The first day Bill Considine walked into Akron Children’s Hospital as CEO in 1979, he saw parents sleeping in the lobby to be close to their sick children.

Six years later, with a push from Considine and community involvement, Ronald McDonald House opened on the corner of Locust and State streets, offering 20 rooms to the families for $10 a night, or for free if they couldn’t afford it.

Today, there’s often a waiting list of 25 to 30 families for one of those rooms, said Anne Collins, executive director of Akron’s Ronald McDonald House, which is a separate entity from the hospital.

This month, construction began on a $12.5 million project that will triple the rooms offered by the end of 2017.

At the same time — and for the first time since Akron’s Ronald McDonald House opened in 1985 — it is launching a permanent fundraising campaign to pay for its operations and an organized push for more volunteers to help.

“As you get bigger, things change,” Collins said.

A ceremony to mark the groundbreaking is taking place Thursday.

When Akron’s facility opened in 1985, an endowment created at the time of its construction paid most of its operating expenses. A volunteer stocked the linen closet once a week. And supporters often purchased items on a wish list of things the Ronald McDonald House needed.

But the new construction is eating up $4 million of the endowment and there isn’t enough left to cover operations. One volunteer can’t keep up with closet supplies. And items donated haven’t always kept up with needs, particularly over the summer when giving tends to slow.

“You can’t believe how many paper towels we go through,” Collins said. She recently ordered 300 rolls of paper towels that will be gone within a month.

It costs about $80 per room per night to meet expenses. But Ronald McDonald House still charges $10 for those who can afford it. And many can’t. They not only depend on the room, Collins said, but increasingly families rely on the food provided, too.

Thousands helped

So far this year through Aug. 31, there have been 8,511 people who stayed there. Rent receipts for July tallied $1,500.

Ronald McDonald House recently hired a development director to boost fundraising and a volunteer manager to build up its army of about 140 people who routinely give their time and talents, Collins said. She anticipates the full-time staff will grow to 10 or 12 when the new facility is up and running.

Dr. Jeffrey Hord, director of Akron Children’s Division of Hematology-Oncology, said the role of the Ronald McDonald House has changed over the years.

“Not that long ago, it was a foreign concept to have family stay in a patient room,” said Hord, who also sits on the board of the Ronald McDonald House. “Now, from ICU to neonatal, to even the burn unit, parents can stay in the hospital with their child.”

In some ways, that’s taken some of the burden off of Ronald McDonald House. But that’s been replaced and overwhelmed by Akron Children’s growth from a community hospital to a regional player that now draws most of its patients from outside Summit County.

Some of those patients — like children who receive bone marrow transplants — must stay within a 30-minute drive of the hospital for 100 days. Insurance doesn’t pay for the child to remain at the hospital, so the patient and the patient’s family stay at Ronald McDonald House.

Collins said that many new mothers also stay extended periods at Ronald McDonald House.

“We had one mother stay here a year and two months, but it’s nothing for a new mom to be here three, four or six months,” Collins said.

Even though parents can now sleep in the hospital rooms of their infants, she said, sometimes one of the parents and other children need somewhere to stay.

Ronald McDonald House, while separate from Akron Children’s, works closely with hospital staff to schedule surgeries and procedures months in advance to block out room space for families, Collins said.

Most of those who end up on a waiting list, she said, are facing sudden emergencies.

“Who this really impacts are the families who wake up in the morning and everything is fine and at 5 p.m., they’re sitting at Children’s in crisis,” she said.

History of giving

The first Ronald McDonald House was established in 1974 in Philadelphia after a Philadelphia Eagles football player’s daughter was treated for cancer. McDonald’s owner/operators made the first house possible through proceeds from the sale of Shamrock Shakes, and Ronald McDonald Houses began to spread across the country.

Akron’s red brick Ronald McDonald House that’s served families for 31 years cost $985,000 for the building and landscaping and about $100,000 for the furnishings.

The new project will cost more than twelve times as much. Akron Children’s Hospital helped raise about $10 million for the project. Another $2.4 million came from the New Markets Tax Credits program, the Development Fund of the Western Reserve and through the Development Finance Authority of Summit County.

The first phase of the project includes 42 new rooms, along with a commercial kitchen, fireplaces and comfortable furniture. When that’s complete, families will relocate from the existing Ronald McDonald House into the newly constructed rooms so that the second phase — the complete overhaul of the existing building — can be completed.

When finished, the updated and expanded Ronald McDonald House will have the latest technology, which should help families, Collins said, noting that the old building included phone booths.

“But one thing that’s very important to us,” Collins said, “even though this will be a more efficient, more commercial behind the scenes, we still want this to feel like home.”

Amanda Garrett can be reached at 330-996-3725 or agarrett@thebeaconjournal.com.