Running a race was almost his undoing, but on Sunday, Greg Kenney was back at the starting line.
The 20-year-old man waited in front of the Ronald McDonald House on West Lexington Street for confetti to signal the start of the seventh annual Red Shoe Shuffle to raise money for the Baltimore charity where Kenney’s family stayed after he collapsed with cardiac arrest in 2015 near the finish line of a half-marathon in Virginia . Doctors told his parents he would be unlikely to talk, walk or ever perform again in a musical, if he would live at all. He had gone 15 minutes without blood or oxygen to his brain.
Kenney smiled in the early morning sunlight and threw open his arms, as friends and loved ones leaned down to hug him in a wheelchair that a volunteer with Athletes Serving Athletes would push along the three-mile course to allow Kenney to take part in the race. He said he felt compelled to participate as a way to show his gratitude to the Ronald McDonald House, which gives seriously ill children and their families a place to stay while they’re getting medical treatment at nearby facilities.
“This place has always felt like a second home to me,” said Kenney, of Accokeek, a theater major at the College of Southern Maryland who has taken part in five musicals and shows since his collapse. “Everybody here is so godly and so loving. Being here is such a blessing. Love is all you need to get better. Everybody here truly embodies love.”
Tyler Muse was the first to finish Sunday’s race, with a time of 16 minutes and 29 seconds. He has taken the title for six of the race’s seven years.
The race raised an estimated $400,000 and drew 3,000 participants — including an extensive list of cartoon characters, such as Poe the Ravens mascot, McGruff the Crime Dog, True Grit of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County Retrievers and Donatello, the costumed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. Runners were outfitted with red-and-white striped hats, kids wore capes and families served by the charity carried signs with its emblem.
Sandy Pagnotti, president of Ronald McDonald House Charities, said the money will go toward construction and operating costs for a new $31 million house near the Johns Hopkins Hospital and the Kennedy Krieger Institute that will replace the one that has stood for 35 years near the University of Maryland Medical Center campus. Construction began for the 60,000-square-foot house about a year ago.
The new location is expected to open next spring. It will serve 2,400 families a year, up from 1,500, helping to eliminate the daily waiting list that sometimes gets as long as 35 families, Pagnotti said. Families stay an average of 8 ½ nights.
“Our goal, always, for this morning is that we create a happy, joyful celebration of life and community, and then we throw a 5K in for good measure,” Pagnotti said, after pausing to watch one of the house’s children sail across the finish line using her hands to turn the wheels on her support chair. “We call it the happiest morning of the year in Baltimore, and it really is. This event brings the Ronald McDonald House mission to life: It is about supporting and sustaining each other through the really hard times in life with joy and love.”
Nine-year-old Ryder Marsh, of Colonial Beach, Va., has been coming to the three-story house since he was about 4 years old. He had a stroke as a baby and is diagnosed with cerebral palsy.
The mailboxes on the first floor — stuffed each day with surprises from the staff and donations from people in the community — are one of his favorite things about staying over. His mother, Brandy, loves to hear the “good news” bell ring from the front office when one of the families has a positive development in their case.
“These kids have hard days outside of here sometimes and when they come here, it really gives them something to look forward to,” Brandy Marsh said. “This is his favorite place to be, so it makes coming to appointments a lot easier.”
Ryder called it a “home away from home.”
“Everyone is so nice here,” he said after the race, gliding through the house and still wearing his cape with an “R” stitched on the back for his first initial. “You can feel comfortable. It’s relaxing. It’s not like you go to a hotel and you get in and there is no one to talk to.”
Sitting on the living room mantel is a frame with two portraits of Greg Kenney. Written in red marker are the words, “With sincere gratitude.”
Kenney’s mother, Stephanie Watson, said returning to the house is a “wonderful homecoming.” She wants more people facing the tragedy of a sick child to have the same experience as her family.
“There are so many needy families who can’t fit in this house, so it’s very important for the new house to go up,” Watson said. “It will help so many who travel from all over the world and can’t afford to stay in a hotel.
“We trusted God from the beginning, because we’re believers, but it felt like he put everything together for us to include this amazing place.”