Ronald McDonald House in Baltimore lights rooftop heart blue to support health care workers

Ronald McDonald House Charities Maryland often looks to make its impact with small acts of kindness, a smile or a hug. Thursday night, it made a bigger gesture.

The 26-foot-tall, glowing red heart on the charity’s rooftop instead shined blue in the East Baltimore night sky, showing support for the front-line health care workers battling the coronavirus. The building also featured banners on its north and south sides, telling the city’s essential workers they are loved and appreciated.


“When we built the house, we put the big, beautiful heart on top of the roof,” said Sandy Pagnotti, the nonprofit’s president and CEO. “We thought, ‘You know, everybody needs a little extra love these days, and we have this big, iconic visual. Let’s do something to use it and spread a little love and support around.’ "

The 60,000-square-foot building at 1 Aisquith St. serves as a home for families with children who are seriously ill or injured being cared for at nearby Baltimore hospitals. The house, which celebrated its first anniversary in March, features about 55 guest rooms to host thousands of families a year.


But the coronavirus pandemic has stopped Ronald McDonald House from welcoming more families for the past month, and only 10 remain. Normally, about 25 staff members work each day, but the virus has forced them to work in pairs. Hundreds of weekly volunteers, who help the charity provide the attention, care and meals the families there need, can no longer come by.

“Operationally, we are completely different right now,” Pagnotti said. “We hope the families who are there would still tell you they feel loved and nurtured and taken care of, but it's very quiet, and the heart and soul of our volunteer program is not there.

“It’s not just the resources that they bring — the food and the supplies — it’s the heart and the love and the energy and the spirit they bring.”

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Still, some volunteers have found ways to help Ronald McDonald House’s staff support the families, Pagnotti said, by making monetary donations that allow the charity to buy food it needs to get the families meals. Under Armour also donated a collection of its cafeteria food, which Pagnotti said Ronald McDonald House has frozen. Pagnotti said any other monetary donations will help the charity get the food it needs when it needs it.

Staff members also are working to keep residents as safe as possible from the virus. Ronald McDonald House has “implemented every protocol,” encouraging staying 6 feet apart, supplying masks and closing the building’s public spaces, Pagnotti said.

Ronald McDonald House’s board of directors includes representatives from Johns Hopkins, Kennedy Krieger Institute and the University of Maryland Maryland Center, all of whom have helped the charity act properly in regards to the pandemic, Pagnotti said.

Those efforts haven’t prevented the staff from striving to improve residents’ quality of life with conversations, laughs and the occasional impromptu, if socially distant, dance party.

“I think we're just trying to be there for them,” Pagnotti said. “What I've observed is that for the rest of the world, the COVID virus has turned their life upside down. Life is not as everybody knows it. There's nothing normal about their lifestyle. For the families who are with us, especially the ones who are still with us, their lives were already turned upside down.”


Thanks in large part to those for whom that big heart is turning blue, Pagnotti said she believes everything will turn right side up in time.

“As an organization that’s literally based in hugs and love, it’s really, really tough to not be able to hug people and love on them,” she said. “But we have great faith in our leaders in the state, and we’ll get back to hugging soon."