When families need a place to stay while their children undergo treatment at El Paso hospitals for cancer and other serious illnesses, they’ve found a home away from home at the Ronald McDonald House for nearly 30 years.
Located across from Cathedral High School in central El Paso, the house is one of 329 worldwide and celebrates its 30th anniversary next year.
The first Ronald McDonald House in El Paso was located in a Victorian home at 1017 Montana and was known to passerbys by the waving figure of Ronald McDonald outside. But the charity outgrew the location and opened the doors of its new home in 2002.
The facility has 10 bedrooms, a kitchen, dining room, food pantry, laundry room and playroom for the kids. Families who stay there are asked to donate $10 for their accommodations, but nobody is turned away because they can’t afford to.
Although Ronald McDonald House Charities may be best known for the Ronald McDonald House, it also operates two other programs in El Paso: the family room at Providence Children’s Hospital and a college scholarship program.
Richard Castro, the owner of McDonald’s restaurants in El Paso, created the scholarship program back in the 1980s. Now the country’s largest scholarship program for Hispanics, it is operated nationwide by Ronald McDonald House Charities, and has awarded more than $22 million to 15,000 students.
The Ronald McDonald family room provides families a place to escape the stark, antiseptic hospital waiting room and enjoy a freshly baked cookie or cool drink. It was recently renovated and reopened in July on the third floor of Providence Children’s Hospital.
Frank Lopez has been executive director of Ronald McDonald House Charities in El Paso since June of last year.
Lopez, 55, grew up in El Paso. He earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a minor in marketing from the University of Texas at El Paso.
He has worked in marketing for El Paso Electric and Absolute Home Care. Most recently, he was marketing manager for the El Paso Times.
He also owned a data processing company in Juárez and medical claims processing company in El Paso, which he sold to a Dallas company. For eight years, Lopez was the development director and the regional director for the Alzheimer’s Association.
Lopez says he loves to travel, cook and read.
He sat down with El Paso Inc. and talked about his vision for the charity, the importance of keeping families together and a boy named Luis.
Q: I imagine you have witnessed miracles here and the joy that comes with children getting better, but have also come face-to-face with the worst kind of loss and grief. Working at the house must give you a different perspective on life.
It does. When you think you have problems, they are miniscule when you enter this house. Everything is overshadowed by what the families here are going through, and you just kind of forget what little things we complain about.
With the death recently of Luis, it made me realize just how important the time one spends with one who is dying. So we reached out into the community, to assisted living facilities, to see if any of them would be able to contribute or provide a dinner here at the house for the families.
If somebody provides a dinner, that means families have more time to spend with their children and less to worry about. Now SunRidge Senior Living Communities is providing catered diners to families staying here three times a week.
Q: Tell me about Luis.
Luis was here for a year and a half. He had leukemia. He was the kind of young man who didn’t complain about anything. His parents were from Juárez, and, for whatever reason, weren’t allowed to cross into El Paso. His grandmother crossed every day to be with him.
Every time you asked Luis how he was, he just smiled and said, “Good.” About a month and a half ago, he was getting his chemotherapy and the doctors finally told him there was nothing else they could do for him.
He was released from the hospital and he was taken back to Juárez where he could be with his parents and meet his 2-year-old brother for the first time. Unfortunately, he died two weeks later.
Q: What do you do for families trying to cope with the death of a child?
Most of the children leave here well. This year we have had three children pass away. The impact is hard. It’s also hard for the other families who are here, and the children who are aware of what happens.
We’ve got to do everything we can to soften the impact. We do have periods where it is hard and it is a struggle, but it is the success stories that keep us going.
Sometimes the death is sudden but sometimes we know it is coming and we make sure we are here to listen. We engage them and talk to them. We are not licensed therapists and counselors; we are just people, and sometimes that’s all they need.
We are looking for funding now – we have submitted some grant applications to the El Paso Community Foundation – to hire a certified therapist or counselor.
You know the families here are having a difficult time, not only with the stress of the child being in the hospital, but also things like financial stress. Maybe they are unable to work. Maybe they are financially strapped.
The house was created so that those burdens would be minimized. So along with offering them a room to stay in, we offer them laundry services. We have the kitchen with a food pantry. We provide a shuttle.
We have created an atmosphere here that is joyful. Every child who walks through that door sees the Ronald McDonald statue out there, and we try to encompass that feeling – that this is a house for them to enjoy.
What we create here is more of a home, and the people here are guests. If you had guests come to your home, you would do everything you could to make their stay enjoyable and fun. That’s what we do.
