Volunteers move mounds of mattresses

Baltimore's Ronald McDonald House put out a call for help and ended up with a brigade of mattress movers.

"We need bodies," wrote Sandy Pagnotti, executive director of the West Lexington Street facility that provides housing to families with critically ill children undergoing treatment in five area hospitals. Her email said nothing about heavy lifting, multiple flights of steps or truckloads of mattresses.

But her simple plea worked.

"I had 70 men on the doorstep at 8 a.m.," she said. "I call them McMiracles."

Tempur-Pedics had just donated nearly 100 mattresses to the 36-room house. That meant swapping out gently used mattresses, box springs and frames for firmer and cushier Tempur-Pedics. It meant dismantling beds, carrying mattresses down two or three flights of stairs, and then carrying the new sets, encased in protective covers, back up those same flights — all within a short time frame. City firefighters orchestrated a stairwell assembly line.

"Instead of a bucket brigade up the steps, we had a chain of mattresses," Pagnotti said.

Dozens of city firefighters, well trained in climbing stairs with hefty items, joined with Navy enlistees, employees from UPS and Under Armour and members of a college fraternity.

"It's what we do," said firefighter Tom Tosh. "People ask for help, and we help."

Within a few hours, the movers had filled the lobby with used mattress sets, destined for area homeless shelters. Then they worked in teams, passing the new full- and twin-sized mattresses to the next guy on the stairs.

"This gives us all a chance to give back on our own time," said Michael Hineline, a city firefighter and paramedic. "If it makes a difference to families in this house, we are there and humbled to do it."

He quickly responded to a loud call for "two more twins" from the third floor. No one knew the exact weight of a double mattress, but as the morning wore on the estimates rose.

Fire Lt. Steve Cobo could not refuse a job that brought back memories of his own stay nearly 18 years ago at the house. He and his wife had brought their infant son to the University of Maryland Medical Center for treatment of a serious heart ailment.

"My brothers in the fire company worked my shifts for me," he said. "And Ronald McDonald House opened its doors and hearts to us so we could stay close to our son for as long as we needed. They asked nothing in return. It was a tremendous help that we could never put a price on."

His son Joshua is now a high school senior and captain of the golf team.

The UPS crew crammed the volunteer stint into their workday. Matt Rodriguez had finished the night shift in time to move mattresses and would be back at his real job the same evening.

"It's a good cause, and I can sleep later," he said.

UPS division manager Bryan Johnson said he, Rodriguez and several volunteers from the company serve the McDonald House residents breakfast twice a month. They readily answered Pagnotti's call.

"This is all in a day's work for us," Johnson said. "All of us are working our regular shifts, too. But I have to admit the younger guys are doing the lifting better."

Full-sized box springs proved too rigid and unwieldy for the stairwell crews. Navy Petty Officer Zach Bollen, stationed at the Naval Operations Center near Fort McHenry, quickly figured he could fit three full-sized box springs at a time on the house's one elevator. He lifted the loads on and off the elevator and had them ready to pair with the mattresses.

"I have to say this is the most labor I have done in a while," he said. "I like what they do here."

It was noon before all 36 rooms, most with at least two beds, were ready for new linens. Another brigade of volunteers would spend most of the afternoon making beds.

"We have a small staff and really could not pull this off," said Debbie Hood, the house's development director. "We also had to do all this moving in a timely manner so as not to displace our families."

When families returned in the evening, no evidence of the day's frenzy would remain and all could settle into a comfortable night's rest, Pagnotti said.


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