A ‘Hotel’ That Comforts Families in Trying Times

When it comes to charitable contributions, many people find that a gift of time is more meaningful and can have a greater impact than a cash contribution. In the coming months, Out & About will continue to profile some of these volunteers, along with the program in which they serve. The series is run in cooperation with the state Office of Volunteerism, and we hope it will show readers how they can improve their communities by volunteering their time and talents. For information about volunteering opportunities throughout the state, visit VolunteerDelaware.org.

Volunteers are essential to Ronald McDonald House as it hosts loved ones of seriously ill children

Sara Funaiock describes the Ronald McDonald House of Delaware as “a very specialized hotel,” and that’s not solely because of its client base, the families of seriously ill children who must go to the Nemours Alfred I. DuPont Children’s Hospital across the street for treatment.

What helps make the 50-room residence special is that it has only seven people employed full-time to keep it running. “Most of the day-to-day operating parts of the house are accomplished by volunteers,” says Pam Cornforth, the organization’s president and CEO.

Volunteers who check in families when they arrive, volunteers who show the families to their rooms, volunteers who answer the phone, make coffee and even bring the food and cook dinner for an average of 85 people every night.

“We couldn’t do what we’re doing without them,” says Funaiock, the house’s volunteer manager. “They’re part of a team that operates in a very special environment.”

The volunteer army is 430 members strong, she says, and they provide “heart and soul, and a lot of things we take for granted that bring comfort to families.”

And there are plenty of families to serve. In 2017, 1,726 families stayed at the house, with the average stay a little over 10 days, Cornforth says. Many families stay a couple of days at a time, while others, depending on their child’s condition, may stay seven or eight months, perhaps longer.

No matter how long a family stays, it’s up to the volunteers to make them comfortable, so they’re rested and ready for whatever the next day brings.

Pamela Cornforth, president and CEO of the Ronald McDonald House of Delaware.

“I’m strictly a kitchen volunteer,” says 54-year-old Gretchen Parisi, a freelance healthcare writer from Kennett Square, Pa. Every other Wednesday morning, she arrives at the house to “clean every nook and cranny, every microwave, every counter. I clean out the refrigerators when a family checks out.”

She says she finds it rewarding “to make families’ time here as pleasant as it can possibly be under the circumstances.”

Able? Then Volunteer

Dawn DeMuth, a 55-year-old from Landenberg, Pa., who, like Parisi, has volunteered at the house for three years after a career of working for nonprofits, shares her colleague’s sentiments. While taking a break from cleaning the kitchen, she asserted that “if you’re able to give, you should volunteer. I’m fortunate that I have the time to be able to help.”

While Parisi and DeMuth are regulars on the cleanup team who pitch in wherever else they’re needed, there’s no telling what Dan Szymanski might be doing on any given day.

Szymanski, 60, from Bellefonte, “is our uber volunteer,” Parisi says.

Indeed, the retired oil refinery equipment operator estimates he now puts in about 750 hours a year at the house—and he started 15 years ago. His service is so valued that last year he was named the winner of the house’s Big Shoes to Fill Award. The recognition includes naming one of the house’s guest rooms in his honor for a year.

“I may be here a lot,” he says, “but I’m not allowed to sleep in it.”

Szymanski is at the house three days a week, sometimes for two or three hours, sometimes for eight. It depends on what’s needed on a particular day.

“He’s great. He knows so many parts of the house,” says Katie Johnson, the operations director.

Cleaning the kitchen, working the front desk, setting up and taking down holiday decorations, helping at special events, driving families to the hospital, the supermarket or the mall, even giving tours—Szymanski can do it all.

“He gives a great tour,” Johnson says, noting that Szymanski’s commentaries have resulted in the recruitment of numerous new volunteers and committee members for the house.

A Life-Changer

Volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House changed his life, Szymanski says, transforming him “from a selfish person to a very giving person.”

“Community service is something people say they want to do, and it often gets put on the back burner,” he says.  “Then, when I was 43, my parents died, my brother had a brain tumor, I lost my job, I got a divorce, so my whole life collapsed.”

He left a big house in Middletown and was living in a subsidized rental housing unit when he called a friend, Diane Thompson, who was then the house’s operations manager. “I came up here one day, to play my guitar for the kids, not knowing there aren’t too many kids here during the day, and they wouldn’t let me out the door,” says Szymanski. “They heard I could fix things, and they say, ‘before you leave, can you fix this?’ Fifteen years later, I’m still here.”

