By: Karen Raber
Sometimes, we discover good things through our sad experiences. Sometimes, trials bring us face to face with love. And, sometimes, a ray of hope surprises us when we have come to the end of our resources.
That’s how it happened for Colleen and Charlie Miller. When their precious little daughter stopped eating and became lethargic, they took her to see a doctor. The test results revealed that sweet little Carmen had a large brain tumor. Her treatment at Akron Children’s Hospital would require her to stay within ten minutes of the hospital for three months… and the Millers lived an hour away. How would they ever manage? Where would they stay? And even if there were housing options, would they be affordable? There was one thing of which the couple was sure; their daughter would never be alone through treatment, and if they would have to sleep in their car to make this possible, they were willing to do so.
It wasn’t until after Carmen’s surgery that a ray of hope shone through the darkness. They learned of “the house that love built.” The Millers sought out Ronald McDonald House Akron, and sure enough, it was across the street from Akron Children’s Hospital. Fortunately, the House had room for them, and it became their second home.
“We don’t know what we’d do without this place,” said Charlie. “There were really no other options for us. They helped us take care of our daughter, so they’re family as far as I’m concerned.”
Ronald McDonald Houses were founded to provide a short-term home for families with children who are undergoing extensive medical treatment. These Houses are built within close proximity of hospitals to keep parents close to their sick children.
For many families like the Millers, charting the course of a scary diagnosis and the discomfort of their sick child is stressful enough without having to worry about where to bathe, brush their teeth, or sleep. Ronald McDonald House allows parents to focus on their child without worrying about their next meal or where to lay their head.
RMH Akron is one of these houses offering shelter and support, and it’s the one the Millers stayed at during Carmen’s treatment. A private bedroom and bathroom stocked with toiletries and freshly laundered sheets and towels awaited Carmen’s family when they checked in. A hot meal was provided every evening by groups of caring volunteers, and a full pantry offered breakfast and lunch items, along with snacks and drinks for any time of the day or night. Laundry facilities, complete with supplies, were ever ready to keep their laundry clean. Then there was the spacious living area, playroom, rec room, and outdoor area in which to relax. In short, RMHA provided nearly every physical comfort their family needed during their stay at the hospital.
While, at first glance, RMHA may appear more like a hotel than a house, the staff does not want residents to feel like they are staying at a hotel. They want families to feel free to move about the house as if they were at home. As Thomas Ram, a parent staying at the House, said, “You’re not isolated like in a hotel room. We mix right in with the people who are staying here longer. You eat dinner and lunch with them, and you end up talking about their kids’ conditions and sharing trials and tribulations. That’s very helpful.”
Who initially thought of providing something so necessary for families of sick children?
The credit goes to a former Philadelphia Eagles football player, Fred Hill, whose daughter Kim was diagnosed with leukemia. During her treatment, Fred recognized the dilemma of families who traveled great distances to acquire medical treatment for their children. He asked his team-mates to join him in raising funds, and together they raised more than $100,000 to support the hospital. Kim’s doctor and her team accepted the gift with gratefulness and a question. Could they raise another $32,000 to fund a house near the hospital where families of the children could stay for some much-needed rest and support?
This was when Ed Rensi, area manager for McDonald’s, agreed to fill the gap. Since they were using the Philadelphia Eagles in an advertising campaign, he offered to donate the proceeds of their Shamrock Shakes to the cause, and in return, he wanted the house to be named The Ronald McDonald House. So, because of a doctor’s dream and the generosity of a football team and a restaurant, a house near the hospital was purchased and renovated. This house was opened for service in October 1974 as the first Ronald McDonald House.
As others heard of the concept, they too began to team up with McDonald’s restaurants to provide Houses in other cities, and soon the organization, Ronald McDonald House Charities, was formed. Today, there are more than 350 Ronald McDonald Houses located worldwide. They can be found in more than sixty-four countries and regions around the globe.
One misconception people have of these houses is that they are owned and operated by hospitals or by McDonalds. They are, in fact, an autonomous entity owned by a non-profit corporation within the city of its location. They are sponsored by very generous organizations, businesses, and individuals from the community who care and believe that no child should ever face a hospital alone.
Several years after the first House opened in Philadelphia, the House in our story came into being. The dream of providing a Ronald McDonald House had caught on with Bill Considine then president and CEO of Akron Children’s Hospital. As he watched countless weary parents sleep on cramped waiting room chairs or hallway floors just to be near their children, his dream spurred him to action. Through his determination and leadership, and the funds from hundreds of generous people, the 20-bedroom Ronald McDonald House Akron was built. It proved to be the blessing Considine dreamt it to be to thousands who came for treatment.
That was in 1985. In the years that followed, Akron Children’s Hospital experienced significant growth and became the largest pediatric health care provider in Northeast Ohio. That meant that more and more families were coming to Akron for treatment for their children, and the size of the original House was no longer adequate. In 2017 alone, RMHA served 10,505 individuals, including families from twenty-four states and four countries. In April 2018, RMHA opened an expansion—nearly three times larger than the original House—which included forty-two new guest rooms.
Imagine a house of this proportion with forty-two families living in it at the same time! A quick size-up of our own homes reveals quite a few pieces of furniture and appliances needed to keep our families ticking. Then think of all the linens and utilities, not to mention the extensive grocery lists, cleaning, and maintenance that need constant attention. How does it all come together at such a huge facility? Do families pay to stay at Ronald McDonald House?
RMHA asks for a twenty-dollar donation per night. And since it’s a donation, it’s mentioned once to families when they come in and never brought up again. Because many parents must leave their jobs and homes to stay with their children, even twenty dollars a night becomes unaffordable. No one is ever forced to pay that amount, and no family is ever turned away due to an inability to pay.
