Outside the snow is falling, and inside the clock is ticking. A rhythmic pounding of boards is the soundtrack for this day as completion for Kansas City’s newest Ronald McDonald House draws near.
Volunteer Mike Rock of Shawnee holds a sign that is to be hung above the theater stage in the playroom of Wylie House.
Rock and his wife, Jeanie, had already assisted with the gluing of colorful mosaic tiles on a sculpture honoring donors that stretches from the basement to the top of the third floor through the central staircase.
The couple arrived nearly every day during the final weeks of construction because the Rocks’ grandson, Eli Stephens, spent more than 100 days at nearby Children’s Mercy Hospital when he was born with hydrocephalus. The family would eat family dinners of comfort food that others had given them at the Ronald McDonald Family Room inside the hospital.
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Jeanie Rock remembers the artistic touches throughout the hospital, much like the bright paint and whimsical decorations at the Ronald McDonald House.
“We would be there with our older grandson, and when you went, it wasn’t like you were going to the hospital,” she said. “You’d see the artwork and it was like just a day out.”
The couple’s work honors grandson Eli — now 3 years old and doing well after several surgeries, a child who has a knack for picking up music that he hears — and all the families who benefit from the Ronald McDonald House. They use a quote they attribute to their daughter, Opal Stephens, who also has volunteered her efforts following Eli’s hospital stay as a way to say thank you.
“We will want to give back because of all we’ve been given,” Jeanie Rock says.
Holly Buckendahl is ready to get her hands dirty.
The CEO of Ronald McDonald House Charities Kansas City has just left her nearby office and is ready to check on the progress of the organization’s newest house, less than two weeks away from the Feb. 12 opening.
“That’s what this week is all about — all hands on deck,” she says before entering the nearly completed house on Cherry Street.
Wylie will be the third Ronald McDonald House in Kansas City. All three are along Cherry Street, just a block away from Hospital Hill and Children’s Mercy.
“You’ll see crews of them (construction) and crews of us,” Buckendahl says. “It’s all this last-minute stuff. This is the time we all work as a team.”
A need must be filled.
“We have been turning away a thousand families a year for the last three years,” Buckendahl said. “These are critically ill kids.”
The three Ronald McDonald Houses on Cherry Street will serve 87 families and staff — and no longer will the houses have to send away families who need a place to stay.
Buckendahl estimates that donations included nearly a half million dollars in building and labor and that 80 different companies participated in the giving of materials and time.
“The entire roof was donated,” she adds. “We could not have done this without the generous contributions from the community.”
The Ronald McDonald House history in Kansas City stretches back more than 30 years when a group of volunteers helped to open the first one on State Line Road near the University of Kansas Medical Center in 1981. Six years later the organization built another one on Cherry Street. A Ronald McDonald Family Room opened in KU Medical Center in 1992, and one at Children’s Mercy Hospital opened in 1997. The second Cherry Street house, Longfellow, opened in 2006, and the one near KU closed.
This latest addition stems from a $5.1 million capital campaign that paid to buy a lot on Cherry Street and build the 21,000-square-foot house. Its opening on Feb. 12 was part of the caring tradition that has provided warm food and clean bedding to an estimated 234,000 families — many who stay for weeks at a time — from the Kansas City region and beyond over the years.
Creative and bubbly, Jennifer Bertrand of Weatherby Lake is in her natural environment.
An artist, designer, HGTV Design Star winner, Bertrand, with the help of Amy Higgins of HMN Architects of Overland Park has put her artistic soul into the design of the Wylie House.
Her heart is there as well.
Her 6-year-old son, Winston, entered the world with a mix of lymphatic and venous malformations.
“He was born like a bullfrog,” she says, pulling up an old baby photo from her phone that shows how Winston’s head and neck were enlarged because of the condition.
He has had 20 surgeries over the years, and his family has stayed in a Ronald McDonald House in New York near the doctors who specialize in Winston’s treatment.