Working at the house makes Szymanski and other volunteers thankful. “When I first saw boys 8 years old who were excited because they weren’t going to have any more chemo, I started to realize that I would be OK,” he says.

While Szymanski, DeMuth and Parisi may be typical of the house’s volunteers, the program’s support comes in many different ways.

Teen volunteers, many of whom start through a 10-week summer program, are welcomed, especially since many enjoy working on craft projects or playing games with the siblings of children being treated at the hospital.

Groups provide a notable service by cooking dinner each night. Sometimes it’s a business group, or a family, or a social club, or even a team of nurses from the hospital, but it usually takes a team of about 10 people who buy the food, bring it to the house, prepare it in the oversized kitchen and serve an average of 85 people a night. Staff members give the dinner crew serving tips before they arrive and explain the basics of safe food preparation before they start cooking, Funaiock says.

She is proud that the house’s volunteers seem to serve as the program’s greatest ambassadors, often recruiting another family member, a roommate or a friend or neighbor to join the team.

“When they see what our families are going through, they immediately know that they are bringing comfort. It’s not that they’re solving a problem, but they’re going one step toward helping them,” she says. “They know they’re part of something bigger, a community coming together to help these families.”

Seeking Volunteers

The Ronald McDonald House is seeking volunteers who can make a regular commitment to a minimum of two three-hour shifts each month for six months to one year. The house has a particular need for adult volunteers, post-high school, over 18 years old, on weekend shifts, from 6-9 p.m. Friday through 6-9 p.m. Sunday. Enrollment begins March 1 for summer teen volunteers, who are asked to commit to serving one three-hour shift weekly for 10 weeks.

More details are available at the Ronald McDonald House website, rmhde.org, or by contacting Sara Funaiock, s.funaiock@rmhde.org.

Buy a Shamrock Shake, Help Ronald McDonald House

If you stop at a McDonald’s restaurant this month, top off your Big Mac or Happy Meal with a Shamrock Shake. You’ll be helping the Ronald McDonald House. The campaign is the result of a partnership among Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Eagles and McDonald’s that led to the opening of the first Ronald McDonald’s House in Philadelphia in 1974.

Putting the Personal Touch In Online Giving

Experts explain how they use it, and provide safety tips for donors

Generosity is part of the fabric of the holiday season. Thanksgiving is about showing gratitude and Christmas is now celebrated with gifts worldwide.

Given the convenience of satisfying that altruistic urge at the click of a mouse, it’s natural that more of our giving is moving online. Nonprofits have taken notice, and are enlisting their supporters as digital evangelists.

It was in this capacity that Jennifer Archie sat down at her computer a few months ago and wrote about her husband, Tim, and his 21-year battle with multiple sclerosis.

Archie revealed that Tim, who uses a wheelchair and has difficulty speaking, nonetheless “rides out this disease with humor and charm and grit day in day out, parenting his boys and backing me every day.”
She also wrote about the other parts of her “crappy year,” including the deaths of her sister, Tim’s mother and a friend.

The point wasn’t to elicit pity. Archie wrote that she would be participating in Bike MS: Bike to the Bay, an October ride from Dover to the beach that raises money for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, and she asked her friends and colleagues to donate.

Before her ride, Jennifer Archie is joined by her husband, Tim, and their sons, Duff, 21, and Ben, 17. Photo Chris Snyder

They did. Within three weeks, she had raised more than $30,000 from 112 donors.
Though it utilized a modern medium, Archie’s fundraising effort reveals something eternal about giving. Its power was drawn from the personal relationships she and her husband had cultivated over the decades. In other words, the people who gave were the ones who already cared about her family, not strangers drawn in by a generic online pitch.

“I do think there was an accumulated pool of empathy that I tapped into,” Archie says. She believes the effect was magnified by the request’s novelty, since she and her husband had never asked for money—or rarely sought sympathy—in the past.

Archie’s example is instructive for nonprofits seeking to harness the potential of online giving.
Nationwide, online fundraising grew at a clip of 8 percent in 2016 at a time when overall giving was virtually flat, according to the Blackbaud Institute for Philanthropic Impact.

