What a year. That’s what many folks were saying about 2020 as that year wrapped up and people gleefully rang in the new year. Lots of people were glad to see 2020 end and that was no different at our chapter of Ronald McDonald House Charities. The year started out with positive possibilities. For instance, here at RMHC of Central Ohio, we were looking forward to opening a brand-new Ronald McDonald Family Room inside the new Nationwide Children’s Hospital Big Lot’s Behavioral Health Pavilion. It would be the second family room at a second hospital for our RMHC chapter. Then, the pandemic hit. That meant no grand opening and no tours of the beautiful new much-needed space for families inside a one-of-a-kind pediatric mental health facility. What’s more, it meant immediate and drastic changes for the largest Ronald McDonald House in the world and the existing family room at OhioHealth Riverside Methodist Hospital.
“I can remember early on, we asked all of our employees to wear fabric masks because we were going to protect people,” CEO Dee Anders recalls. “This is before anybody started, really. And we got a little push back from people thinking this is odd. Then we got pushback from hospitals saying those are not going to work and then it was maybe a month later everyone had to wear any viable mask we could get and I was so glad that we had our staff do it because we stayed safe that way.” Of course, masking wouldn’t be the only major immediate change to take place at the House. Suddenly, we had to stop allowing volunteers to come in, yet everything had to be cleaned and disinfected even more than usual for an already especially clean facility housing families far from their homes. And there were still families that had to come to Columbus for the sake of their children’s health, pandemic or not. The hospitals stopped having elective surgeries and started having telemedicine appointments where possible. Visitors to the hospitals had to be limited to just the legal guardians of the patients and that’s all we could have at the House too. The RMFR at Riverside hospital couldn’t have any visitors and was repurposed as a place of respite for hospital staff who were now working around the clock with Covid-19 patients.
Dee says, “It was a challenge only because there was so much uncertainty everywhere else and nobody had been through a pandemic and nobody knew what to do exactly. So I think the hardest thing about the whole pandemic was you would get one plan in place and you were thinking, ‘it’s good and here’s what we’re going to do’ and then somebody would shake that snow globe and it would be like, ‘okay, now we’re going to change that plan’ and it would happen daily… like twice a day!” But Dee says we had great partners to help our chapter through the start of the storm. “We got great direction from Nationwide Children’s Hospital; we got great direction from Ohio State; Ohio health; and even Nationwide Insurance jumped in and said, ‘Hey here are some things you should do.’ And then our global organization, of course, was on top of it because they have houses all over the world, so they even saw a different view of it. Just seeing what was happening to a house in Europe… houses in Asia… where everything was different.”
Having weathered this storm with the organization, Dee says the experience has changed her as a leader, for the better. “We had certain restrictions put on us for eight weeks from our global organization and I was counting down like 7…6…5… okay it’s the last week… then it was like, ‘ just kidding we’re going to extend it,’” she says with a smile. “There was so much uncertainty that I’ve never experienced before, and it shapes you. You know you’re thinking you got a plan and then you suddenly realize, two months down the road, no you don’t because you have no idea what’s coming. And if you would’ve told me last year at this time or even a month later that we would still be in this, I would’ve never believed you. Never in a million years.”
But Dee says what has always remained paramount for her and the entire organization, without even verbalizing it, was safely continuing the mission of our chapter: Supporting families who needed to have a child in Columbus hospitals. “The one thing that I kept hearing over and over and over from family members is that they were glad we were still open and they felt safe here. They knew that there was protocol here and they knew that we were following it and that we were concerned, and we took care business. People said we trust the house, and we felt safe and we did do a good job.”
Through it all, the staff has been a point of pride for Dee as CEO of the organization. She says, “You try to make sure you recognize your volunteers and your supporters during a time like this. But I tell you what, the staff at this place is second to none. They stepped up in every possible way. We knew we couldn’t have volunteers, so our volunteer management team… our service managers… they split their shifts. People that usually work 8 to 5 worked overnights to cover things. So, without this staff we wouldn’t have been able to get through this whole ordeal. They just stepped up in every way and did whatever was asked. We would have Family Service Managers that weren’t quite as busy at the front desk helping paint rooms and do other things too. Every single person pitched in and they were happy to do it and learned more about our mission in other ways. That was absolutely the best thing that happened to this place during the pandemic. Staff got to know each other and for them to step up and just embrace this place and take care of all the families that still came was amazing to experience.” Dee herself even pitched in, making holiday cookies while staffing the RMFR at the NCH Behavioral Health Pavilion for a 12-hour day and meeting with families.
As for what comes next, Dee says the organization and its supporters will be just as creative in dealing with whatever is thrown our way. “I think this is going to be a challenging year for us again, financially, because people are still uncertain what their futures look like. I think we’re going to be okay, but it’ll be another challenging year. We have a lot of special events and we had to sort of reinvent those over the past year. Hopefully we can get back to normal at some point. We’ll just be creative again and get it done in the meantime. This past year we got creative with starting a large garden, for example. We probably got a thousand pounds of food from that garden that families were able to eat. We made it because we’re an organization that people believe in and I’m confident we’ll make it again this year.”