Vibrant fish, swimming sea turtles, balmy palms and marshy landscapes brighten the walls with life. When the sun pours through the windows of the newly renovated expansion of the Ronald McDonald House in Jacksonville, the home away from home for children struggling with illness and their families is infused with a feeling of hope and peace.
Left: Director Diane Boyle stands on a stairway with a beautiful suspended glass sculpture donated by WG Pitts Company. Right: Will Pitts stands in the Ronald McDonald House rooftop garden. His company, WG Pitts donated the installation, and the arbor was donated by Brooks Rehabilitation.
When Scott Riley, owner of Stellers Gallery, was asked to donate artwork to the house, where parents and children from around the country and the world stay for weeks or months at a time, he was glad to give.
“Most of the children who stay here are the age of my grandchildren,” says Riley, whose gallery is around the corner, and who has supported the house for years. “When they asked me to get involved in the renovation, I was happy to.”
The nonprofit charity is one of 345 Ronald McDonald Houses worldwide, and thanks to its expansion, will soon be able to serve more than 50 families at a time. Ronald McDonald House Charities is dedicated to helping parents stay close to their children while they receive hospital care, while also relieving the financial burden of being away from home. The cost of staying at a hotel is prohibitive for most, adding to the stress of coping with their child’s illness. At Ronald McDonald House, families receive a hot cooked dinner every night and have access to full kitchens for breakfast and lunch, much like home. But most importantly, unlike a hotel, families can meet and share stories with other parents and children who are going through similar situations, while being cared for by a host of volunteers.
“Our desire was to make it enjoyable and comfortable for the families here,” Riley says. “So we did it in a childlike, whimsical way. And then mixed in sophisticated art for the adults. When you know anything about the Ronald McDonald House,” he says one recent day while touring it, “what they do for these families is phenomenal and amazing.”
Through the windows of the building at 824 Children’s Way, parents and caregivers can look out at many of the city’s hospitals and medical complexes that have brought them there, and know that they are a short walk, or a complimentary van ride away from their child undergoing treatment. The home supports Nemours Children’s Specialty Care, Wolfson Children’s Hospital, Brooks Rehabilitation, UF Health Proton Therapy Institute and UF Health Jacksonville. Families are asked to give a donation of $10 a night for their stay, but no one is ever turned away.
The excellent pediatric medical facilities in Jacksonville have made the city a medical destination, says Diane Boyle, Ronald McDonald House Charities of Jacksonville executive director. “Our waiting list was the reason for our expansion. We were constantly at 100 percent capacity.”
The original house was 42,000 square feet, with one kitchen and 30 bedrooms. The expansion was funded by a $12.5 million dollar campaign supported by financial donations and contributions of many individuals and organizations from around the First Coast. The generosity of our community built the 23,000 square feet of new space including 26 new bedrooms, a commercial-grade volunteer kitchen, a large indoor playroom and a spacious rooftop garden that features a spectacular view of Jacksonville’s skyline.
WG Pitts Company, a Jacksonville-based general contracting, architectural and construction management firm, donated services for the new kitchen, playroom and rooftop garden as well as a two-story glass-blown sculpture of birds in flight that graces a stairway. The company is also currently involved in the next phase of renovation: with transforming the original 30 bedrooms, as well as new learning and fitness centers, for which additional fundraising is underway.
“We wanted this building to feel more like a home, which is difficult when you have such a large space,” Boyle says.
The feeling of being in a large, spacious comfortable home, somewhat like an inn, begins after stepping through the front door. Just beyond the check-in entrance is a living room area and just behind that is the boardroom where a wall of weathered boards dredged from the St. Johns River sets a warm backdrop for a conference table.
The building’s entire motif celebrates the beauty of Northeast Florida’s landscapes.
A painting of a palm tree brightens a wall along a stairway that leads to a music loft, complete with baby grand piano.
Off the first and second floor hallways, each bedroom is newly furnished and decorated with cheerful hand painted portraits of sea life. The halls are adorned with equally lighthearted images of crabs, sea turtles and angelfish — all original works of art. “Every room has a fish and every room has a turtle,” Boyle says. “Once Scott’s art came inside this building, it came alive. It was so thoughtfully planned and painted for this house.”
Riley brought in artists from across the region, which include his brother, Paul Riley, Mike Perry and Jim Draper, who provided more than 100 total pieces. “He understands the mission,” Boyle says. “And that’s reflected in the art.”
Creating a place of comfort and beauty is what the Ronald McDonald House renovation celebrates, and WG Pitts Company encompassed both while building the rooftop garden. The garden includes the Brooks Rehabilitation arbor, filled with large pots of native plants and flowers; The Haskell Pavilion, featuring The Joan Haskell Healing Garden; a quiet space for relaxation with a transparent blue globe fountain donated by the Lucy Gooding Foundation. The skyline of Jacksonville and the beautiful St. Johns River rounds out this reflective rooftop sanctuary.
“Diane [Boyle] created a vision of how she wanted the roof top experience for her families. It’s a place where they could have a beautiful environment of reflection and solitude.” Pitts says.
Communal spaces throughout the house give parents opportunities to connect and support while keeping their children in sight. There are coffee nooks on the bedroom floors, where plush couches and coffee stations are just a stone’s throw from rooms where children can be tucked in watching cartoons after dinner. An indoor playroom along the dining area is complete with a pirate ship, Jaguars Reading Den, costumes for fantasy play, arts and crafts and a soft rubberized floor gives kids and their siblings a fun place to hang out after meals, so parents can linger over dinner or lunch.
When a family has a child with a critical illness, only those who have been through the tribulations know what it is like to persevere through life. Spending time with others going through the gamut gives families the strength and courage to brave the future ahead, and the Ronald McDonald House allows for those connections to happen. A majority of the families come to Jacksonville for treatment for oncology, cardiac surgery or premature birth, and by the time they get to Ronald McDonald House, “they have been to a number of doctors,” Boyle says. “Jacksonville has become their biggest hope. And we provide a community of care.”
To donate or volunteer visit rmhcjacksonville.org