It’s Sunday on a Thanksgiving Weekend, the perfect time to settle in for a story of inspiration. A story about someone born to do what they do. Someone living their why, their purpose, and in turn changing lives.
The Sunday Series (8): Sandy & The House That Love Built
“There is no doubt I was born to do it. This may sound corny, but literally for most of my adult life I always had this voice in my head, like what is it? I know there is something, what is it? I kept thinking it was when I had my family, my house of children. But still, what is it? What am I supposed to be doing? Then I got this job, and I heard the voice say this is your house of children and since I took this job here I have total clarity of purpose. I no longer have the question, what is it I am supposed to be doing. I found it… or it found me.”
Wow. We are two months into the Sunday Series and the quote above is one of the best answers I have been given so far. It comes from one of the most outstanding women you will ever meet. And I’m not alone in that point of view, she is the best of the best, a Circle of Excellence Inductee into the Top 100 Women of Maryland. You’d be hard pressed to find a more compassionate, dedicated servant to her purpose, the President and CEO of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Baltimore, Sandy Pagnotti.
Sandy says not only has she found her place, but it’s ironic she is working at a place with McDonald’s in its title, since when she was in college she actually spent three summers packing cups on the McDonald’s Restaurant line at the Maryland Cup Factory. Who knew then that the college co-ed would one day be the leader of a McDonald’s legacy, as part of one of the world’s most respected philanthropic organizations, The Ronald McDonald House.
A quick pause here to explain for some who don’t know about the House and it’s mission. I serve on the Board of Directors for RMH, and I meet people all the time who don’t have a clear idea of what the Ronald McDonald House is all about. First the official explanation, then I will give you Sandy’s, as only she can describe it.
From the website, www.rmhcbaltimore.org: Ronald McDonald House Charities of Baltimore provides a home away from home for seriously ill children and their families, and helps to fund programs in the local area that directly improve the well-being of children.
Now from Sandy: “The way I describe it, it’s the Four Seasons Hotel meets Disney meets grandma’s house. It’s five-star service, a focus on magic and kids and love, warmth and nurturing. Sandy says the experience she wants is for families who are going through one of the toughest experiences of their lives to walk into Ronald McDonald House and feel a huge sense of relief, that they will be catered to and well-cared for, a huge weight lifted off their shoulders and for the kids to walk in and say, “Wow”.
Since the fall of 2010, when Sandy took over as head of the House, (at least half-a-dozen people told her about the job as soon as it became available that summer), she and her team have been laser-focused on living up to the mission. And it’s not an easy mission to accomplish. The families of these children are at the end of their ropes, most of the children are being treated at, or even confined to nearby hospitals as they battle illnesses or deal with life-long disabilities. It’s stressful and overwhelming for the families and their children and it’s the sole purpose for Sandy and her dedicated team to focus and do the best they can to bring what Sandy describes as, “joy to their journey.”
“I get asked all the time, isn’t your job sad?”, says Sandy. “Not if we can help it, it’s not. Some days yes, I am overwhelmed by the tragedy of what can go on here, but I am also overwhelmed by the volunteers and community and support. Some days you can’t get over the generosity and kindness of what people do for us. There are days I leave and sit in my car thinking, people are so good, people are so good.”
Sandy says her favorite part of the job is that the House and staff offer direct service to these families. “I can be sitting in my office and I might hear a family checking in at the front desk, or hear kids talking and laughing. You meet people who come here under the worst of circumstances and you see the resilience of the human spirit and the kindness of strangers. It’s remarkable what the families go through and every day I get to witness the power of what true community is.”
But not all the moments at the Ronald McDonald House lift spirits, some challenge the very depths of your soul.
Consider Brooke Shockley, a 14-year-old girl who had just been diagnosed with bone cancer when she came to the House. She ended up staying there for 15 months, Sandy and her team were part of her entire journey. Brooke and her mom became part of the family. Cancer got the best of Brooke and when she died it was as Sandy describes it, “devastating”. But the spirit of the House and the care Brooke received from Sandy and her staff brought about redemption.
At the one year anniversary of her passing Brooke’s mom, Brooke’s brother and sister came back to the House and presented Sandy with Brooke’s jersey from the Red Shoe Shuffle, an RMH event for which Brooke had served as honorary chairperson. But there was more. Brooke’s family presented a gift to the entire staff, a Build-a-Bear which when you press the bear’s hand it triggers a voice from inside the bear… it was Brooke’s voice, recorded just before she died, thanking the entire staff at the Ronald McDonald House.
Sandy and her team had served their mission; they couldn’t affect Brooke’s outcome, but they brought such joy to her journey, that even as she knew she was going to die, she felt compelled to say “thank you” and to leave behind her message of hope. It’s moments like these which are at the very soul of the Ronald McDonald House.
And at this moment in time, under Sandy’s stewardship, may be a turning point in the 30+ year history for RMH of Baltimore. The House can only host 36 families a night. Last year, 1,400 families came through the doors, but 600 more had to be turned away. It is something which is tough for the staff, to make the phone call to a family in crisis and tell them there is no room for them to come to this house of hope. But change is in the wind. A search is on in earnest to find a new location for the Ronald McDonald House of Baltimore and allow for expansion to serve more families. As soon as the property can be secured, it’s full steam ahead and the construction of a new future for RMH.
Find what you love to do and make sure what you do enriches the lives of other people. Sandy is living her purpose, living her dream, living her why. “I am manager, marketer, minister, politician, business owner… I can’t believe all these things exist in one job and I think about that every day”, says Sandy. “Honestly, I am the luckiest person in the world to have this job.”
No doubt. But hundreds, if not thousands of other people will take that same statement and turn it around, they are the lucky ones, because they have been touched by someone determined to make a difference in their lives, to bring hope, love and joy to their journey.
That someone is Sandy Pagnotti.
Until next time thanks for taking the time,
(If you would like to volunteer, or to make a donation to the Ronald McDonald House of Baltimore, visit, www.rmhcbaltimore.org. LIKE the Facebook page and keep up with RMH and how it is affecting lives across the community, https://www.facebook.com/RMHCBaltimore)
Mark Brodinsky, Author
It Takes 2. Surviving Breast Cancer: A Spouse’s Story
#1 Amazon Best-Seller
firstname.lastname@example.org – for feedback or to nominate someone for the Sunday Series.