The house that Ronald McDonald — and Bitsy Henderson — built

Bitsy Henderson was 7 when she had encephalitis following the chickenpox. She remembers everything about Room 635 in the old Brackenridge Hospital. What it smelled like. How it looked. And the sight of one of her parents always there.

Her father, Charles W. Bailey, was a surgeon at Brackenridge, and he arranged for his daughter to have a double room without a roommate. He and her mother, Mary Love Bailey, after whom little Mary Love “Bitsy” Henderson is named, would take turns watching over Bitsy and sleeping in the empty hospital bed.

One night, Bitsy Henderson stopped breathing and her mother called for her father, who started her breathing again. “They didn’t think I would live through the night,” Bitsy Henderson says she was told later. One doctor even said, if she did, “I don’t think she’ll be normal.”

Henderson, now 66, retained a close connection to Brackenridge Hospital, and she remembered a time when parents didn’t have anywhere to stay while their children were in the hospital. While she was serving on the hospital foundation’s board, she gathered people from around the community, including the Junior League and the owner/operators of local McDonald’s restaurants, to open Austin’s first Ronald McDonald House on Feb. 13, 1985.

Today, Ronald McDonald House Charities of Central Texas is in its third house, which serves about 800 families a year. It also operates four Ronald McDonald Family Rooms — which also served about 800 families last year — inside local hospitals for families with children in critical care at those hospitals. The newest family room opened this month at Seton Medical Center.

Ronald McDonald House also serves an additional 150 families through its Healing Hearts program with funeral arrangements and bereavement support.

Recognizing the need

Thirty years ago, Austin was experiencing enormous growth — and that was felt in the pediatric services at Brackenridge. At the time, all of the pediatric services were on the fourth floor at Brackenridge, but there was tremendous growth in heart, neurology and cancer services and the number of children being treated there.

“The vision really was for a children’s hospital,” Bitsy Henderson says.

That vision would not come to be until Austin Children’s Hospital opened in 1988.

At the same time, Ronald McDonald houses were beginning to open across the United States. The first one opened in Philadelphia in 1974 through a partnership between a local children’s hospital doctor; the Philadelphia Eagles, which had a player with a daughter with cancer; and the local McDonald’s restaurant, which agreed to offer the proceeds from the sales of the Shamrock Shake toward opening a house for parents to stay.

Henderson and her friend, Ann Bomer, went on a fact-finding mission to visit the Dallas house, which opened in 1981, and took pages of notes. They also talked to families staying there and asked what the house meant to them. She remembers one woman whose son had broken his neck in a bad accident. “She wasn’t sure what she would have done without it,” Henderson says. “We could barely keep it together. You walk away with what a difference it makes in your life.”

‘The house that love built’

Henderson reached out to local McDonald’s owner-operator Hal Leverson, who still owns McDonald’s locations in the Waco and Temple areas. Denny Meyer, who has worked for McDonald’s since 1966 and worked under Leverson, knows the pride that McDonald’s owners feel toward the house.

“This is the house that love built that the community owns, and we were part of the mechanism to make the house happen in Austin,” Meyer says.

Yes, like that first house in Philadelphia, restaurant owners were involved, but it had to be a full community effort, with funding and volunteering coming from across the community, not just from McDonald’s families.

“It was important to McDonald’s that it not be started by McDonald’s,” Henderson says. “But they were very keen on housing parents of children who were ill.”

“It’s still that way,” says Meyer, who now owns four restaurants in Georgetown, Jarrell and Taylor. He still goes to the restaurants four times a week, and says, “I’ve got ketchup in my veins.” He even met his wife, Joanne, at the walk-up window.

Henderson reached far and wide to get the community involved. She tapped into the Junior League, of which she was a member. The league was looking for a 50th anniversary project, which focused on building the Ronald McDonald House in Austin and volunteering at it.

Civic leader Dan Bullock, who would go on to head the St. David’s Foundation followed by Henderson, says people wanted to work with Henderson. “She already had a reputation as a neat, energetic, good-hearted person,” he says. “We were all enthusiastic about working with someone like that.”

Henderson, he says, set the pace of what would come. “She was the model for a good, nice, energetic and tenacious person.” Bullock gained a better appreciation of a Ronald McDonald House when his own son was treated at MD Anderson in Houston before his death in 1989.

“It’s a place to wind down and catch your breath in a nice setting,” he says. “You’re already dead tired and scared. To have a friendly refuge with bright, upbeat amenities is a godsend.”

The hospital and the city were key to making an Austin house happen. The city sold an old emergency services building behind the hospital — now the site of Brackenridge’s rehabilitation hospital — to the new organization for $1 a year for 25 years.

That building needed to be renovated, and Henderson and the board she created took on a $100,000 mortgage, in addition to $350,000 raised by the Junior League, McDonald’s and the community. At those early board meetings, members knew to bring checkbooks. The hat would be passed to pay the mortgage and later to buy essentials, like toilet paper, for the house.

“I was pretty consuming,” she says. But it was also amazing, “how many people became involved and wanted to work on it and weren’t bored working on it.”