We have activities, movie night, crafts. So we’ve always engaged the children and families here. They’re so stressed out when they arrive, because they’re dealing with the biggest thing of their lives. So any sense of normalcy is huge.
Q: How busy is the house right now?
We have been at capacity for three months, so we have a waiting list. We’ve partnered with several hotels in the area that have been kind enough to give us an employee or friends-and-family rate for families to stay until we have room here.
Q: What is your vision for the charity?
I’d like to expand the program, and we’ve already begun that by offering new activities to keep families engaged. For the first time, we hired a program director who is responsible for all three of our programs – the house, the family room at Providence Children’s Hospital and scholarship program. She has excellent communication and social media skills which has helped with updating our website, Facebooking and tweeting our followers, along with recruiting volunteers.
Some of our cancer patients have compromised immune systems, so we are also looking into designating four of our bedrooms as cancer safety rooms. They would have upgraded heating and cooling systems and air purification systems that would eliminate allergens and bacteria in the room.
Q: How is the Ronald McDonald charity funded?
Because we carry the McDonald’s brand, there is a misconception that most of our funding, or all of our funding, is provided by McDonald’s. Although they are a wonderful national partner and have in-store promotions for us throughout the year, sponsor special events for us and volunteer here, McDonald’s contributes 18 percent of my budget.
About 30 percent of the budget comes from our special events. We have a golf tournament conducted by Southwest Airlines in Las Cruces, and, in December, we have “Lights of Luv” where we decorate the house and Ronald McDonald comes.
We also receive grants and have corporate and individual contributors. All the money that is donated to us stays here locally.
This community is incredible. You can feel the warmth and compassion. Every single day there is somebody who walks through our doors and will just drop off food or clothing or a donation.
We need to do a better job, though, of explaining to the community what we actually do. The name is top of mind – pretty much everybody has heard of the Ronald McDonald House, but a lot of people don’t know exactly what we do. So it is our job to get that information out.
Q: How much does it cost to stay at the house?
We charge $10 a day if a family can afford it, but we never turn anybody away because they can’t afford to stay. Nearly 80 percent of the families who stay here can’t afford the $10. We estimate that it costs us $97 to provide one night’s stay for a family here.
Q: These are families who are not from El Paso but are seeking treatment here?
We take families on a case-by-case basis, but normally people need to be 25 miles outside the El Paso city limits to be accepted. There are some cases where people as close as Horizon City have a child in the hospital but have no means of transportation, so we will accept them.
More than 60 percent of the people we see are from New Mexico, mainly from Las Cruces and Alamogordo, but we also serve communities like Deming and Roswell.
We serve families from outside of the country, too, mainly from Chihuahua and Juárez in Mexico. The closest house to the north of us is in Albuquerque, the closest house to the east of us is Midland, and to the south is Mexico City.
Q: What’s unique about the house in El Paso?
Being on the border, we help a large number of folks from Mexico whose children are receiving treatment at hospitals here but they have no place to stay. I’d estimate maybe 25 percent to 30 percent of our guests are from Mexico.
Q: How many families does the Ronald McDonald House in El Paso help?
From January to August this year, we served 168 families and 507 individuals. Usually, we’ll help about 700 individuals a year.
We’ve been in existence here in El Paso since 1984. In fact, next year is our 30th anniversary. We have served more than 30,000 people total in two of our programs – the Ronald McDonald House and the family room at Providence Children’s Hospital.
Q: What are some of the more common maladies you see here?
Right now, we are seeing a larger number of premature births than we ever have in the past. It’s difficult to say why, because the causes of premature births are not well understood by doctors. We also see a large number of cancer patients.
Q: How important is it that families are nearby while their children are being treated?
UniHealth Foundation and Ronald McDonald House Charities are conducting an impact research study. The final report will be published next year. We’ve always felt that we’ve had an impact on families, but what the research is showing is that there is an impact by having family-centered care, meaning we bring families together during the hardest time of their lives, and that is having a child with a serious illness.
It may actually shorten the time the child is in the hospital, and the child is healthier knowing that a family member is close by. We also minimize the financial burden on a family.
The average stay here is about two months. If you have cancer, the stay can be as long as two years. We have families here now that have been here that long.
Without the Ronald McDonald House, the only option the family would have is to try to stay in the hospital room with the child, live in a hotel or commute back and forth, which in many cases is just not possible.
Ronald McDonald House Charities in El Paso needs volunteers to help at the house or the family room at Providence Children’s Hospital. For more information, call (915) 542-1522 or visit www.rmhcelp.org.
E-mail El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.