Step into the lobby of the new Ronald McDonald House in the East Baltimore neighborhood of Jonestown and it feels like you are walking into a vacation lodge. There are comfy chairs to sink into, a two-sided fireplace and a welcoming staff, eager to show off the new space.
This at-ease vibe is the point of the new house, which took seven years to plan and build and had to be “magical, family friendly, clean and five star,” says president and CEO Sandy Pagnotti. Or as she puts it, “The Ritz meets Disney meet Grandma’s house.”
In their previous space in West Baltimore, the charity had to turn away about 600 families a year — families who were coming to Baltimore to seek care for their children at Johns Hopkins Hospital, the University of Maryland Medical Center, Kennedy Krieger Institute or the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center.
The demand for more space pushed the drive for a new building. But once the organization decided to build a new house, its leaders and board decided to make it the best it could be. The current home can hold up to 55 families at a time and has everything from a teen room to a business center for parents to a serenity garden for family members who just need a moment to breathe.
“We tried to think of everything we’ve ever heard from parents and incorporate it,” Pagnotti says.
There is also a floor exclusively for cancer patients and other children with compromised immune systems, which include a separate kitchen for families there. The sixth floor of the building holds a conference room that can be used by community groups.
And there is the heart – the giant, red heart atop the building that lights up at night. It’s a symbol for the home itself, which the organization appropriately named “The House that Love Built” and is decorated throughout with heart-themed sculptures, paintings and other work from more than 250 artists across the Mid-Atlantic.
But it’s also a symbol of how a community can come together and how connected the staff and volunteers feel to this city, Pagnotti says. “Baltimore is going through some tough times, and we want to be a beacon of love and hope,” she says.
A connection is already in place: Each night, volunteers from various community groups around the area come in and cook dinner for the families staying at the Ronald McDonald House, and the double kitchen that awaits looks like a gleaming kitchen on a TV food show. The lobby holds a bank of 55 cubbies that are filled each morning with a special surprise—a knit hat or a stuffed animal —also the work of community volunteers.
Last year, families from 48 states and 22 countries stayed at the former Ronald McDonald House. As the final touches were being put on this new home, a few families had already checked in — and from as far away as Nigeria and Ireland.
Another came from St. Louis. This was their eighth trip to Baltimore for medical treatment. “Baltimore is such a giving place,” the grandmother says. “The Ronald McDonald House is the biggest gift.”