So where do funds come from in order for a House of this size to operate? Monetary donations play a significant role. Some donors provide Room Sponsorships, which are funds designated for individual rooms to alleviate operating costs for a year—and sometimes a lifetime!
Some donations are along a more practical line. Corporations, such as La-Z-Boy, have donated furniture and other large items needed to make the House comfortable for families. Groceries and household supplies, which are always needed and very appreciated, are donated by a wide variety of people who care and want to help out. Even small donations count, such as postage stamps and white paper. While these may seem rather insignificant, it’s the often-overlooked items that are needed to facilitate the smooth flow of the entire operation.
Another very valuable donation is the gift of time. While RMHA is staffed by eight individuals who work at the House full-time, this small but dedicated staff is supported by a network of hundreds of volunteers that step up to help. Volunteers are the heart of the House and help with anything from cleaning to preparing and serving the hot dinner that is provided each evening. It takes a very generous and loving community to make a Ronald McDonald House run efficiently!
Some of the volunteers who come to help on a regular basis have been recipients of the love and comfort of the House themselves and wish to give back. One of these kind individuals is Emma Yoder.
Over twenty years ago, Noah and Emma Yoder’s daughter Kathy was born with a diaphragmatic hernia. Kathy’s treatment at Akron Children’s Hospital required the Yoders to stay at RMHA for ten weeks.
“During that time, Ronald McDonald House was like a second home for us,” Yoder recalls. “The volunteers and the staff were great. We had many good meals. At Thanksgiving time we had turkey with all the trimmings, which was really memorable.”
Emma was touched by the caring support they received at RMHA, and she wanted to give back. Since then, Emma and her friends from Holmes County have been cooking and serving a hot meal on the second Tuesday of each month. Her menus usually consist of fried chicken, meatloaf, or hamburgers, along with mashed potatoes, salad, a cooked vegetable, and two desserts. Emma also happily serves her cinnamon rolls and bread, which have become quite famous at RMHA. She knows they are always a highlight for the residents.
After dinner, Emma often chats with the residents. “They are very nice to visit with and really appreciate what we bring for them,” Yoder said.
Emma also found another way of giving back. She dreamed of compiling a cookbook featuring recipes from the women who have helped her over the years, along with some of her own. In 2014, after sixteen years of collecting and organizing recipes, her cookbook, titled, Cooking for the House That Love Built, was published. The book includes more than 400 recipes from 150 contributors. Emma donates a percentage of its sales to RMHA. “This is another way to give back,” Yoder says. “I wanted to do that for the House.”
Still others step up to serve, not from personal experience at the House, but because they feel a compassion in their hearts for children.
Brian Canale and his wife, Carol, are the owners of Hopcan Gardens and White House Chicken in Barberton. When they were asked nearly twenty years ago to help at RMHA, the couple didn’t hesitate. They agreed, and since then, their restaurants have provided hearty Barberton chicken meals once a month to the families staying there.
“I have a soft spot for children,” Brian says. “These kids didn’t ask for any of this. These children and their families deserve our support.” Brian is hopeful that other restaurants will consider following in his footsteps. “It’s not about business; it’s about the kids,” he says. “The cost is minimal, but the impact is huge.”
If you would like to help or give in some way to RMH, find the House nearest your home and contact them for a list of things with which you can help.
RMH’s Wish List is an enjoyable and easy way to know what to give. This list contains the top items needed and used at the House. It lists kitchen and pantry items, household supplies, and gift cards for specific stores where staff members purchase perishable items such as milk and produce. It requires an abundance of supplies to take care of the families at the House each day! This list can be found at their website or requested and mailed out to you.
Volunteering your time is another great way to give. RMH can always use volunteers for preparing and serving the evening meal, baking cookies for residents to enjoy, or for cleaning, stocking, and organizing. If you would love to help out, contact RMH for a list of guidelines to help you or your group get started.
Did you know that the tiny tab on the top of your pop can is a way to help families at RMH? The Pop Tab Partner Program works with recycling companies to recycle them for cash. The proceeds from the tabs go to purchase things that residents at the House can enjoy during their stay. Some of the items purchased for RMHA are public computers, a hot dog cooker, and some playground equipment. Why can’t you give the entire pop can? Cans are messy and take up a lot of space. Pull tabs are clean, compact, and easy to collect. The aluminum in the tab is also made of a higher grade and thus has a higher recycling value. Any clean container such as two-liter bottles, milk jugs, or Ziploc bags work well to collect pop tabs. It’s a great way to involve children in giving. Some schools make a math or science project out of collecting a million, but RMH will take any amount you collect, whether it’s one hundred or one million! Collected tabs can be dropped off at RMH or at one of their donation drop zones. If you choose to drop them off at the House, call them ahead of time and schedule a tour to see the House for yourself.
And for some, sending a donation works best. When we send out an envelope, we long to connect with the recipients. It would make our donation seem more personal, more real. But we may never see who the recipients of our gifts and kind deeds are. It may be a little girl like Carmen Miller, recovering from a brain surgery while learning to talk and go potty at a House that really isn’t her home. It may be a little boy like Teddy Ram, struggling with a rare developmental disability with no answers or cures. Or maybe it’s the parents, leaving behind their busy agendas, who are blessed most. But each gift of love plays a role in an unfolding story, a non-fictional story with characters who are working through some of the most difficult days in their life. We may never connect with the family at the other end of our donation, and they may never know us. But that doesn’t matter; we’re providing a link in the chain of love that will keep on giving.
It’s love that built the house. Love perpetuated the vision, and love still moves the many individuals who make this house a home. Every donation, every act of service, every kind smile and listening ear, add another layer of warmth for its residents.
Ronald McDonald House Akron
141 W. State Street, Akron, OH 44302
(330) 253-5400 • www.rmhakron.org