Gayla Todd Manbeck remembers traveling around with a slide projector to tell people about the Ronald McDonald House. She and her sister, Shelley Todd, and friend, Elizabeth Williams, all went to Austin High with Henderson and were recruited.

Manbeck made an ideal advocate for the house. She stayed at a Ronald McDonald House in Houston while her son Matt was undergoing cancer treatment just a few years before. She remembers that he called that Ronald McDonald House “the house.” It made a difference for her family. After Matt died when he was 6, Manbeck called Henderson to ask her how she could help. Manbeck and later her sister and her mother, Vivian Todd, all served on the board.

Williams remembers when her daughter Jessica was diagnosed with cancer at age 4 in 1977 and was treated in Austin. “There was a floor for children,” she says. “All we had was a red wagon,” which was used to push children through the hospital. Her other children couldn’t even visit her daughter.

“Every step, she was so persistent,” Williams says about Henderson. “She was so perfect.”

Yet, these different parties of volunteers all came together to make it happen. “We all supported one another,” Williams said.

The first house

That first house opened on Feb. 13, 1985, with room to house eight families. Ronald McDonald was at the opening, which included a buffet at the Erwin Center down the street.

“We barely had anything ready,” Henderson says. “That made it fun. It was very precarious if we would get our certificate of occupancy in time.”

Standing in the living room of the new Ronald McDonald House Family Room at Seton Medical Center, Williams recalls that that first house “wasn’t even as big as this living room.”

It was built into the hill and smelled a little like concrete, but Susan Lubin took on the interior design, got furniture donated and turned it into a beautiful place to welcome families. “The first home was a doll house; we were so excited,” Henderson says.

As part of the Junior League’s involvement, the house created the McCookers program, which has since been replicated around the country. Volunteers sign up to cook meals for the families. Today, those schedules often fill up months in advance with church groups, offices, families and scouts. Cirrus Logic comes once a quarter and always brings a band to put on a concert.

In those early days, sometimes there wasn’t much to do. The volunteers would bake cookies and deliver them to the Brackenridge nurses.

The second house

The first house was going to need some serious structural changes because of new city fire codes. Luckily the city wanted that property back, and offered Ronald McDonald House the same agreement of $1 a year for 25 years for a building at Red River and Trinity streets.

The second house opened in 1989 and offered 13 bedrooms. “It was nice to be able to do it twice,” Henderson says. “We corrected a lot of mistakes: Such a small office — what are you thinking?”

The board, which had hired its house manager, Carol Lineback Nelson, with the first house, now needed an executive director, which it found in Judy Avery. “We had to grow up as an organization,” Meyer says. “Moving into the second house really helped us grow up, to have staff, to begin the process of being functional to better serve the community.”

The board also created new fundraisers such as Lights of Love, in which it sold lighted ornaments at Christmas time. It’s now become a 5K race that raised $220,000 last year. And it created the Bandana Ball, which raised more than $545,000 last month.

While many, like Meyer, who were there with the opening of the first house remained involved, others like Henderson became less involved. She and husband, Sid Mallory, who now own a fundraising consulting firm together, left to work in Dallas and Minneapolis before returning to Austin five years ago.

Once again, as Austin grew, so did the need for pediatrics. This second house had a growing children’s hospital to service and soon Austin had outgrown that children’s hospital and its nearby Ronald McDonald House. The house would have to move again, this time to where the new Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas was being built in the Mueller development.

Today’s house

In 2007, the current house opened with 3o rooms, a big dining room, a game room, two laundry rooms, a large kitchen, offices and board room, where community groups also meet. Each bedroom features a living area, a bathroom and a bedroom. Families are given towels and sheets and groups donate toiletries and laundry detergent.

Families are asked to donate $20 a night, up from $5 a night 30 years ago, but no one is turned away for failure to pay.

McDonald’s remains an important partner in the house. Each February, the restaurants run the Share the Love campaign to encourage its patrons to donate to the house. It raised $83,000 in February. To date, Share the Love has raised almost $1.7 million. All of the local owners and operators participate, Meyer says. “The families that stay here, they are so important to us,” he says. “It’s really meaningful. They know what it means to them.”

Some of the restaurants’ suppliers, such as Coca-Cola, Oak Farms Dairies and Georgia-Pacific, also donate supplies to the house.

Once again, as Austin’s pediatric needs have grown, so has the house. In 2014, the house ran at 86 percent capacity. When the house is full, specific local hotels offer a discounted rate to families and usually a room opens up within three nights. Families are also staying longer; the average is 12 nights, up from nine nights in 2013. Some patients and their families are now staying at the house during extended outpatient stays. To stay in the house, families have to live 25 miles away.

The new family rooms inside the hospital, the first of which opened in 2009 at St. David’s North Austin Medical Center, don’t have a mileage requirement.

Kaitlyn Herring and her husband, Dalton, have been staying at the house since March 4 and were expected to go home last week. Their son Keeson was born at Seton Medical Center with polycystic kidneys and had lung complications. Without the Ronald McDonald House, Herring says, they would not have been able to afford a hotel or the gas to drive back and forth to Valley Mills, 25 minutes from Waco.

“That’s your baby,” she says. “You want to be around him all the time.”

The house, she says, feels like a “home away from home. … it’s been awesome.”

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