South Charlotte

Small gestures can go a very long way

When I arrived for my first day as a house operations volunteer in the new Ronald McDonald House of Charlotte, my two shift-mates were already there, as was Community Outreach Director Ari Harris. After tying a red apron around my waist, pinning my nametag to my shirt and logging my volunteer number into the computer, I was ready to start - sort of.

Even though I'd been to several training sessions and had an opportunity to preview the house before it opened, I still felt unprepared, and I was nervous about all the questions I didn't have answers for, the procedures I had yet to learn and my lack of familiarity with the house.

But most of all, I was worried that I would misspeak and say something seemingly innocent that would prove to be hurtful to one of our house guests.

The house wasn't yet full but not for lack of need.

With the wisdom that comes from others' experience, the RMHC staff chose to do a rolling opening, meaning the capacity will ramp-up gradually, so that the kinks can be worked out before trying to welcome 28 families at a time.

Moving into a new home is challenging, and even when there are hundreds of helpers it can be tough to figure out where to put things and how to make the household run smoothly.

There was plenty of work to do.

My first task was to unload a dishwasher and clean up the kitchen, then it was time to organize the pantry. Donations have been generous, so there were shelves of cereal, pasta, granola bars and peanut butter, as well as paper towels and trash bags.

As I was staring at it all, trying to figure out the best place to start, a house guest and her daughter came in for a snack.

The little girl was about 2 years old, with bouncy blond pigtails and a personality to match. She walked right up to the lowest pantry shelf and grabbed a package of crackers.

Many of the families staying in the house had already left for the hospital, so a hush filled the halls.

As I went about my work, I encountered a few other guests, and they were all quiet, reserved and polite. House operations volunteers are supposed to work in teams of three or four for a three-hour shift. Our duties are divided into manning the front desk, housekeeping and guest services, and we have been encouraged to try all three before settling into one role.

I was working with Dana and Jan, two women I hadn't met before and had little time to get to know because we were so busy, but we worked well together.

The people I've met in trainings, various RMHC fundraisers and volunteer events come from all walks of life. There are NICU nurses and retirees, former members of the military and a lot of moms like me.

Some volunteers have benefitted from Ronald McDonald houses in other cities and want to give back. Most of us are just thankful that we haven't needed their services, and our hearts ache for those that do.

As our shift ended, the next group of volunteers arrived and Dana, Jan and I talked with Harris about what was working well and what still needed work.

Harris, like all of the Ronald McDonald House staff, is appreciative and encouraging.

As she began orienting the next shift, I logged out, put away my apron and nametag and made my way back down the driveway. I strolled across the street, thinking about the families I'd seen, the people I'd spoken with. I hadn't known all the answers and maybe hadn't said all right things, but I felt like I had made their day a little bit easier. Even if fresh sheets, hot coffee and a warm smile are all I can offer, it's something.