Filling empty spaces with joy: Community sustains Ronald McDonald House amid pandemic challenges

There is no doubt that the unveiling of the recent expansion at Ronald McDonald House of Greater Cincinnati looked different than how it was initially envisioned. When construction began on the 42-million-dollar project two years ago, the world was a different place.


While the organization was forced to navigate this celebratory occasion using atypical tools, that doesn’t mean it let things slide. The late November event was closed to the public out of necessity. However, goings-on were widely broadcast over increased media channels and included far more virtual content than what was previously standard.


As with the opening, the new normal now guides all practices within the impressively expanded building. While families continue to be accommodated within the now completed facility, the beautifully-designed, glass-walled common spaces, indoor playgrounds and dining areas are currently off limits — leaving them somewhat isolated within their own bubbles.


After an initial halt to accepting new guest families in March, the organization began bringing them in again in June, amid continuing construction. Specifically timed cohorts of 25 COVID-negative families at once were admitted, and then cautiously quarantined for two weeks.


The building is designed to house 177 families versus its previous 78-family capacity, making it the largest of the 376 Ronald McDonald Houses worldwide.


“We are not at capacity right now. We are not close to that right now. It’s really only the sickest of the sick families that are here,” says Kristen Klein, director of marketing and operations for the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Greater Cincinnati. “We are currently limiting families to just the patient and two caregivers, so there are no siblings allowed. That’s consistent with Children’s’ policy as far as having visitors over there.”


She explains that the organization partners with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital when it comes to pandemic guidelines for patients and families. This keeps families and staff as safe as possible, while providing consistency that is both necessary and comforting.


Despite the many challenges due to restrictions, Klein takes comfort in the munificent and creative offerings brought by both community partners and the community at large. They have helped Ronald McDonald House continue to provide some fun experiences to the families in modified formats.


“We’ve counted on our local nonprofits like the zoo and the aquarium, who are offering all sorts of virtual experiences, and we publicize those to our guest families,” says Klein. “Over the summer, we had some very generous Airbnb operators who were not getting customers, so they were offering their residences to our guest families. Community members put together activity packs – things to do in your room or crafts.”


She joyously reports that Santa was even able to visit with families this past December, albeit through the glass walls of the common spaces, adding, “It was great to let them see those spaces and how they can be used.”


While no one can predict when things might return to some semblance of normalcy, Klein remains positive and grateful for the newly renovated Ronald McDonald House and those it supports.


“The situation hasn’t been ideal in a lot of ways, but it’s enabled us to see the Cincinnati community really come together in a different way,” she says. “It’s one thing to be able to raise the money to build the expansion, which is obviously fabulous, but for them to come together in these ways that we didn’t really think of offering ...”


Klein had worried that the 2020 holiday season would be so rough on community members that they may not be able to come through with toy donations as they had in years past. She was shocked and relieved to see how needless this worry actually was.


“It was amazing — the generosity of people. And those toys will be given out all year long, because we always try to find something to celebrate,” beams Klein. “’Did you get through a tough appointment?’ That toy closet is getting more use than ever. We’re trying to find moments to make a family feel supported and new ways of doing that. We can’t rely on what we thought we’d be able to rely on — which is these beautiful spaces. We’ve got to dig deeper.”


Klein reminds Cincinnatians that while the campaign is over, the facility is now complete, and the holidays have passed, community support is still needed.


“Things like Lysol wipes: It’s been as hard to get those for us as it has for anybody else,” explains Klein. “But we need those. Everyone needs to be wary of COVID, but we have to take it to a scale that’s far higher than other people. We’re a communal living environment, and our residents are very immunocompromised. We don’t take any chances here.”


To learn more about supporting Ronald McDonald House of Greater Cincinnati, visit


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Read more articles by Eliza Bobonick.

Eliza Bobonick is a Cincinnati-based writer and a mother of three. Her work has been featured in such local and regional publications as Cincinnati CityBeat and Kentucky Homes and Gardens Magazine. She is a former musician whose interests include photography and interior design.