A day after Southwest Airlines — known for its down-home friendliness — docked at Akron-Canton Airport, a small but mighty contingent of employees rolled up their sleeves Sunday at Akron’s Ronald McDonald House, displaying that same kind of spirit.
Ten members of the Southwest family quietly descended on the “House That Love Built” for real hands-on help, donating three hours of their time doing all manner of cleaning, including behind the kitchen stove, much to the delight of the local Ronald McDonald House Executive Director Anne Collins.
They brought with them $500 in gift certificates.
The 20-bedroom Ronald McDonald House — located near Akron Children’s Hospital — is the home away from home for out-of-town families of seriously and critically ill children in the hospital. Families like Matt and Shelly Small of Mansfield, who have landed there more times than they can remember since the birth of their now 6-year-old son Oliver, diagnosed with cerebral palsy. He has undergone several operations, with more in his future.
The Smalls’ stays have ranged from three or four days up to seven weeks.
“I can’t say enough good things about this place,” Matt Small said. “The comfort and love you feel is like a close-knit family.”
Shelly Small, who spoke about doctors bringing her son back to life several times, agreed that the support they’ve received at Ronald McDonald House has been extraordinary.
Akron’s Ronald McDonald House — like the 305 others dotting the world’s landscape — provides a place to stay for families like the Smalls in medical crisis for a maximum cost of $10 a day. It also gives families three meals a day, a place to do laundry, access to the kitchen and an all- purpose playroom and playground.
According to Collins, 51 percent of the house’s guests come great distances.
“We have reservations through February of 2013,” she said.
Some families from as far away as Italy and Spain come seeking specialized care from doctors like pediatric neurologist Dr. Bruce Cohen, who specializes in mitochondrial disease, and eye surgeon Dr. Joy Ertel.
Absent the hospitality of Ronald McDonald House (which opened debt-free in 1985 and is poised for a much-needed expansion), families slept on the floor or in whatever vacant chair they could find at the hospital.
“Ronald McDonald House was the vision of [hospital Chief Executive] William Considine,” Collins said. “His first day on the job he was stepping over sleeping bodies and decided then he had to do something about that situation.
“The house is set up with seven washers and seven dryers so that parents can literally get off the [medical] helicopter with just the clothes on their backs and still have clean clothes the next day. …One of my fond memories is of a tall, thin man with tattoos doing his laundry, wearing a black-velvet ladies robe trimmed in red satin that we had on hand…”
No one matching that description was roaming around this day. Just volunteers from Southwest fanning out in different directions with buckets, rubber gloves, Murphy’s Oil Soap and various other cleaning agents, washing all wood surfaces, including kitchen cupboards. The men were assigned to heavy lifting, like moving headboards and large boxes.
Volunteers who flew in from Dallas to put in a little elbow grease were Kerry and Michael Frost — she’s in the airline’s “People Department” and her husband is in the training department; graphic designer Eric Daniels (originally from Warren); and Debbie Wafford and Janet Felty, members of the Community Relations and Giving Temple, who were accompanied by Janet’s 12-year-old daughter Aubrey and Debbie’s 8-year-old son Noah.
Also helping were Judy and Dennis Peters — she’s in finance and originally from Canton and he’s in technology — and her 81-year-old mother, Alice Price of Canton.
Price, who didn’t let two knee replacements stop her from helping wash the kitchen cupboards, said she never knew there was a Ronald McDonald House so close.
Volunteers, whether from Southwest Airlines or the stable of others who have been there since the beginning, are the life’s blood of Ronald McDonald House, Collins said. “Without their support financially or operationally, we couldn’t be open.”
Felty said Southwest is not only a national sponsor of Ronald McDonald Houses, but also many of its employees have wisely bought into the philosophy that to whom much is given much is expected.
“Because we are blessed to have roofs over our heads, jobs and healthy children, we want to help families with sick children who need to be nearby,” Felty said.
Wafford said Southwest has a medical transportation grant designed to help Ronald McDonald House families. She said that program is for not-for-profit hospitals and medical transportation organizations to distribute complimentary, round-trip tickets (per social workers’ discretion, based on need) to patient families or caregivers.
Likewise, Southwest employees who log upward of 40 volunteer hours at a nonprofit or school can earn free travel.
Collins and other Ronald McDonald House personnel — night manager Mary Merendino and family service manager Beth Plazak — had their heads in the clouds after the Southwest volunteers landed at their house.
Before departing, Southwest managed to erase the scent of a newly disinfected kitchen with that of freshly baked brownies.
Few things smell like a loving home more than that.
Jewell Cardwell can be reached at 330-996-3567 or firstname.lastname@example.org.