As volunteers and employees guided guests through St. Catherine Hospital’s Benincasa Hospitality House, most people said they’d never known it was there.

With a Christmas-themed open house coinciding with the Western Kansas Community Foundation’s Match Day, organizers hoped that would change, said Shari Brandenburg, the house’s coordinator.

“Our goal of hosting the Christmas open house is so many people in the community haven't ever been here or don't even really know what it is,” said Paige Kraus, stewardship coordinator at the St. Catherine Hospital Development Foundation. “And so it takes them coming in and seeing the home to really fall in love with it, and hopefully be willing to support it with a donation, as well.”

Since 1994, Benincasa, a seven-bedroom house across from the hospital on Sixth Street, has served as an affordable haven for families and, eventually, patients from outside Finney County needing a place to stay as they or their loved ones underwent treatment at St. Catherine.

The house, equipped with beds, laundry, a common area with a TV, a kitchen with a pantry stocked with donated nonperishables and telephone and mail services, costs about $30,000 to run each year, Kraus said, paying for utilities, cleaning supplies and necessary upgrades to carpet or appliances or furniture, among other expenses.

The house asks guests for a $25, one-time registration fee and a $10 to $20 donation a day, the latter of which they often can’t afford, Kraus said. Nobody is ever turned away. The place, which services roughly 100 people a month who stay 1,200 nights a year, runs on donations, Brandenburg said.

By the end of the open house, about 30 donation envelopes sat in the house, ready to be taken to Match Day.

Brandenburg has run Benincasa for years and has seen guests from all over and for all reasons. Everyone is welcome in the first-come, first-served house, as long as there is room.

Flipping through the guest book, Brandenburg didn’t have to go back far before she read through a dozen different towns from across and beyond Kansas.

Cancer patients stay for weeks when undergoing long stretches of radiation treatment, sometimes hitting 30, 50, 60 rounds, Brandenburg said.

She said some people came from afar to visit their sick parents. Some were truck drivers, rail passengers or travelers struck with unexpected illness.

A husband from Montana driving across the country in an RV needed shelter when his wife suddenly became sick and later died, Brandenburg said. A couple from England once stayed at the house after their son was hurt in a car accident as the family traveled through Holcomb. Another found comfort in the house and its staff when they lost their young child.

“It's the bravery. It's the fortitude of the people that stay here that are undergoing sad things…” Brandenburg said. “It's just such a wonderful house and a wonderful place for people to be able to come and regroup.”

Two of those people are cancer patient Sharon Jackson of Scott City, receiving radiation treatment at St. Catherine, and her daughter, Kelly Strouse of Michigan, two guests that had come to the house a week ago with plans to stay through much of December. Jackson beat kidney cancer last year, but the disease came back unexpectedly.

Strouse came to Kansas to help her mother work through the diagnosis a month ago, keeping things light to work through the reality of the situation. When her mom is calm, she makes her laugh. When she becomes overwhelmed by her situation and the emotions hit the surface, Strouse tells her it’s OK and takes over.

"The first time it was really hard on her, but it went so fast that she didn't really have time to even have it sink in or think of it. And now, you know, she didn't think this was going to happen again,” Strouse said. “She's been in a lot of pain this time and crying and very emotional and nervous and scared. And I try to be goofy sometimes just to make her laugh, take her mind off of it ... I told her I'm not leaving until I make sure she's fine. I'll move here if I have to.”

At Benincasa, the mother and daughter didn’t have to explain themselves to the people living or working at the house — there was an unspoken understanding based on shared, unwanted experience, Strouse said. It was peaceful and quiet and full of people who were open and understanding. When they sat and spoke with other guests, they didn’t go into their problems or the gritty details of sickness and treatment, Jackson said. They just talked.

When patients finish radiation treatment, they’re exhausted, Brandenburg said. They go upstairs and fall asleep. They shouldn’t be on the road.

And, as guests face a tsunami of unexpected healthcare expenses, the house is a saving grace. The cheapest motel in town still costs $80 or $90 a night, Brandenburg said, and the dollars add up for patients needing to stay in town for days or weeks on end.

At Benincasa, which in itself means “the good home,” guests have a refuge, Brandenburg said, both from long travel and the ever-rising costs to stay alive. They remark on how nice and homey it is. They have one less thing to worry about.

At Jackson’s home in Scott City, she’s face to face with a laundry list of other worries on top of her health, Strouse said. There are bills and animals to take care of, as well as day-to-day responsibilities. At Benincasa, it’s calmer. She has time to be by herself, Jackson said.

“I think mom really needed this…” Strouse said. “Because she's stressed out a lot and she worries about everything, so I think it's nice for her to just kind of get away from the homestyle right now ... Here she can come here and she's like, 'Wow, this is so different. I can just relax. I don't have to do anything.' You know? And it's just really nice for her. And I'm just appreciative that they got this place and so thankful.”

Jackson agreed. She thought everyone should hear about the house.

“It just feels like home,” Strouse said.

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