Inside the new, bigger Ronald McDonald House in East Baltimore: A 'special place' for sick children, families

The new Ronald McDonald House in East Baltimore will serve 2,400 families a year as they stay for free while they're children undergo medical treatment at Baltimore-based hospitals. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)

After physical therapy Tuesday, 7-year-old Hannah Boda took the wheelchair lift off a red-and-yellow shuttle, arriving at the new $34 million Ronald McDonald House in East Baltimore to cheers welcoming her home.

The girl, who came from Ireland for orthopedic surgery to treat a rare bone condition, and her mother, Rene, are among the first families moving into the new house from the old one on West Lexington Street.


Children undergoing treatment at Baltimore-based hospitals and their families can stay for free for days, weeks or months — and eat home-cooked meals provided by volunteers, rest after medical procedures and experience a sense of community.

“I am the princess of the house,” Hannah said, with an Orioles blanket draped over her legs.


“You don’t feel special at all,” her mother teased. “You have the red carpet laid out for you as you enter the house.”

Located at 1 Aisquith Street in the Jonestown neighborhood, the six-story house is three times the size of the old space, said Sandy Pagnotti, president of Ronald McDonald House Charities Maryland. The new house can host nearly 1,000 more families a year, up from 1,500 in the old location near the University of Maryland Medical Center. The extra space means fewer families will be turned away, she said.

“It’s a really special place,” Pagnotti said. “The physical structure will be dramatically different, but we hope the heart and soul feels the same.”

Since the old house opened 37 years ago, the space has been a refuge for families and kids enduring painful and expensive treatments as they battle complex diagnoses, Pagnotti said.


“They feel this safety net of support here,” she said. “They feel nourished, mentally, physically, financially, like an incredible weight has been lifted. We can’t make the medicine taste better or the diagnosis go away, but we can bring joy to the journey even when the journey is really hard.”

A handful of families are moving into the new house this week to help the Ronald McDonald team adjust to the space before the rest transition from the old place at 636 W. Lexington St., Pagnotti said. A grand opening is planned for May.

The Bodas, who have been coming to Baltimore since Hannah was a toddler, have been staying at the old house since December. They’ll travel back to their home south of Dublin in County Wicklow, Ireland, on Saturday, but return over the summer to remove frames from Hannah’s legs. Rene Boda said the time her daughter has spent at the house has shaped who she has become.

By bus, by raft and on foot, a Honduran woman traveled almost 2,000 miles to Baltimore hoping for answers for her sick child.

“I was a bit worried — a big procedure, having to be in a wheelchair, lots of therapies — will she become institutionalized?” Boda said. “Actually the opposite happened, and I think that is because of the Ronald McDonald House and all the volunteers and all of the staff. They really made her feel so special and she completely blossomed.”

Hannah said she wanted to spend her first day at the house in the game room — where kids can play video games and air hockey, shoot pool, watch television or just hang out.

Leslie Landsman of Howard County has helped collect over 200 pieces of art with the them "All You Need is Love" to hang on the walls of the new Ronald McDonald House in Baltimore.

Another playroom for younger kids on the main level is tricked out to look like a backyard tree fort. It’s next to a family room with a fireplace and a sprawling kitchen and dining room with refrigerators and pantries stocked with donated food. A second kitchen is on the fifth floor for kids with weakened immune systems from cancer treatments.

Thousands of “hope stones” line the walls from the lobby to the top floors with inspirational messages written over the last five years by guests at the house and people in the community: “You’re stronger than you know,” “You can do it” and “Always stay strong & smile.”

The house has a fitness center, classroom, serenity room for mediation and reflection, a laundry room and a closet to store fleece blankets made by Baltimore youth for every child who arrives at the house. There’s even a “magic room” where the kids will receive surprises, such as video chats with celebrities and gifts to lift their spirits.

The house is decorated with 250 paintings, prints and sculptures donated by artists throughout the Mid-Atlantic, many with hearts hidden in the designs for kids to use as a scavenger hunt. The hallways were built wide enough for wheelchairs and bulky medical equipment. The showers are designed to accommodate people with limited mobility.

Patios on the rooftop — where a 26-foot-tall heart glows red at night — overlook the city.

There are two levels of parking underneath the house.

We can’t make the medicine taste better or the diagnosis go away, but we can bring joy to the journey even when the journey is really hard.

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The families don’t pay anything to stay at the house, which operates on a $2 million budget that is expected to grow to $3 million at the larger house. Pagnotti said families are asked to give a $15-a-night donation if they can afford it, but most can’t pay. The average daily donation from the families is $6.11.

The house runs 24 hours a day, every day of the year. Its 22-person staff relies on thousands of volunteers each year, Pagnotti said. Besides cooking, the volunteers do chores, stuff mailboxes with goodies for the children and help the families get settled. Others donate toilet paper, laundry detergent and cleaning supplies.

Most of the more than 50 rooms have two queen-sized beds, a pullout sofa and private bathroom. About a dozen are suites with two bedrooms, a living room and kitchenette for families that need to stay for longer periods of time.

The waiting list at the old house was sometimes as long as 35 families, Pagnotti said.

“We hope that calls change to: ‘Come on over. We’ve got space and we’ll take care of you,’” she said.

Public health officials are ringing the alarm about AFM, a polio-like condition that afflicts 1 in a million, but can cause paralysis and even death. Doctors know little about it.

Pagnotti said the University of Maryland, Baltimore has purchased the old house for about $1.45 million. A closing will be scheduled in the coming weeks. A spokesman for the university said no decision has been made about how to use the property, but possibilities include converting it to student housing, an activity center or space for academic support.

Construction on the new 60,000-square-foot house started about two years ago. Money to build it came from grants, tax credits and individual contributions, including spare change left in donation boxes at local McDonald’s restaurants.

The new house is about a half-mile from Johns Hopkins Hospital and the Kennedy Krieger Institute, where most of the families go for treatment, Pagnotti said. It will be farther from the University of Maryland — about two miles away — but more centrally located for families who go to the Rubin Institute for Advanced Orthopedics at Sinai Hospital.


Like the Bodas, the families come from all over the world for Baltimore doctors who can treat rare and stubborn diseases. Last year, the house saw guests from 48 states and 22 countries. They are referred to the Ronald McDonald team through hospital social workers.


“We see every diagnosis you could ever imagine and a thousand you never knew existed,” Pagnotti said. “The world-class medical care we have here is what brings people.”

Robby Green, 14, and his mother, Jennifer, from Aiken, S.C., moved in Monday, as crews installed trim on a grand staircase, hung artwork and completed other finishing touches. They’ve been coming to Hopkins once or twice a year since Robby was a baby to treat his rare bladder condition.

The Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults said many people like Ellis who are undergoing life-saving cancer treatments face the same dilemma. To help make cancer care easier for people aged 15 to 39, the group is building a house in Baltimore where patients and their families can stay while getting treated.

They were excited to explore the new space, including the teen room that Robby said he wanted to check out.

“It’s still so new — it’s beautiful, it’s comforting and homey,” Jennifer Green said. “We slept well, for being away from home.”

Some traditions will be carried over from the old house to the new one, like the “good news bell” that kids and their parents ring when their treatment takes a positive turn.

In the new space, it will hang in the lobby under a high ceiling so when it rings, the sound will echo through the whole space.

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