The Making of The House That Love Built

By Shane Potgieter

Producing the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Northwest Ohio 40th Anniversary documentary came at a time when my wife and I had just learned that we were expecting our first child. Both are daunting, yet exciting and unpredictable experiences – and journeys that were a labor of love, discovery and gratitude. But little did I know that producing this documentary gave me such perspective and an appreciation for my healthy baby boy.

Ronald mcdonald house 
For those not in the know, Ronald McDonald House Charities opened its doors as a home for parents and caregivers with sick children while their little ones are provided treatment in the hospital. Stays range from 1 or 2 nights to months on end and this home-away-from-home ensures that parents living in far-reaching communities from a hospital are well-rested, with full bellies, free of charge, so they can focus on the most important thing in their lives – the health of their child. 

Ronald McDonald House Charities of Northwest Ohio in Toledo boasts an impressive new facility rooming up to 20 families, and does this, ever so modestly, 365 days of the year. These new doors opened in 2015 but the story goes back 40 years on December 9th, 1982 to a very different facility – a renovated mortuary beaming with a bright red door. No one could miss it, the house with the red door on Monroe Street. 

Ronald mcdonald houseArmed with lights and cameras, the plan was to piece their story together, bit by bit. 40 years of memories chronicled in just under 30 minutes. Insert large eyes emoji. With a blank slate, I set out to uncover the “why.” Why was this such an important story to tell? Why is this House so significant? And with each interview conducted, it dawned on me. This House of Love is a respite for families going through their worst-lived experiences. There are a number of tragic endings but many more heartfelt stories of hope and survival that defy the odds. The common denominator – Ronald McDonald House Charities.

In the opening sequence of the documentary the global founder, Dr. Audrey Evans says, “Moms and dads need to stick together.” This House does exactly that, doing its part to keep families together. It is the unsung hero and the people employed there, along with over 20,000 local volunteers, are the backbone that supports a community in crisis. They provide everything families need to stick together so that their only focus is their child’s health. One of the local founders, Dr. Pierre Vauthy, put it perfectly, “I look at this House as the grandpas and grandmas in healthcare. You come here and we’ll take care of you.” 

I had the privilege of interviewing an incredible cast of community leaders and families who generously opened their hearts to sharing testimony about their stay in the House. Here are some interesting takeaways and maybe something you might find too:

  • Ronald mcdonald houseRonald McDonald House Charities have a systematic, traditional approach to the running of each facility. I had no idea there was a traditional three-tiered structure to setting up a Ronald McDonald House Charity. In meeting the founders I initially wondered how the three were connected, but after watching the first press conference in November 1982 it became clear that a typical Ronald McDonald House Charity is represented by three pillars: Family, Healthcare and McDonald’s (of course). In the case of the local House, Gary Yunker and his wife, Tricia, had two daughters born with cystic fibrosis representing the Family pillar. Dr. Pierre Vauthy was a pediatric pulmonologist who treated their children. He represents the Healthcare pillar. Don Michel checked the McDonald’s box and was a prominent Toledo McDonald’s owner-operator in the 1970s. 
  • 2 different locations, same address. When I started to research, I was curious as to where the first house was located – the one built in 1982. Fact is – it doesn’t exist anymore. It now forms part of Generation Tower, right by ProMedica’s Russel J. Ebeid Children’s Hospital. Once discussions were underway to build the new House, there were expansion debates about its location. A new location was finally decided on in an area on the back side of the hospital which allowed families direct access. Although it was a brand new location – 3883 Monroe Street still remained the physical address for the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Northwest Ohio. 
  • Those little pop tabs on pop cans are a waaaaaay bigger deal than you think. The Northwest Ohio House generates between $18,000 to $20,000 per year from the generous pop tab collections donated by schools, churches, service organizations, hospitals, individuals and communities. This money alone provides all the non-perishable food in the self-serve area for families picking up a snack rushing on their way out to the hospital. 
  • There are some interesting misconceptions. Many people think that since the House is in Toledo that only Toledo McDonald’s restaurants support the House. This is actually far from the truth. Between 65–70 McDonald’s restaurants support the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Northwest Ohio. Support ranges from Lima to Port Clinton, Bryan to Montpelier and even some McDonald’s chains in Southeast Michigan. Interestingly, it is these families living outside the metropolitan area that use the House the most. So, the next time you buy a Shamrock Shake from Tiffin, Ohio, remember support goes directly to the Ronald McDonald House of Northwest Ohio. 
  • Ronald mcdonald houseFamilies supporting families. On one occasion trawling through the local House archives I came across a number of diaries. I later found out that these diaries are left in each room for families to share their experiences of hope, love and appreciation for the House. I spent hours on end scrutinizing each page of entries dating back to the early 90s where families provided deeply personal stories of their sick children and how the House had helped them, “keep it together”. Even more so, the messages of support for other families were astounding. Entries like, “God bless all who read this book! God is watching over all your children”, “So when you’re down and think there is no hope in the world, just remember the Guy upstairs is looking over you”, and “I understand what you are going through. I want each of you to know you are all in my prayers, even if I don’t know you”. These words of encouragement must’ve gone a long way in helping families get through their dark times. 

It is true that this House provides an anchor of support for many young families, like mine, and although we are so blessed to have this House of Love right here in Northwest Ohio, I pray you never have to use it. 

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