Anyone feeling particularly glum about the holidays should spend a few minutes inside the Ronald McDonald House on Warm Springs Avenue.
"Regardless of who you are, no matter how little or how much money you have, no matter what you believe, it doesn't matter here. A sick child is the great equalizer for all of us," said Mindy Plumlee, now in her 15th year as executive director of Boise's Ronald McDonald House. "Let's face it: No family wants to be here in this situation, let alone on Christmas."
The Ronald McDonald House is as full of love—and presents—as ever this holiday season and, at the end of the day, it is more than a house. It's one of approximately 350 similar homes in 35 countries across the planet, where a life-sized statue of the man with bright red hair and floppy shoes greets newcomers with a smile nearly as wide as the front door.
"Ronald is second only to Santa Claus in recognition," said Plumlee. "If you're a child that's sick and maybe a little scared... well, who wouldn't want to stay at Ronald's house?"
It's been more than four decades since the first Ronald McDonald House opened—the brainchild of then-Philadelphia Eagles tight end Fred Hill, whose daughter was fighting leukemia. The owner of the Eagles, a team of Philadelphia doctors and the local McDonald's franchise manager helped fund the construction of a home where families of sick children could stay in comfort. It was paid for through proceeds of a popular seasonal McDonald's treat.
"That's right. It was those Shamrock Shakes around Saint Patrick's Day that helped create the Ronald McDonald House," said Plumlee.
Though those shakes may be an important part of Ronald McDonald House history, there wasn't a speck of fast food in sight during a recent visit to the Boise house, complete with a busy kitchen and family-style dining room.
"Our families are coming and going to the hospital at all hours of the day, and while we try to provide a good home-cooked meal, there are always ample leftovers waiting for them when they return. We have rotations of volunteers who come in and make some pretty wonderful breakfasts, lunches and dinners. And this time of year? We've got some pretty amazing bakers here," said Plumlee, pointing to platters full of just-baked cookies.
The colonial-style mansion on Warm Springs, built in 1908, had been home to a few well-to-do Idaho families but in 1988, J.R. and Esther Simplot made a financial gift so the then-new Ronald McDonald House Charities of Idaho could purchase the four-bedroom, 2,000 square-foot home, which has been greatly expanded since.
"Today, we have 19 bedrooms—17 with a private bath; a large dining area; toy room; large kitchen; and quite a bit more," said Plumlee, on a rare tour of the home that included a look into a laundry room full of washers and dryers going non-stop.
Nearly all of the bedrooms are regularly filled. The rule is simple: If a family is in need of a place to stay because a child is an in- or out-patient at St. Luke's Hospital or Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center, the Ronald McDonald House is contacted either by a caregiver or physician. It's not unusual for a phone call to come only hours before the family arrives at the house.
Saint Al's is about four miles away from the Ronald McDonald House but St. Luke's, which is home to Idaho's only children's hospital, is right across the street. Nearly 90 percent of the families staying in the home go back and forth to St. Luke's.
Earlier this year, that proximity led to concern at the Ronald McDonald House. St. Luke's was embroiled in controversial negotiations to dramatically expand its footprint in downtown Boise. At the height of the debate, St. Luke's threatened if its expansion plans couldn't include permanently closing a stretch of Jefferson Street, the hospital might relocate many of its services—including children's care—to Meridian.
"We were ready to start talking about an expansion of the Ronald McDonald House last January but, needless to say, that's on hold until the St. Luke's master plan gets final approval," said Plumlee, adding Boiseans shouldn't be surprised to hear about a significant campaign for expansion of the Ronald McDonald House sometime in 2016.
"Best case scenario? We could add a third and/or fourth floor, beginning sometime in 2017," she said. "The need is already here."
That need is ever-present, looking at the faces of the families who return to the home each night after another exhausting night at the hospital. The Ronald McDonald House attempts to make that nightly return to the home as welcoming as possible, especially for siblings of sick kids.
"You can count on Santa Claus being here on Christmas morning. We have groups come in and sing. We have an amazing Christmas morning breakfast and an equally special Christmas dinner," said Plumlee, who will spend her own Christmas Day at the Ronald McDonald House—something her husband, daughter and son are all too familiar with. "Our children have practically grown up around here. They love being here."
At the end of the tour, amid goodbyes and wishes for a happy holiday, Plumlee and her colleagues—six full-time employees and hundreds of volunteers who clock nearly 9,000 hours of charity each year—were preparing to welcome yet another family who would find a home away from home for Christmas.