Still, this is not a digital gold rush. There are downsides for both nonprofits (Face-to-face solicitation is more effective) and donors (Is the organization effective and is my identity secure?).

The medium: The message

There’s a guiding principle in fundraising: People give to people.

“The No. 1 reason people give is because someone they know asks them to,” says Stuart Comstock-Gay, president and CEO of the Delaware Community Foundation.

Central to that relationship is trust, which is difficult to establish online but can still be leveraged by social media, he says. It is rare, nowadays, to donate online without a suggestion that you share news of your gift on social media.

“You’re still looking for people who can endorse your message and reach out to their friends,” says Comstock-Gay.

There is another option: Craft a compelling Facebook campaign with a ready-made tug on the heartstring to pull in new donors. Certain nonprofits, such as pet shelters, have messages more suited to this tactic.

That can work, Comstock-Gay says, but social media does not typically create the bonds with strangers necessary for them to donate. The key, again, is to foster authentic relationships based on trust.
The gold standard, he says, remains the same: “Can I get people who know us to stand up?”

Targeting is key

The YMCA of Delaware chiefly relies on about 500 volunteers to directly ask members to donate, says Matt Clements, the Y’s director of philanthropy.

“There’s a higher response rate and you tend to get a larger gift when you ask face-to-face,” he says.
That’s not to say online fundraising doesn’t have a role, though it is most effective when the pitch is tailored to a specific group. For example, to raise money for “Giving Tuesday” —a movement to dedicate the Tuesday after Thanksgiving to charitable giving — the Y will email members who haven’t given yet this year.

The email pitch includes specific beneficiaries: low-income families who can join the Y thanks to these donations.

“The biggest thing is just segmenting your message,” Clements says, meaning the request is as tailored to an audience as possible.

One disadvantage to online giving is the cost of processing online donations; a small portion of each donation typically goes to the company that handles the transaction. For a nonprofit, losing, say, 3 cents off each dollar might be a loss worth taking, compared to getting nothing, to acquire a new donor. But if an existing donor is moving from paper checks to a website, a nonprofit is effectively losing money.
“At the Y, we use it, but even for us it’s a financial barrier,” Clements says of online transactions. “I can imagine for smaller nonprofits it’s a larger barrier.”

While online donations account for less than 5 percent of the Y’s donations now, that is set to grow. That’s because, in general, older people give more to charity.

“As current millennials grow older, the use of digital technology will increase,” Clements says.

Giving safely online

With thousands of charities at your fingertips, how do you know what’s safe and what’s not?

Furthermore, how can you separate the legitimate charities from the (relatively few) frauds?

Kelly Sheridan, who administers college scholarships for the Delaware Community Foundation, does all her personal giving online and has some advice.

First, to limit her exposure to identity theft, she never uses a card connected to a bank account. That way, if her data falls into the wrong hands, the thief can’t simply empty her account.

Sheridan vets a charity by exploring its website and finding the group’s mission statement and sources of funding.

“I don’t usually look hard at their financials as much as their mission statement and a listing of who else has supported them,” she says.

If you’re the type of person who does want hard data, check out Guidestar.org to find free financial information, including the compensation of top employees.

Technical reminders on giving safely online come from Jamila Patton Anderson, the Y’s director of public relations: Look in your browser’s address bar and you’ll see most website addresses begin with “http.” Secure websites, ones that are protecting your data, have an “s” at the end: “https.” Also, the address should have a small picture of a lock next to it.

Building real connections

Though Archie lives in Alexandria, Va., the Delaware beaches hold

Jennifer Archie and her husband, Tim, eat at the Rusty Rudder in Dewey Beach in 1987. She biked back to the beaches in October to raise money for multiple sclerosis research. Tim was diagnosed with MS in 1996. Photo Chris Snyder

a special place in her memory. In the ‘80s, she and her friends would share beach house getaways. And that’s where she met Tim, who consistently made her laugh.

“It was definitely a ride for the memories of Dewey Beach,” she says of her October bike ride.

Aside from the huge financial success, perhaps the most unexpected part of her fundraising campaign was the emotional lift it gave her and Tim. Her first foray into online giving re-connected them to old friends, all thanks to her decision to share an authentic story.

“Every day, I would come home from work and read Tim the names and the thank-you notes,” Archie says. “This really lifted him up…It really is sustaining, I have to say.”