Ronald McDonald House celebrates 30 years

Julie and Abby Leach

By Allison Eatough

"This is the house that love built."

It's a phrase seen and heard throughout the Ronald McDonald House in Baltimore. It's painted on a wall above the play room, where sick children and their siblings come to have fun during breaks from hospital treatments.

It's sculpted into artwork near the piano, where students from the Peabody Institute perform live music – an often welcome distraction – for house guests.

And it's spoken daily by staff members and volunteers, as new families arrive in need of rest, food and comfort.
"Once a family checks in, this becomes their home away from home," says Sandy Pagnotti, executive director.

Since 1982, the Baltimore Ronald McDonald House has become a second home for more than 35,000 seriously ill children and their families. Guests come from as near as Baltimore County and as far away as Ecuador, Iraq and Malaysia, all staying at the house to be near their children as they receive medical care at nearby hospitals.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the opening of the house. Read on for the stories of two local families who have lived there and witnessed firsthand how a traumatic family situation can become a little easier through the support of strangers.

The Leach Family experience Ronald McDonald House

RonMcDH - Photo by Tara Peddicord1
Walking into the Ronald McDonald House for the first time two years ago, Julie Leach did not know what to expect.
The St. Leonard mother and her husband, Matt, had just left their daughter, Abby, at the University of Maryland Medical Center. Abby, born on Oct. 22, 2010, had cerebrocostomandibular syndrome – a rare disorder that affects the brain, ribs and lower jaw and can be fatal. At 5 days old, Abby received a tracheostomy, or a surgically made hole through her neck and into her windpipe, to help her breathe.

While her mind was still on her daughter, Leach quickly learned her stay at the Ronald McDonald House would not be a lonely one.

A young girl in a wheelchair greeted them at the door.

"She said, 'Hey, come on in,'" Leach recalls. "I said to my husband, 'I think we're home.' I was blown away by how warm and inviting it was."

For three months, Leach stayed at the house while Abby grew and received treatment. Her husband traveled back and forth to work from the house, while their 3-year-old son, Caleb stayed with family members. On the weekends, Caleb joined his parents at the house.

Leach spent most of her days and even some nights at the hospital by Abby's side. But when she wasn't there, she was at the house, talking and sometimes eating with other mothers and staff members. That emotional support had a tremendous impact on the Leach family's life, Leach says.

"It struck us early on how the staff would ask, 'Tell me, how is Abby doing?'" Leach recalls. "Not just, 'How are you doing.' They truly care about the families. It doesn't matter if you are there for just a couple of days or a couple of months."
The physical support of having meals and a place to nap also eased her days, allowing her to focus her energy on Abby, she says.

Over the past two years, Abby has had multiple illnesses and multiple surgeries, putting her back in the hospital. To be by her daughter's side, Leach has returned to the Ronald McDonald House six times.

Leach was hoping her stay this past September would be her last as a family member. During that stay, doctors removed Abby's tracheostomy. Abby is now breathing on her own, singing and taking baths in a water-filled tub – all things she could not do with her tracheostomy.

Still, Leach says her experience at the Ronald McDonald House has changed her outlook on life. She has even returned several times as a volunteer.

"They just show so much compassion and love," she says. "It makes me want to love people like they do... I look outside myself now to see what I can do for others."

The Galban Family


For the first two years of Orlando Galban's life, his parents kept him in a virtual bubble to minimize germs.
Born three months early, Orlando weighed only 1 pound, 10 ounces and suffered from chronic lung problems and a weak immune system.

"He spent five months in the NICU," says his mother, Milagros Galban of Lanham.

Yet as he neared his second birthday in September 2011, Orlando's health seemed to improve. The family began to relax, allowing Orlando to spend more time around friends and family members, Galban says.

But in December, within a week of his then 6-year-old sister, Ella, catching a cold, Orlando caught one too. His illness quickly escalated to pneumonia and Respiratory Syncytial Virus, which causes infection of the lungs and breathing passages.

Less than two weeks before Christmas, doctors admitted Orlando to the University of Maryland Medical Center for treatment.

The Galbans moved in to the Ronald McDonald House to stay close to their son. From the moment they arrived, staff members and volunteers treated them with kindness and compassion, Galban says.

"When you walk in there, you feel welcomed," she says. "You feel like you are home."

Still, the stress of having a sick child can wear on weary parents. The Galbans spent every day at the hospital, returning to the house at night to eat, shower and sleep.

"When we went there, we lost track of the holidays," she says. "We were so depressed because (Orlando) was in the hospital, intubated and on the breathing machine."

With Orlando in the hospital and most of their family members in the Philippines, the Galbans didn't have much chance to think about Christmas presents, Galban says. That's when their new second family stepped in.

One night, when Galban returned from the hospital, a Ronald McDonald House staff member handed her a black bag and brought her into a room, filled with toys.

"She said, 'Fill the bag with all the gifts you would like for your kids,'" Galban recalls.

Galban burst into tears.

"When your child is sick, you shift your focus," she says. "Here, they make the load lighter."

To this day, Ella says that Christmas in the Ronald McDonald House was her family's best Christmas ever. And it wasn't just because of the gifts, Galban says. She enjoyed spending time with the other families and participating with the other children in nightly activity hours.

On New Year's Day – 10 days after they arrived – the Galban family returned home. Orlando's health improves more each day, Galban says. But the family still remembers how much the Ronald McDonald House staff members and volunteers made a difference in their lives.

"You come home to a place you feel like you are a part of," Galban says. "It's family."

Ronald McDonald HouseAbout the Ronald McDonald House

The three-story Ronald McDonald House, located on West Lexington Street in Baltimore City, is part of Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC) – an international nonprofit corporation that creates, finds and supports programs that improve children's health and well-being. Families of children who are in active inpatient or outpatient treatment at any Baltimore area hospital are eligible to stay at the house. It is the only Ronald McDonald House in Maryland.

The house opened on June 28, 1982 after local leaders, including Joe Ehrmann of the Baltimore Colts football team, organized fundraising and volunteers to make the house a reality.

The house has 36 private rooms, each with its own bathroom. It also has two kitchens, a play area, a computer/work room, a gym, an outdoor playground and shuttle service to area hospitals. Volunteers prepare breakfast and dinner every day of the year for families so they don't need to worry about cooking, says Sandy Pagnotti, executive director. Every night, staff members and volunteers organize activities for the children, including outdoor movies and crafts.

"Our goal is to have everything you possibly need so all you have to think about is your child," Pagnotti says.
Families are asked to pay a $15 guest fee per night, but no one is ever turned away if they cannot pay, Pagnotti says.

In 2011, 1,431 families stayed in the house. But nearly 600 had to be turned away because the house didn't have the space.

Typically, a hospital social worker contacts the Ronald McDonald House on behalf of a family. Then, the house's family coordinator places family members on a room request list for their day of arrival. If the house receives more requests than it has rooms available, staff members use a diagnosis-based priority structure to decide which families can stay at the house. For example, a family with a child receiving an organ transplant will get a room before a family whose child who is getting a check-up. If a room is not available, families are placed on a wait list.

The Ronald McDonald House is funded through private donations, corporate sponsors, special events and McDonald's restaurants, where guests can give money through donation boxes. The organization hopes to have a new, 60-room facility in the next five years to accommodate family needs.

Leach familiy photos by Tarra Peddicord