Providing a “McDonald’s Vacation”

Professors Volunteer at Cleveland’s Ronald McDonald House

By Christian Taske ‘07

Alyson, 5, was diagnosed with aortic stenosis, a heart defect caused by a membrane under her aortic valve, when she was 3. Her parents were told she would eventually have to have open heart surgery to remove the membrane, which was causing reduced blood flow to her body. Two years later, they scheduled the surgery at the Cleveland Clinic for the summer, so Alyson wouldn't have to miss school.

Living about 100 miles away, near Youngstown, and knowing that only one person could stay at her bedside, Alyson’s family needed a place to stay while she was hospitalized. They considered a hotel, but couldn’t afford the rooms. They considered staying with friends, but the nearest lived 30 miles away. Then they considered the Ronald McDonald House.

What the family expected was a room to sleep in, fast or hospital food all week, and a bagful of dirty laundry to take home. What they got instead were relaxing family rooms, hot meals prepared by volunteers, and a fully-stocked laundry room in which to wash clothes.

Like a vacation: Alyson and Emilee have fond memories of their stay at RMH.
Like a vacation: Alyson and Emilee have fond memories of their stay at RMH.

Alyson, her sister Emilee, 7, and their parents snuggled as a family in one of the double beds in their room that night. The next morning, Alyson had her surgery.

Alyson’s family is just one of 1,200 who stay at the Ronald McDonald House (RMH) every year at little to no cost. They are families with children who receive medical care at Cleveland-area hospitals for serious illnesses, such as cancer, leukemia, cystic fibrosis or heart defects. Their stay at RMH is largely made possible by volunteers – volunteers like a group of Notre Dame College professors that recently cooked a Tex-Mex themed meal for RMH residents.

Sporting cowboy hats, bandanas and sheriff stars, the “cowgirls” served pulled pork sandwiches, chicken soft tacos, rice, refried beans, a Mexican casserole and salad. For dessert, they brought punch, carrot cupcakes, and cookies shaped like cowboy hats, boots and cacti.

“After hearing the heartbreaking stories of these families in crisis, it seemed like the least we could do,” Assistant Professor of English Dr. Amy Kesegich said.

Dr. Louise Prochaska, professor of theology and women’s studies, remembered one story in particular.

One of the children enjoying the food was a little boy, who couldn’t have been older than 10. He was sitting in a wheelchair, his leg in a cast. But he wasn’t a patient at one of the local hospitals; his sister was. She was having surgery for head injuries she had sustained in a car crash.

When Dr. Prochaska started talking to what she thought were the boy’s parents, she realized they were his grandparents. Mom and dad had died in the automobile accident.

“They had adopted the children and were raising them on a farm in rural Ohio,” Dr. Prochaska said. “At some point, the grandmother turned to her husband and said, ‘We’re managing, aren’t we, Bobby?’”

Dr. Prochaska said she was amazed by the strength and faith of the families who stayed at RMH. “There is a sense of warmth and care as soon as you enter the front door,” she said.

More than 300 individual volunteers and 700 volunteer groups help RMH provide this care each year, according to Marketing and Communications Manager Samantha Stroud. They help run the house, register families, maintain the gardens and provide special programs for the families. In addition, they provide more than 400 meals a year to the families through RMH’s Family Meal Program. In all, they have served more than 30,000 families over the past three decades.

“When families are here, they don’t want to worry about making dinner and cleaning,” Stroud said. “Volunteers give them the time not having to worry about these things.”

Stroud said average household chores take two and a half hours a day and the average family spends about 10 days at RMH. “So volunteers give our families a whole extra day with their children,” she said.

Stroud said volunteer opportunities at RMH are popular because people immediately see the difference they are making for the families.

“The families are so thankful for the services we provide, and No. 1 on that list are the volunteers,” she said. “Sometimes they just need someone to talk to. The volunteers become part of the family.”

Howdy: Amy Kesegich, Lynn Zimmerman, Sr. Karita Ivancic, Nancy Baird, Louise Prochaska, Liz Presley, Erica White, Judy Risko and Natalie Strouse
Howdy: Amy Kesegich, Lynn Zimmerman, Sr. Karita Ivancic, Nancy Baird, Louise Prochaska, Liz Presley, Erica White, Judy Risko and Natalie Strouse

The volunteers from Notre Dame left a lasting impression on the families, Stroud said. “They were a great group. They were a lot of fun and hard workers. And you could tell they had so much fun.”

Psychology Professor Dr. Erica White, who encouraged her Notre Dame colleagues to participate in the program after she heard about it at a fundraiser, confirmed Stroud’s impression.

“All who participated enjoyed themselves, and the families and staff at Ronald McDonald House raved about the food and the creativity,” Dr. White said. “Even before we left, the group agreed to go back again because it was such a wonderful opportunity to serve.”

Dr. Lynn Zimmerman, assistant professor of English and communication, said she was touched by how grateful everyone was for their help.

“We can barely imagine the pain these kids and their families endure daily, but the mood that night over dinner was cheerful and optimistic,” Dr. Zimmerman said. “I’m just glad we were able to give them a brief respite from all the stress.”

Education Instructor Elizabeth Presley said volunteering at RMH was a wonderful experience.

“Our night at Ronald McDonald House was so rewarding - and such a great time,” she said. “I loved the chance to not only help the families by providing a meal and chatting with them, but the opportunity to have fun alongside my colleagues as we prepared our dinner.”

Since Cleveland’s Ronald McDonald House opened its doors in 1979, volunteers like the Notre Dame faculty have turned it into a sanctuary for those in need. With a few smiles and some delicious food, they help RMH residents forget their struggles, even if just for a few minutes.

Sometimes, it seems, the families leave the house having forgotten their stress entirely.  

“My older daughter, Emilee, actually refers to the stay as our ‘McDonald's Vacation,’” Alyson’s mother wrote in a testimonial on RMH’s website. “Who would have thought that such a challenging week could end up being so pleasant?”

“Alyson had her one-month follow-up appointment in July,” Alyson’s mom wrote. “Again our family stayed the night before and again didn't have to worry about a thing. Aly has healed well, and her heart murmur is gone. There is no more narrowing of her aortic valve.”

Christian Taske ’07 is the editor and writer at Notre Dame College.

E.g., 06/23/19
E.g., 06/23/19