Alicia Heins had a deeply personal reason, among many others, to be removing trash and crabgrass from the lawn Saturday at the Ronald McDonald Houses near Children’s Mercy Hospital.
The reason was her 3-year-old nephew, born with a genetic disorder that sent him for three months to Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina.
Her sister, living in Virginia, was worried. Heins’ mother, from the Kansas City area, traveled to be with them at the Duke hospital.
“He’s had 10 surgeries and he’s only 3 years old,” said Heins, 30, of Overland Park.
Life would only have been harder, she believes, were it not for the many days of free rooms and meals and kindness her mother received at the Ronald McDonald House there.
“They provide comfort,” Heins said.
On Saturday, Heins made sure she was among the nearly 100 volunteers from the Junior League of Kansas City who turned out as part of the league’s 100th anniversary to cook and clean and work on the grounds of the two Ronald McDonald Houses at 26th and Cherry streets.
A century ago, Junior League members sewed diapers for babies treated at Children’s Mercy. More than a quarter century ago, the league gave $55,000 to help construct the 19-bedroom Ronald McDonald House at 2501 Cherry St. Another Ronald McDonald House, the 41-bedroom Longfellow House, opened in 2006 at 2502 Cherry.
Because of expanding need — nearly 1,000 families have been turned away each of the last three years — ground was broken in October on Cherry Street for a third, $4.5 million Ronald McDonald House that will add 21 bedrooms and is expected to open by year’s end.
As part of its centennial, the 1,400-member Junior League had already given $1 million toward the penguin exhibit at the Kansas City Zoo. But Marissa Schaffner, the league’s president, said that as a “hands-on” project, it had chosen to support Ronald McDonald House Charities. More volunteers have signed to help at the two homes on Saturday.
The Junior League also is committed to helping with programs once the new Ronald McDonald House is completed.
“It’s huge,” said Holly Buckendahl, chief executive of Ronald McDonald House Charities of Kansas City. “I tell people that what you need to do in your home, we have to do here every day but on a larger scale: cooking, cleaning, yard work.”
The Cherry Street homes serve 5,000 families each year, or about 20,000 people, Buckendahl said. The homes provide comfort food, comfortable rooms and privacy in what are frequently some of the most difficult and trauma-filled times in people’s lives.
The local houses have an operating budget of about $3 million, she said. Although the McDonald’s Corp. helps in the form of marketing, technology and leveraging of partners that include the Coca-Cola Co. and others to provide food and other goods, more than 98 percent of the homes’ budget relies on charitable donations or grants from foundations, corporations, individuals and money raised at local McDonald’s franchises.
In the kitchen of the original Cherry Street house, Mina Steen, 57, of Mission Hills and Carol Sindelar, 66, of Kansas City were busy with more than a dozen other Junior League members making meals such as rice and beans and desserts including brownies, chocolate cake and cookies.
“I’m praying already,” Sindelar said of several families she had met, including one with a week-old son undergoing heart surgery. Sindelar said she volunteered at the Ronald McDonald House 25 years ago when the Junior League first got involved.
“We are very thankful,” Melissa Fowler, 31, of Abilene, Kan., said of the homes and the volunteers who help keep them going.
Her son Shane Carpenter Jr., 6, was born with a kidney disorder. Fowler said she knew he would one day need a transplant. He was on long-term dialysis, with a blood type with hard-to-match antigens. By the time he entered Children’s Mercy for the transplant in early March, he was stable, she said, but his kidneys were operating at only 4 percent of normal.
“We are not wealthy. We are actually struggling,” Fowler said. “It’s wonderful to have places like this. They put a roof over your head and food in your stomach.”
She had been at the Ronald McDonald House with her family for more than a month. Within a week or two, she said, Shane will be going home.
“If it wasn’t for this place,” she said, “we wouldn’t have made it.”