no clowning around

photos by john altdorfer

Left: Levi Olsen arrived at the Ronald McDonald House from Austin,Texas, with his parents and four siblings. A year ago, Levi had brain surgery at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. He returned this summer for a checkup.

pittsburgh’s ronald mcdonald house charities…

Cheryl Martin knew something was wrong when her normally active 18-month-old son, Aspen, lay down listlessly on the floor of their Erie home and refused to budge. But the seriousness of his illness didn’t sink in until she and Aspen were being LifeFlighted to Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. Alone in a strange city, with a seriously ill toddler and her 2-year-old daughter, Meredian, in tow, Martin had no car and no place to stay during those moments when she could tear herself away from her son’s bedside.

Cheryl Martin, of Erie, and her daughter, Meredian, pause for a meal in the Ronald McDonald House’s well-stocked kitchen. Martin's son, Aspen, is being treated at Children’s Hospital for a virus that affected his heart. Inset: Erin Senior and members of the Red Shoe Crew cook breakfast for the Ronald McDonald House guests.
Cheryl Martin, of Erie, and her daughter, Meredian, pause for a meal in the Ronald McDonald House’s well-stocked kitchen. Martin’s son, Aspen, is being treated at Children’s Hospital for a virus that affected his heart.

A social worker told Martin about Pittsburgh’s Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC), a “home away from home” to families that have come more than 40 miles to have a child treated in a Pittsburgh hospital. Housed in the top seven floors of a 14-story building on the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh’s campus in Lawrenceville, RMHC of Pittsburgh offers 60 efficiency apartments, a communal laundry and kitchen and other amenities to its guests and, best of all, connects directly to Children’s Hospital—the destination of 95 percent of the approximately 2,000 families from around the world that stay at the house annually.

“It’s so great here,” Martin says on day 17 of her ongoing ordeal as doctors seek a treatment for Aspen’s viral infection. “The walkway takes me right over [to the hospital], and I don’t have to be away from Aspen for long.”

Since the RMHC of Pittsburgh was founded more than 34 years ago, several Mt. Lebanon residents have played key roles in its development and ongoing success. But the story starts four decades ago in Philadelphia, where Dr. Audrey Evans of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia dreamed of having a place for the families she saw camping out on hospital benches and dining on vending machine food. When the 3-year-old daughter of Philadelphia Eagles tight end Fred Hill was hospitalized with leukemia, Eagles General Manager Jimmy Murray met with Evans and decided to help make her dream a reality. He contacted McDonald’s Corporation for support. Together, the hospital, the NFL team and the fast food chain built the first RMHC, which opened October 15, 1974.

The house was so successful that other cities began setting up similar facilities. By the late 1970s, there were six RMHC in the country. In Pittsburgh, pediatric oncologist Dr. Vincent Albo of Mt. Lebanon was eager to start a house but needed help with the business end of the endeavor. As luck would have it, Albo’s wife, Hettie, played bridge with Beverly Colver whose husband, Dick, was vice president and treasurer for Westinghouse. The Colvers had lost their 16-year-old daughter, Cynthia, to leukemia, so Beverly was eager to help. “She came home from a bridge date [with Hettie] and asked me if I’d like to help start a Pittsburgh RMHC,” Colver, a Lebanon Avenue resident, recalls. “I said, ‘Yes I would, but what’s a Ronald McDonald House?’”

RMHC founding board members Dick Colver, right, and Joe Gordon pose with Ronald McDonald.
RMHC founding board members Dick Colver, right, and Joe Gordon pose with Ronald McDonald.

Colver, now retired (Beverly died in 1997), says the Pittsburgh house opened thanks to the collaborative efforts of a group of families who had lost children to cancer, McDonald’s owner/operators, the medical and business communities and the Pittsburgh Steelers. (In cities with both a RMHC and a NFL team, the team usually co-sponsors the house along with the McDonald’s Corporation.)

Like Colver, longtime Steelers public relations director Joe Gordon has been on the board since its inception, and Colver says Jack Lambert, a key player in the early years, still supports the house. “He’s a real tough guy,” Colver says of Lambert, “but he’s a pussycat with the children.”

Steelers owner Art Rooney Sr. immediately backed the RMHC idea. “He’d ask us, ‘Is Joe doing everything he should to get this off the ground?’” says Colver, adding that Rooney invited 700 Pittsburgh-area “bigwigs” to a dinner fundraiser. “They won’t say no to me,” Colver remembers Rooney saying.  “The Chief” then served as the dinner’s keynote speaker.