Her Ronald McDonald House experience was “just a hug to my soul,” she says.
Today, Winston is doing well and will have more surgeries to help reshape his jaw and help with his speech. He attends kindergarten in the Park Hill School District.
“His favorite thing to do is to make people laugh,” she says. “We tell him everyone in life strives to be different, and you got lucky.”
Bertrand had volunteered at other houses when CEO Buckendahl brought her on for the new house.
Her working motif is Hamptons meets Willy Wonka. The Hamptons design includes a coastal architectural style that is accompanied by pieces from local artists that hang on the walls.
“It’s Willy Wonka to take you away from whatever scary (situation) you are facing,” she says.
Green is the dominant color downstairs near the playroom, “to bring the outside in,” she explains.
Inspirational decorations and wall hangings cheer on patients and families to keep going.
“Everyone wants to know that they’ll be be OK,” she says.
Bertrand wanted furniture that would allow people to unpack rather than live out of their suitcases. She made sure there were enough electrical outlets. She wanted full-sized beds in each bedroom.
Bertrand reached out to artist friends and acquaintances to add their touches. Kansas City graffiti artist Donald “Scribe” Ross created the mural for the check-in area.
Donations through material, volunteer hours, excavation and construction helped to build the house.
“Honestly, it’s the house that love built,” Bertrand says, “Everyone has a connection to the Ronald McDonald house in some way.”
“Welcome to the world of rocket ships,” artist and designer Chris Duh says as people enter the play area of the Wylie House.
He helped design Kaleidoscope at Hallmark and has been working at Ronald McDonald houses all over the country. He was the creator of the donor wall filled with stained glass hearts at Longfellow House across the street.
At Wylie, Duh describes the reasons behind painted scenes that are framed between the dividers of a standing bookcase in the play area. One scene is a family of bears; another is a robot in a robot world.
“It’s part toy chest, part shelf, part interactive,” says Duh, who has worked in Ronald McDonald houses in Chicago, Memphis, Chapel Hill, N.C., and in California.
Duh designed the play space with some collaboration with Hallmark for some of the elements. He describes it as “an open, fun, enlightened experience.
“It’s made for children who are sick, but it’s also for siblings,” he says.
Nearby is the “To the Moon” theater and stage for shadow puppets and projections that will create an under-the-sea and outer-space experience. He wanted to create something low maintenance, that didn’t require costumes, yet could capture children’s attention.
Duh walks to the play room’s other major area, the Rocket Ship. A small seat is big enough for a little person to sit in and blast off with spaceship controls and a joy stick and strobe lights for special effects.
Duh is also the person behind one of the house’s biggest features. He was sitting at a table at his home watching his kids — three boys 7 and under — using straws, and an idea hit him: a four-story steel sculpture made of pipes.
“I said, ‘Let’s do 50-foot crazy straws,’” he says.
The sculpture stretches from the basement to the top of the third floor in the central stairwell. It is covered with colorful mosaic tile, felt and wrapped in LED lights and will serve as a place to list donor names.
Fourteen-year-old Bethany James punches a snowflake stamp into a piece of construction paper. In a few minutes she will leave for a meeting about an upcoming surgery for her rare brain cancer. But for now her pink-painted nails grasp a pencil so she can create a thank-you card for friends who are visiting that evening.
“They are going to come have dinner with us,” Bethany explains in mid-February as she sat at a table in the newly opened Wylie House play area.
Bethany and her parents, Beth and Ed, have traveled from Carthage, Mo., and are one of the first families staying at Wylie House. The family has now slept at all three houses in Kansas City during their treatment for Bethany.
It all started eight years ago when Bethany had a seizure and a scan revealed the cancer. They flew the girl and mother from their home near Joplin, Mo., to Kansas City.
“I was so grateful for that warm shower later that night,” Beth James says.
Ed James can feel the compassion behind those who have helped construct the house.
“It’s like they are saying, ‘We know you are hurting from the inside out, but we are going to make it as good as we can,’” he says.