At Ronald McDonald House in Baltimore, 'a happy celebration of life'

Families who stayed at Ronald McDonald House share their memories.

Caleb Leach thought hard as he tried to pinpoint his favorite thing about the Ronald McDonald House in Baltimore.

The 9-year-old from Calvert County had spent many days and nights in the red brick building on West Lexington Street while his sister, Abby, was in neonatal care at the University of Maryland Medical Center for a genetic disorder. His parents tried prompting him: The playroom? The staff? The therapy dogs?

Finally, he muttered an answer into the collar of his jacket: "Everybody looks at us the same."

The Ronald McDonald House, which houses families for a donation of up to $15 per night, if they are able, while their children are being treated at the city's world-renowned hospitals, held its fifth Red Shoe Shuffle 5K Run and Walk on Sunday.

The event raises money, and also serves as an annual homecoming for families who have stayed at the facility. The charity had raised $17.25 million of its $25 million campaign to open a new, larger center on the city's East side to accomodate more families.

Outside, bright colors filled the street and parking lot. Huge red-and-yellow balloon arches floated in the breeze over the finish line, and nearly everyone — even the uniformed police officers working the event — wore the charity's signature red-and-white striped high socks. Pump-up music blared from loudspeakers, and Ronald McDonald, the fast food icon himself, greeted the children and their parents.

Sandy Pagnotti, the CEO of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Baltimore, wore heart sunglasses, red Chuck Taylor earrings, and four pairs of the socks, some of them repurposed as arm-warmers, a scarf and a hair-tie.

Pagnotti said the event is a chance to recognize the vast community of families who have stayed at the house — more than 35,000 since it opened in 1982.

"It's a happy celebration of life," she said.

Julie and Matt Leach, Abby and Caleb's parents, moved their family into the facility three days after Abby was born. They didn't know what would happen.

"Those first couple weeks were really scary," Matt Leach said.

But the combination of childrens' activities, a compassionate staff and the support of other families confronting similar challenges made their own situation less daunting, they said.

"From the moment we walked in," Julie Leach said, "when they asked how Abby was doing, it wasn't just in passing. They really cared."

As Leach spoke, Abby, now 5, ambled across the room to plunk out a few notes on a piano.

Julie Leach said she is sometimes asked whether it's difficult to revisit a place where her family stayed during some of their most harrowing days. She said people imagine coming back must dig up memories of hospital rooms and the ultimate fear of losing a child.

But they couldn't be more wrong, she said. All four see the center as second home, their "apartment in the city."

"These are the most positive memories of a really terrifying time," she said.

The Leaches volunteer at the center about once a month, and Caleb speaks to schools and collects soda tabs to raise awareness and money for the charity.

Mary Anne and Edward Williams' 2-year-old son, Toby, was born prematurely at 1 pound, 2 ounces. The family stayed at the Ronald McDonald House for five months while he was in the hospital.

They return from their home in St. Mary's County about every other month because remaining complications require hospital appointments. Even though it's to go to the doctor — no kid's favorite activity — Toby loves coming back, his mother said, because it means staying at the house.

"He smiles every time he sees the house," Mary Anne Williams said. His sisters and brother argue over whose turn it is to come with him.

In her arms, Toby fiddled with the 5K medal around her neck, which she took off and handed to him. Williams put him down, and he began swinging it on its ribbon.

The level of care he needed, including a pair of specially made glasses, wasn't available in Southern Maryland.

"I don't know what we would have done without the Ronald McDonald House," Williams said. "You don't realize until you go through these things what there is and what there isn't."

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