The board purchased an old robber baron mansion on Shady Avenue, just 10 minutes from Children’s Hospital’s former location in Oakland. Jim Delligatti, who ran several Pittsburgh McDonald’s franchises (and invented the Big Mac), helped the board get a loan for the building. For two years, the board scraped wallpaper, painted, updated the plumbing and called in favors for financial and construction help; Sears gave the appliances and Westinghouse donated a new HVAC system.

On July 10, 1979, the facility opened as the country’s seventh RMHC. It had 10 apartments with shared bathrooms, kitchen and laundry. A few years later, when Children’s Hospital began doing more transplants and needed a less communal space for families, the board bought the eight-unit apartment building next door and fixed that up too.

In 2009, when Children’s Hospital moved to Lawrenceville, the RMHC board sold its two houses and set up 60 apartments in a large building on the hospital’s new campus. It was the first RMHC to connect directly to a hospital and is currently the fifth largest in the country and the eighth largest of the more than 300 RMHC worldwide. The Pittsburgh house has six full- and five part-time employees and an annual operating budget of $1.2 million.

Every house is an independent 501(c3) with its own board of directors that licenses the Ronald McDonald name. The board establishes its own policies and manages its own budget and fundraising process. While RMHC has been the McDonald’s “charity of choice” for more than 30 years, more than eight of every 10 dollars needed to run the house comes from donations and fundraisers. (“Guests” are asked to pay only $15 per night’s stay and no one is turned away if they can’t pay.) About $200,000 a year comes from donations made at local McDonald’s restaurants, and organizations, businesses and schools—including Jefferson Middle School—raise $5,000 to $8,000 annually by collecting recyclable pop tops. RMHC also offers many ways individuals and businesses can donate, including tribute gifts, planned giving, stock donations, corporate sponsorships and even an wish list that features items from toys and food to kitchen supplies and cleaners.

Specific fundraisers include the Big Mac Open golf outing and the annual Red Shoe Ball (formerly the Storybook Ball), which brought in $75,000 last year. This year’s ball—featuring a wine tasting, silent auction, dinner and entertainment by No Bad JuJu—is Saturday, November 9, at the Omni William Penn. Tickets are $250 at 412-362-3400.

Erin Senior and members of the Red Shoe Crew cook breakfast for the Ronald McDonald House guests.
Erin Senior and members of the Red Shoe Crew cook breakfast for the Ronald McDonald House guests.

Helping with the fundraising is the Red Shoe Crew—named for Ronald McDonald’s big red clown shoes—a group of young professionals age 21 to 40. While many cities with a RMHC have a crew, it wasn’t until last year that—thanks to Erin Senior, Washington Road—one was formed in Pittsburgh.

Senior, a business development officer at PNC, first heard of the RMHC three years ago when she became the relationship manager between the bank and the house. Working closely with Eleanor Reigel, RMHC’s executive director, Senior often asked how she could help the organization, but it wasn’t until early last year—after Senior had been promoted and was no longer working with the RMHC—that Reigel called her to ask if she’d get a Pittsburgh Red Shoe Crew up and running. “When I was thinking about starting the young professional group, I immediately thought of Erin to be a founding member based upon her enthusiasm, organizational skills, commitment and energy level,” says Reigel. “I knew she would be a perfect fit for the Red Shoe Crew.”

Senior jumped at the challenge. “I admire the organization as a whole, and what they do is phenomenal,” she says. “The chance to develop professionally and give back… I couldn’t pass it up. Everyone who works there is amazing.”

In its first year, the crew—which started with four members and has expanded to 40—established goals, a business plan and a leadership board with committee chairs. “Erin’s engagement with the Red Shoe Crew has been outstanding,” says Reigel, adding that Senior has, among other things, organized service projects for the families, facilitated fundraising events and participated in a strategic planning session concerning the future of the crew. “She is truly an asset to the charity.”

Some of the fundraising events Senior has worked on include networking outings, a summer soiree, a pizza/trivia night and a lounge at last year’s ball. Crewmembers also volunteer at the house, collect toiletries for the families staying there and cook either a brunch or dinner for the families monthly.  “I love doing it,” Senior says. “We’ve formed friendships and met families. It’s a blast.” Next up: creating their own signature event.

