Ronald McDonald House Helps Families Most in Need

Kids at Ronald McDonald House
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BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – When Jordan Toler was 13 years old, he was diagnosed with Acute Mycelous Leukemia, a rare form of leukemia, and his life turned upside down. He quit going to his school and playing with his friends. He moved from the Big Island to Ronald McDonald House on Oahu where he and his family lived with other families whose children were fighting difficult illnesses or recovering from serious injuries. Jordan struggled through many more painful months of treatment in the hospital.

After his cancer briefly went into remission, Jordan was thrilled to return home to the Big Island, but soon after the leukemia came back. The doctor said Jordan needed a bone marrow treatment. Luckily, Jordan’s 11-year-old sister was a match for his bone marrow type. Jordan spent the next month in the hospital after his successful transplant and then moved back into the Ronald McDonald House in Manoa from January until late May. His mother and grandmother took turns staying with him in two-week shifts.

14-year-old Justin Toler had just completed a frightful two years of cancer treatments when this photo was taken. During that time, they stayed at the Judd Hillside Ronald McDonald House no less than nine times. During the span, mother Diana Liborio and Grandmother Leona Toler alternated staying at the House with Jordan.

Inside the Ronald McDonald House on Judd Street, Jordan became an important role model and big brother figure for the younger children because he was one of the oldest and had the most experience fighting a life threatening disease. He stayed with the younger children to comfort them when they were scared. His kindness to everyone, even the littlest children, inspired 4-year-old Ruthie to start a fundraising walk-a-thon to collect money for Jordan’s growing medical bills.

“Jordan became her hero,” said Leona Toler, Jordan’s grandmother, in an interview from her Big Island home. “This was his time to be the big brother and tell everyone not to worry. Children become so afraid because they think about death. Jordan reassured them not to worry and told them to just trust in God.”

Leona said they were lucky because the people working, living and volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House in Manoa are “the most caring people” and “had a great love for the children.” She explains, “Hotels are not a safe place for Jordan because he could have been exposed to all kinds of germs just going in the elevator, but at the Ronald McDonald House, the staff and volunteers took every precaution and created a safe place for Jordan and other seriously ill children.”

Jerri Chong, executive director of Ronald McDonald House Charities of Hawaii, says the Ronald McDonald House has been helping children like Jordan since the first home opened on Judd Hillside Road on March 27, 1987.

Sue Entz, who taught at the old Children’s Hospital, knew there was a need for such a sanctuary when she witnessed parents of critically ill children from rural Oahu and the neighbor islands had no where to stay and were spending thousands of dollars on hotel bills, sleeping in hallways at relatives’ homes or staying in the hospital hallways. Entz, who became the founding board president, and Kitty Lagareta, a well-known public relations specialist, are among the people who helped co-found the first Ronald McDonald House, modeling the concept of the beautiful 10-bedroom Manoa home.

Because there are so many families in need, a second home opened on Oahu Avenue in 2006, enabling the Ronald McDonald Houses to help 17 families at once with accommodations. Though families usually stay under 90 days, some families with critically ill children stayed up to a year. Families pay $20 a night if they can afford to. If there is an overflow, Chong says the Outrigger Ohana Hotels allows the families to stay there, offering the Ronald McDonald House 600 nights a year at a very reduced cost. “Their generosity helps ensure that no families in need are turned away.”

Many more families are helped on site through the Ronald McDonald respite center at Kapiolani Medical Center for Women & Children. More than 65,000 parents and siblings have hung out while waiting for their sick child to be treated at no cost to them. Chong says parents and siblings don’t sleep at the respite center, but can go there if children being treated to get some rest and relaxation, have some food and drinks, access a computer for emails or research, and have almost everything they need provided for them. Volunteers staff this room 365 days a year for 12 hours a day, even on holidays.

To keep accommodations affordable, the annual budget of $1 million is raised primarily through donations made at participating McDonald’s restaurants, private grants, cash and in-kind donations and fundraising events. Because an estimate 25 percent of the families are from the Pacific Rim, McDonalds Restaurants in the Pacific Rim also collects donations for the Ronald McDonald House in Hawaii.

“Ronald McDonald House is not a part of McDonalds Restaurants, but McDonalds Restaurants is just a wonderful, wonderful partner. There are 300 Ronald McDonald Houses worldwide with McDonalds Restaurants providing supportive venues for fundraising with canisters at all the registers,” Chong says.

Twelve full-time employees and an estimated 90 volunteers run both homes. Together they have helped more than 22,000 people in need from all over the world.

Tari Perry is one of those cherished volunteers at the Ronald McDonald House. She learned about the Ronald McDonald House mission firsthand through her 15-year-old niece Kelsy who had Cerebral Palsy and spent much of her life in various hospitals here and in the mainland. Kelsy and her family stayed in four different Ronald McDonald Houses when she had surgeries overseas.

