Sycamore’s Pay-It-Forward House offers respite while loved ones receive extended care

By Jack McCarthy Chronicle Media

Joyce Mathey, executive director of Sycamore’s Pay-It-Forward House, sits in the center’s Serenity Garden. (Photo by Jack McCarthy / DeKalb Journal)

The stately, three-story home near downtown Sycamore is set amid towering maple and oak trees just beginning to display fall’s multi-color splendor.

It’s a comfortable fit inside a neighborhood containing some of the city’s most notable, oldest and well-cared-for landmark homes.

But the Pay-It-Forward house, located at 719 Somonauk St., is perhaps equally known for what’s inside — as a respite and anchor for scores of guests.

Since 2005 the house has served as a home away from home for family members of loved ones undergoing long-term care and treatment next door at Kindred Hospital-Sycamore.

“Our mission is to serve the families who have patients at Kindred Hospital,” said Joyce Mathey, executive director and one of the home’s founders.

“(Kindred) patients have been transferred in from another facility, it’s the next step in their care,” Mathey said. “They might have been in a car accident, had a heart attack or stroke at some other facility from three-to-five hours away .. . or even from here locally.”

Patti Scanlon-Gillis, whose husband, Brad, is under care at Kindred Hospital with a bacterial infection, popped into the house for a late morning visit last week.

“I hadn’t slept in a bed in 4 1/2 months,” said Scanlon-Gillis, a resident of downstate Mt. Pulaski who has already been a guest for more than a month. “So just to sleep in a bed and take a bath has been tremendous. I wish there had been something like this for me in Springfield. It’s been a rough period but I’m just to glad to be here. It’s such a blessing.”

Pay-It-Forward House is patterned after Ronald McDonald House, the worldwide collection of homes for families with sick children undergoing medical treatment at nearby hospitals.

The 69-bed hospital calls itself a “transitional care” facility that offers the same level of treatment as traditional hospitals but is focused on patients needing extended recovery time and long-term care.

Guests are referred to Pay-It-Forward House by Kindred Hospital.

Guests have logged more than 19,000 nights at Sycamore’s Pay-It-Forward House since it opened in 2005. (Photo by Jack McCarthy / DeKalb Journal)

The average Kindred patient stays 30-to-45 days, Mathey said. Before Pay-It-Forward House opened, opportunities for loved ones to stay close were problematic. Some were forced to make daily long-distance commutes or stay in expensive hotels or even resort to sleeping overnight in cars.

Mathey and her friend, Marylou Eubanks, got the house started.

“Marylou Eubanks is actually the founder of the house, Marylou and I have been friends forever,” Mathey said. “She saw there was a need because there were families who were sleeping in the lobby, sleeping in cars, driving back and forth and just being physically and emotionally exhausted while they were taking care of their loved ones.”

Eubanks’ dream was to bring a Ronald McDonald-style home to Sycamore to serve those loved ones. When the house next to Kindred Hospital was about to come on the market, Eubank’s family foundation was able to purchase it and opened Pay-It-Forward six months later in March 2005.

The Victorian-style home features high ceilings and decor appropriate to an older home, including a comfortable first floor sitting room and three second-floor bedrooms, including one with lace curtains and antique quilts.

Furnishings were all donated by community members, including a antique dining table set plus matching hutch. “From the rugs on the floor to the pictures on the wall,” Mathey said.

A city operating permit prohibited use of a stove but there’s still a kitchen with refrigerator and microwave, plus a shelf of cookie jars, a popular attraction. Guests can bring their own food while the house offers water, beverages and snacks.

The lowest level has a laundry and family room with oversized TV and internet access. There’s also an exit into a peaceful patio and Serenity Garden that runs the length of the long, rectangular lot.

“It’s a secret garden,” Mathey said. “You wouldn’t even know it’s here. Our guests use it all year round.”

Kindred Hospital has a room available for disabled guests, plus there are provisions to accommodate others in nearby host homes and even local hotels should Pay-It-Forward House be filled.

No matter where they stay or length, guests pay just $10 per night while also contributing with cleanup and daily chores.

Some guests have stayed just a few nights while for others the residency has lasted months.

“They stay as long as the patient is here, as long as they want,” Mathey said. “We never turn anybody away for inability to pay,”

A comfortable bedroom at Pay-It-Forward House offers quilts on the bed and lace curtains over windows. (Photo by Jack McCarthy / DeKalb Journal)

Mathey said the house has recorded more than 19,500 nights of rest since 2005.

Like Scanlon-Gillis, many other guests effusively praise Pay-It-Forward House in posted online comments.

“It was truly a blessing, very convenient and economical, allowing us to stay a whole week when, otherwise, we could only have afforded a couple of days,” one family wrote “Visiting an injured loved-one is stressful, but having the extra time made the long trip from Charlottesville, Va. much less hectic.”

A pair of siblings from Texas said “each day was more positive than the one before. Testimonies by people that work, volunteer, and live in this blessed place is nothing short of miraculous.”

Mathey is Pay-It-Forward’s lone paid staffer and relies on an army of around 100 volunteers who handle duties ranging from greeting and helping guests to property upkeep.

Pay-It-Forward House operates on a $120,000 yearly budget with grant funding from foundations, in-kind donations, and gifts from individuals. It also hosts two major fundraisers yearly, including an effort about to start where donors adopt a day of the year for $100.

Pay-It-Forward is always interested in new volunteers. For information on monthly volunteer and training opportunities, call 815-762-4882 or visit