When Cheryl Martin leaves her son’s bedside, she drops Meredian off in the RMHC’s penthouse playroom and heads across the hall to the kitchen to put a meal together. The little girl blissfully wheels around a toy truck and tries on a princess gown from an armoire of sparkly, befeathered costumes in the cheery room filled with books and toys. This communal area offers a family room where movie nights are held, four public computers and a panoramic view from Oakland’s Cathedral of Learning to the skyscrapers of Downtown Pittsburgh. The penthouse also houses administrative offices, a laundry area with eight washer/dryers, a nine-table dining room and a kitchen complete with two stoves, blenders, a cereal bar, a well stocked refrigerator and a coffee machine filled with, what else, McDonald’s coffee.

These open spaces are a nice change from hospital rooms and the small one-bedroom apartments, especially considering that some families find themselves at the Ronald McDonald House for months. “The average stay is one to three days,” says Nicole Sperduto, RMHC’s outreach coordinator. “But some have stayed here over a year.”

Ronald McDonald himself stops in periodically to visit, as do therapy dogs. Other volunteer groups come to decorate the apartment doors (when we visited, the doors sported cheery frogs, butterflies, crabs and other animals created from colored paper plates), lead craft workshops, give massages and haircuts or cook meals. “We are always trying to grow it and make it better,” says Mindy Adleff, the family services manager. “And we’re always trying to get more people in to help. People know of us, but don’t know how to help.”

Sunset Hills United Presbyterian Church Pastor Bill Gracey and his wife, Shelby, pause after serving dinner to Ronald McDonald House guests to say hello to 9-month-old Brentlee Nichols, who came to the house from New York for a liver transplant.
Sunset Hills United Presbyterian Church Pastor Bill Gracey and his wife, Shelby, pause after serving dinner to Ronald McDonald House guests to say hello to 9-month-old Brentlee Nichols, who came to the house from New York for a liver transplant.

One of the groups that come bearing home-cooked meals is Sunset Hills United Presbyterian Church. Pastor Bill Gracey heard about the Ronald McDonald House while attending a Green Tree Rotary meeting and knew it would be a great outreach program for his church.  For over a year, four teams of church members have rotated shifts preparing monthly meals of meatloaf, chicken or lasagna. After serving the food, they stay to chat with the families. The group cooks 35 to 45 servings for each visit; the Rotary club and the church pay for the supplies—about $120 per month.

“I don’t know what I’d do without this place,” says Samantha Nichols, a young mother from upstate New York who has been at the house for four months while her 9-month-old son, Brentlee, recovers from a liver transplant. As the church ladies gather around Brentlee’s stroller to coo at the wide-eyed little boy, Nichols queues up for the meal of chicken fillets, cheesy potatoes, rolls, fruit salad, brownies and chocolate chip cookies. Gracey adds that the church’s GPM group (Gathering of Presbyterian Men) even came out once to serenade the diners.

Watching Gracey and his crew interact with the families, it’s apparent that they get almost as much from the visits as the families do. “I introduced myself to a father whose child was here,” Gracey says, “and the man took my hand and squeezed it so hard while he thanked me that it hurt.”

Sperduto says six to 10 groups are regular chefs—from families to Scout troops and teams of McDonald’s employees—and dozens of other groups come periodically. “They get to know families and often keep in touch with them after they leave,” Sperduto says of the volunteers. The families staying at RMHC enjoy three to five home cooked meals per week.

The “chefs” leave leftovers behind for the families who can’t make it to the kitchen during the dinner hour. Although some families opt to cook meals in their apartment kitchens (which have microwaves and refrigerators) or take meals back to their rooms for privacy, Sperduto says most stay in the dining area. “They socialize and support each other,” she says.

Colver, who is often at the house for meetings or comes with his wife, Marie, to help out, still marvels at how well the RMHC fulfills its mission. “It’s a wonderful endeavor,” he says. “I’m pleased to be involved as long as they’ll have me. Cynthia would want me to stay involved.”

Cheryl Martin may sum it up best: “Coming here, being able to have the homemade food has been nice. If I had to leave to go to the grocery store and something happened…” she shakes her head as her voice trails off. “I can talk with the other parents who are staying here,” she says. “I feel connected. I’m with people who understand.”

For information about joining the Red Shoe Crew, check or contact Nicole Sperduto at or 412-246-1109.