"It's a unique resource in the country," Russell tells PEOPLE
Credit: Randy Sager Photography Inc

When Kathy Russell was a young hospital administrator, she saw something she didn’t like.

“Every day I’d come up on the elevator and I’d walk through radiology and I’d see all these kids in metal cribs with their parents lined up to go through whatever test they had in the morning,” she tells PEOPLE.

“It really dawned on me that the whole business of people queuing up to go through radiology was really kind of ridiculous.”

So Russell, with the help of a group of congressional spouses and some of her hospital colleagues, co-founded the Children’s Inn, a residential facility at the National Institutes of Health for children battling life-threatening illnesses, such as cancer, blood disorders and HIV infection.

But the Children’s Inn, a rustic lodge located in Bethesda, Maryland, is more than just a place to stay. With plenty of natural light from the many windows and skylights, as well as newly remodeled kitchens so families can make their children’s favorite comfort foods, it’s a home away from home, a place where kids can have fun and be themselves.

“I learned how hard it is to have a kid with a life-threatening illness and not be in your own community and not have the people you would call on in terms of support,” Russell, 58, who lives in Montgomery County and serves as the Inn’s CEO, recalls of those early days as a hospital administrator.

“It just became clear to me that there were a lot of things that we could do if we had the right resources,” she says.

At the Children’s Inn, there’s always plenty to do. Whether it’s field trips to Washington Nationals baseball games or playing with the Inn’s resident therapy dog, Viola, Russell and her team of dedicated staff and volunteers make sure the kids are having fun every night.

One of the Inn’s most popular activities? Bingo.

“We have a police officer who comes in and calls Bingo on Tuesday nights,” Russell says.

“He’ll get off his shift and come in here,” she says, “and be standing there in his uniform with a goofy hat on and making the kids laugh.”

But it’s Viola, the Inn’s resident therapy dog, who’s the most visible member of the team. (She’s even got her own mailbox at the Inn.) A former seeing-eye dog who lost her job for being too friendly, Viola now works full-time at the Inn, keeping the kids company with her sweet, calm demeanor.

It’s not all fun and games, though.

By allowing their illnesses to be studied at NIH, these kids are helping to find a cure for some truly terrible diseases.

“They’re pioneers in that they’re looking for their own opportunity to be well, but if they can’t, they’re contributing to the body of medical knowledge that will hopefully be helpful to some other child in the future,” says Russell.

“So unlike a Ronald McDonald house, we’re in a position to bring our resources to bear to empower and engage the research in a way that helps develop new therapies,” she explains.

Robert Vogel, whose 24-year-old son, Scott, has been staying at the Children’s Inn on and off since 1999 while being treated for chronic granulomatous disease, says the Inn was a godsend.

“Words can’t describe how competent she is and how wonderful she is,” says Vogel, 62, who is also a member of the Inn’s Board of Directors.

“I’ve walked in after a long day at the hospital with my son and you always get such a warm feeling from everyone,” he says.

Tammy Koch, whose daughter Karly, 20, is staying at the Inn following a bone marrow transplant, credits Russell with making her family feel comfortable in this trying time.

“Even at a recent event we had where Kathy needed to schmooze with board members and donors, she took the time to come and talk to us,” recalls 53-year-old Koch, who works part-time as a dental hygienist. “When I’ve asked for things, she never forgets and always follows through.”

Koch, of Muncie, Indiana, is also especially grateful to the Inn for making the holidays extra special. “How do you replicate the holidays when you are away from home?” Koch says. “The Inn totally made that happen with stockings and gifts that were donated by generous donors and volunteers.”

“The kids got to make Santa’s cookies and leave them at the fireplace – just like at home,” Koch says. “Being able to keep up some of the holiday traditions with the help has meant so much and Kathy Russell has created that kind of a place.”

Adds Vogel: “I’ve seen her run down the hall chasing kids who are hysterically laughing. She has it all. She is an amazing person.”

With reporting by RENNIE DYBALL

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