald Houses that provide 85 suites to families dealing with pediatric illness.

But those places cater to people with specific illnesses, and their numbers are limited. Hosts for Hospitals, on the other hand, has more flexibility because hosts' homes are as varied as the hosts themselves.

In March, for example, Aichenbaum was able to find, on very short notice, lodging for Jeromy and Stacy Scheel of Idaho.

The Scheels have six kids, four of whom are physically disabled. Two have arthrogryposis, a crippling joint disorder requiring surgery and follow-up therapies. The whole family needed lodging here for the three months the treatment would require at Shriners Hospital for Children - Philadelphia.

Aichenbaum placed the Scheels with a Main Line couple whose guest house beautifully accommodates the Scheels' needs.

"It's been amazing," says Jeromy Scheel, who was "desperate" when he first reached out to Hosts for Hospitals. "We didn't know how we'd ever afford a place for all of us. Our hosts have been there for us in every way."

Then there are the hundreds of pregnant women who rely on Hosts for Hospitals for lodging when they travel to Children's Hospital of Philadelphia for treatment at CHOP's Center for Fetal Diagnosis and Treatment. The center treats more than 1,700 women a year, nearly 500 of whom need to actually deliver their babies in CHOP's Special Delivery Unit - the world's first birth facility in a pediatric hospital specifically designed for mothers carrying babies with known birth defects.

"We get women from all 50 states and from 60 countries in this program alone," says CHOP social worker Heather Ousley, who provides support services to families. "They often have to relocate here until they deliver their babies," some of whom need surgery right after birth.

Aichenbaum fears that out-of-town patients may go bedless during the World Conference, Your Holiness, so he's on a mission to recruit 75 additional host families.

Response to his social-media campaign has been strong, but I'll bet that your Papal blessing, from afar, would seal the deal.

Then, when you get to town, I think, a second blessing in person would be awesome.

Aichenbaum's home isn't as grand as the seminary where you'll be staying. But I know you won't mind, because everyone knows that your tastes are as humble as those of a young family who, on a desperate night 2,000 years ago, found refuge in a manger.

Waddya say?


For information about Hosts for Hospitals, go to www.hostsforhospitals.org. Or call 215-472-3801; or email mike@hostsforhospitals.org.


Email: polaner@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly

Blog: ph.ly/RonnieBlog

Columns: ph.ly/Ronnie