“We had to fly to different states for my niece’s surgeries and it was so expensive. When we heard about the Ronald McDonald House, we were thrilled, because the accommodations were nicer than a hotel, there were home cooked meals and everything we needed was given to us.” Tari says her niece was an inspiration to those around her and was full of life right up until she died last year on July 25, just days after turning 15 on July 13.

In Kelsy’s memory, Tari and 6 of her friends started volunteering at the Hawaii Ronald McDonald House. “We wanted to find something to do with our time to give back. We named our group Team Kelsy and offered to clean, cook or whatever was needed at the Ronald McDonald House,” Tari said.

The members of Team Kelsy cook dinners for the families and stay to talk with them and help at the annual fundraising golf tournament. “We had six very different women, all mothers, who enjoyed volunteering. We noticed one of our friends who seemed the toughest on the outside, became the softest of the volunteers. She found something inside of herself that she did not know was there.”

Tari says she is encouraging more people to start their own teams at the Ronald McDonald House, because the need for volunteers is so great. “Volunteering can help you get over the death of someone you love, because you take the focus off yourself and realize there is more to life than just me. Volunteering can help you see another part of life, a very painful one, that can be dealt with in a positive way as a community.”

Mamie Murray is another cherished volunteer at the Ronald McDonald House. A teacher, she’s been volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House in her spare time for more than 20 years doing everything from office work, making runs to Costco, Loves Bakery and the Foodbank, driving guests to and from the hospital, to making calls to companies for donations. Murray says 20 years ago, she asked Cinnabon to contribute any extra pastries and since then, the company has been very generous.

She says the people at the Ronald McDonald House are nice, there is always something fun to do and you just never know who might drop by. For example, she says local artist Wyland came to visit recently. He’s been a long time supporter. Twenty years ago he did an art show benefiting Ronald McDonald House with proceeds from print sales at Kahala Mall going to the organization. Another celebrity, local chef and restaurateur Sam Choy, came to bake cookies with the kids. Sports stars, like basketball players from the Lakers, stopped by to visit with the children. “The Ronald McDonald House is really an incredible place when you think about it. It runs all on private donations. It is really, really special.”

Murray now spends most of her volunteer time at the family room in Kapiolani Medical Center, where she meets the most remarkable people. Many children are so ill, yet they are so cheerful and positive, she says. Other times there are premature babies who finally get to go home with their parents. “This is the best place to volunteer. It makes you feel needed. It just makes your day to be part of helping these families.”

Ronald McDonald House Executive Director Jerri Chong notes that it is the intangibles at the Ronald McDonald House that are really important, especially what families do for each other. “There is so much hope and support for one another – much needed encouragement on some really tough days. Families get encouragement and support from people who really understand what they are going through because they are going through the same thing. It is really such an important part of the healing process.”

Leona Toler, Jordan’s grandmother, agrees the best part of the Ronald McDonald House experience is the friendships that are formed, many that last a lifetime. She says her family has made lasting friendships with other families who are facing similar struggles. They stay in touch and help each other. They, like her grandson Jordan, are strong believers in “a lot of love” because, as Jordan says, “a lot of love helps to heal anything.”

RONALD MCDONALD HOUSE: Quick Background and How to Help

Cost: $20 a day at the two residential facilities in Manoa. The in-hospital respite center is free to families with terminally ill children at the hospital.

Eligibility for homes: Families who live off island who have seriously ill children being treated on Oahu may stay at the facilities. The child has to be 18 or under and referrals must come from hospital, doctor, social worker or insurance company. There are no self-referrals.

History: According to the Ronald McDonald House web site, “The idea of a home for families of hospitalized children originated in 1973 in Pennsylvania when Fred Hill, a member of the Philadelphia Eagles football team, learned that his young daughter, Kim, had Leukemia. Through his and his team’s efforts, and working together with many members of the community and local McDonald’s® Restaurants, funds were raised and a House was opened in Philadelphia. The tremendous value and success of this first House sparked interest throughout the entire country and abroad, and the McDonald’s Corporation continued to be a major sponsor, helping support both the construction of new Houses and their ongoing expenses. It is to recognize this contribution that these Houses have taken the name of Ronald McDonald® for the positive, helpful and fun-loving feeling that he inspires in children.”

Volunteers, corporations and other groups with various expertise are needed now for all sorts of efforts including tutoring, cleaning, cooking, shopping, baking, entertaining, doing crafts and art projects with the kids, office work and more. Call 973-5683; E-mail: or go on the Web at to get more information.

Donations are needed too: On the wish list, gift certificates from Wal-Mart, Blockbuster, Costco, K-Mart, Sam’s Club, Longs Drugs, Safeway, Movie Passes or Gasoline gift cards.

Household items such as large cooking pots and frying pans, flatware sets, paper towels, napkins, plates, bowls and plastic utensils, toilet paper (individually wrapped), batteries (AAA, AA, C), Zip lock bags, aluminum foil, and plastic food storage containers are needed.

Food items are needed including canned corned beef, canned tuna, canned soups, miscellaneous canned goods, shoyu, flour, cooking oil, individually wrapped snacks, saimin and frozen dinners and meals.