A 2nd Act: A Clown’s Legacy

Posted By on January 28, 2021

Ronald McDonald House Charities of Central and Northern Arizona supports children’s journeys to wellness.

The May 9, 1971, Arizona Republic classified read, “One bedroom, furnished, air-conditioned, pool, carpet. 501 E. Roanoke Avenue.” The small complex in central Phoenix featured apartments and single rooms. Offering both air-conditioning and a pool practically made it a palace. Fifty years later, that piece of real estate is so much more. But first, a back story.

Two years before the classified ran, then-Philadelphia Eagles football player Fred Hill asked his teammates for help in raising money to fight leukemia, a disease that had stricken his daughter. That request led to the idea of providing free housing for families kept away from home while their children went through medical treatment. The Philadelphia McDonald’s franchise owners got on board, ponying up big money with just one request: to name the facility after their beloved clown. Thus, the first Ronald McDonald House opened in Philadelphia in 1974, and the concept spread.

Across the country, Phoenix resident Suzanne Hanson’s Atlanta nephew was also being treated for leukemia. She watched the difficulties her sister’s family endured, living far from where the boy was hospitalized. Having heard about the Ronald McDonald House, Suzanne and her good friend — and sister Junior League member — Judy Schubert conceived a Phoenix version. They wrote the project proposal on New Year’s Eve 1979, while snowed in at a Pinetop cabin. With the help of the Junior League and the Phoenix-area McDonald’s co-op, the women’s dream of taking a heavy burden off young patients’ families began to take shape.

The apartment complex at 501 E. Roanoke Ave. was available and the perfect location. “They began with 15 rooms,” said Karen Thomas, the chief development & marketing officer for Ronald McDonald House Charities of Central and Northern Arizona. “They had to do quite a bit of redesigning, including removing the pool. But on May 15, 1985, the house officially opened. It was the 81st in the country, with a terrific location, near both St. Joseph and Phoenix Children’s Hospital.”

Thomas explained that in order to stay close to their children, financially struggling parents had been sleeping bedside in hospitals, in their cars or staying in unsafe, inexpensive motels. The Ronald McDonald House provides a home away from home, refuge and respite for families, all at no charge. And how that home has changed.

“We’ve added two more locations across the Valley and now offer 44 rooms and apartments,” Thomas said. “In addition to a place to sleep, volunteer heroes provide guests with a hot dinner every night. We have a fully stocked pantry and kitchen so that they can cook for themselves as well. And we have ‘grab and go’ snacks available if there isn’t time for a meal. There’s a playground for families’ other children and a library with a TV. Many of our families have had to leave home in a hurry, packing little. We provide clean towels, shampoo and toothpaste, if needed. And we have a no-charge laundry facility too.”

Donations are the primary revenue stream. The per-night cost of housing a family is $107, and normal wear and tear means updates. The three locations just received a much-needed donation of new mattresses, while an “adopt-a-room” program is in progress to freshen them all up with new carpet and paint.

The three Valley Ronald McDonald Houses have welcomed more than 55,000 families since their founding. Guests come from across the country for the Valley’s superb medical care, although 89 percent live in Arizona. No referral is necessary and families can stay at the house to catch their breath, even after their child is discharged.

Thomas is overwhelmed by the importance of their mission when she hears stories like that of first-time parents Jaycee and Wyatt Ranft, from Sunflower, Ariz. “Wyatt is a Hot Shot firefighter and was working a California wildfire. Jaycee was 22-weeks pregnant when her blood pressure became elevated,” Thomas said. “She was visiting her parents in Payson and the ER doctors there sent her to St. Joseph’s Hospital. She was diagnosed with a severe form of preeclampsia that can be fatal.”

Wyatt was flown out of California and arrived at Jaycee’s side just in time to see the birth of their baby boy, Bo, weighing in at 1 pound, 10 ounces. Born 100 days early and a micro-preemie, Bo had to stay in the hospital. That left Wyatt and Jaycee far from home with no place to stay. “The Ronald McDonald House was created for situations exactly like that. Happily, they all went home together 91 days later,” Thomas said.

This “home away from home” keeps families together and close to the medical resources they need — a wonderful legacy to one of America’s favorite clowns.

To learn more, visit rmhccnaz.org.

About Judy Pearson

Judy Pearson is a journalist, published author, and the founder of A2ndAct.org. Her organization supports and celebrates women survivors of all cancers as they give back to the greater good in their 2nd Acts. Her passion is finding those who have have healed themselves by helping others.