The Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC) of Pittsburgh and Morgantown provide a living space for families whose children are in need of medical treatment at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh or several other facilities in the area. The original Ronald McDonald House was established in Philadelphia in 1974, and the Pittsburgh house, which opened in 1979, was the seventh such house in the country. Currently there are 370 Ronald McDonald houses worldwide, with each chapter self-incorporated as a nonprofit.
We spoke with Eleanor Reigel, the chapter’s chief executive officer, about how the organization helps the entire family when a child is undergoing medical care.
North Hills Monthly (NHM): What is the role of Ronald McDonald House Charities in this region?
Eleanor Reigel (Reigel): The RMHC of Pittsburgh and Morgantown provides a way for families to stay close to their children who are receiving medical care; it is committed to helping the families lead happier, healthier and more productive lives. It goes beyond the house program, however, because we also have a Care Mobile program. We collaborate with UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh to provide immunizations, flu shots, well visits, and dental care in the community.
It’s also more than just a place to stay; it’s giving back to the local community. We are on the road five days a week working with the family court system to provide physical exams before children are placed in foster care. We work with the Pittsburgh Public Schools to provide well visits during the school day with parents’ permission.
NHM: How has RMHC grown since its inception?
Reigel: The original house in Pittsburgh served 10 families each night, though over the years, the demand for providing a place for families to stay while receiving medical care for their children grew. We have a tremendous amount of medical resources here in the city, one of which is our major partner, UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh (CHP), though we do service all pediatric facilities.
The need has grown over the years based on the medical technology and expertise that has grown in the city of Pittsburgh. In October 2009, the charity moved to its current location, which is within the CHP campus in Lawrenceville; we now provide 74 apartments. In 2018, we merged with the Morgantown chapter, so we have two locations now. Morgantown has 16 bedrooms, where we can serve 90 families each night.
NHM: Tell me about the Pittsburgh apartments and amenities.
Reigel: We have 74 one-bedroom apartments for a four-person occupancy—a queen-size bed for two and a fold-out sofa. There is a full bath, and the kitchen has everything but a stove (for safety), including a full fridge, freezer, coffee maker, dishwasher, toaster and microwave. We provide all dishes and cups, so they literally only bring the clothes on their backs and personal items.
Every family receives a welcome bag with toiletry items, a quilt made by a community group, or other donations. Really, we are just welcoming the families and trying to make their stay as comfortable as possible.
We have a laundry room free to all families. We have a rooftop garden space. We have other community areas, a living room, a play area for little ones, and a teen lounge. We also have a toy forest, which is kind of unique. When a family checks in, they get a magic ticket and patients can go in and select a toy.
NHM: Have there been any recent updates or renovations to the facility?
Reigel: At the Pittsburgh house, we are in the design phase of an all-purpose family activities center—we want to use the space for activities like yoga classes, paint nights and different activities. We are working toward transitioning to full capacity for the fall. If we could get back to whatever normal may be, we’d like to kick that off and have a grand opening when we are back up and running full speed in Pittsburgh. In Morgantown, we are in the silent phase of a bricks-and-mortar capital campaign of expansion and renovation of that house. We want to add 12 bedrooms to get us up to 30 rooms.
NHM: Is there a time limit to stay in the apartments?
Reigel: It varies individually, based on need. We have people that have stayed with us for one night and for over a year.
NHM: Are there distance or cost restrictions?
Reigel: Because of the great need, we do have a mileage restriction—they have to live 40 miles away or further. Prior to the pandemic, we were full every day. We have a waitlist. We have serviced families from Brazil, Japan, Australia, Spain, people from Alaska, California, Texas, and Hawaii. It’s all over the world. That speaks to the care that is provided at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.
As for cost, we ask for a donation of $20 a night, but if a family cannot afford it, they stay regardless. It’s up to us to fundraise to offset the cost; no one is ever turned away for a financial reason, and the same with Care Mobile; the services are provided for free.
NHM: I know you rely a lot on volunteers, particularly when it comes to meal preparation in the main kitchen. Can you tell me more about volunteer opportunities?
Reigel: Prior to COVID, we had many opportunities. We had volunteers do administrative work and help with thank you letters. We have a fairly robust pantry and provide meals daily, whether they are prepared by a group or by making the pantry available to families so they can cook. Maintaining that pantry is a job—making sure that the supplies are rotated and that anything that might be expired is not put out for families.
There are a lot of ways to help, even though we can’t currently have volunteers on site. Through Projects of Passion, you can basically turn a hobby into a fundraiser. One gentleman put on a weighted backpack and walked 41.2 miles in honor of RMHC families; he raised more than $7,500 from sponsors. People have lemonade stands, car washes—we’ve had folks do an ice skating party and raise money. The sky is the limit.
NHM: How did you manage during the pandemic?
Reigel: We never shut down; we were open 24/7 during the pandemic's height while maintaining a safe environment. Many families said, ‘I had no idea what we would have done.’ We are grateful that we could continue our mission.
The Care Mobile program only shut down for a couple of weeks, and we took the time to enhance the air filtration system. It is even safer than it was before. The board of directors is very committed to the mission but also to expanding upon that basic mission of providing a place for families to stay. I am thrilled to say that we have taken it to a whole other level.
With the Care Mobile program, we are always talking about how we can expand services more based on need, and how we can facilitate that need to accomplish our end goal. The bottom line is we are always looking at other ways to support the community. I’m thrilled to be part of that strategic vision.
To learn more about RMHC, visit www.rmhc.org.