For more than 25 years, Debbie Ross has cared for the families of severely ill children as the resident mom-in-charge at Albany’s Ronald McDonald House
By Chris Graf
Like countless other soon-to-be college grads, Debbie Ross wasn’t sure exactly what she was going to do after she earned her social work degree from Berkshire Christian College in 1980. She spent that summer cleaning houses and babysitting for a millionaire family living in the Berkshires, and assumed she would start work on her graduate degree in the fall. Then one of her former professors called her with an interesting offer. A Ronald McDonald House (RMH) — a home-away-from-home for families of seriously ill children — was opening in an old Victorian house in Albany and needed a manager. Would Debbie, along with her husband Steve, move into an apartment in the house’s attic and set up the program? “I wasn’t all that interested,” recalls Debbie. “But I was flattered to be asked, so I went on the interview.”
The meeting proved to be an eye-opener for the new graduate: RMH board members shared firsthand stories of what it was like to be the parent of a sick child; physicians recounted how some parents, having traveled long distances to get treatment for their child, slept in chairs and cars because they couldn’t afford hotel rooms. Something clicked for Debbie. “I was so moved by what these people went through. And we were young and wanted to save the world.” She was offered the job, and accepted it.
Debbie went to work. During the first year, before the house was ready for occupancy, she and Steve lived in a run-down building “filled with cockroaches and rats. It was really culture shock for me.” Debbie spent her days recruiting volunteers, speaking to people in the community, and even overseeing the renovation of the building. “I was kind of shy, I didn’t know how to do these things. But they needed to be done, so I learned,” she recalls.
Eventually, the construction was complete; she and Steve moved in and opened their door to needy families. “The first month was horrendous,” Debbie says. “We lost several children in the first week. My heart was broken.” But soon, Debbie discovered that the joy she found in helping people in distress far outweighed the heartache. And while the pair believed at the time that they would live at the house “for a year or two,” Debbie has stayed put — in the same position and the same apartment — for 26 years, raising the couple’s three children along the way. Throughout this time, she has watched many house managers at other RMHs burn out due to the demands of the job (for that reason, most managers now choose to live in their own private residences). Debbie Ross is one of the few remaining RMH resident house managers in the country. “I feel that God has placed me where I need to be,” she explains. “I am so honored to roll out of bed each morning and come downstairs, knowing what we do for families.”
Approximately 12,000 families have stayed in one of the house’s 16 private bedrooms, according to Debbie. “All of humanity comes through here,” she says. “It’s not just a family with a sick child; people have marriage problems and we see if we can help them with counseling. Just the other day I wrote an emergency check for a woman who has a child with a brain tumor. She was about to have her car insurance shut down. You have to listen to everyone and see what you can do.” Although families are asked to pay $10 a night to stay at the RMH, no one is ever turned away for their inability to pay. In fact, only about 40 percent of the residents are able to afford the fee. The actual cost for a night’s stay at the house is $80 and is funded by donations from individuals, businesses, and organizations.
Although the majority of the families who have used the house are from the Valley, some have come from as far away as Africa. One young boy and his father arrived from Iraq after U.S. soldiers arranged for the boy to have surgery in Albany to treat a life-threatening heart problem.
The RMH is much more than a hotel to these families. It is a place where they can enjoy a hot meal, relax in the TV room or playroom, do their laundry, or talk with other parents. “Everyone in the house is going through some horrible thing, and everybody tries to help each other. It is such a safe and loving environment, and it makes what you are going through easier to bear,” says Lynn Cantona, who lived there for several months when her infant son was critically ill with a rare syndrome. She recalls that Debbie was always available to talk, even late at night. Her son is now 16, but Cantona recalls Debbie’s gentle touch with those who were not so lucky. “I remember being in the house when a family lost their son,” she says. “I will never forget the night that he died, and seeing Debbie sitting with them and crying with them.”
Although technically off-duty in the evenings, Debbie’s personal and professional lives are inextricably intertwined. Her three daughters — 22-year-old Lindsay, 19-year-old Erin, and 17-year-old Kelsey — have called the RMH home for their entire lives. And they are used to sharing their mother. “Sometimes, when the girls were little, I’d be downstairs and one of the kids’ voices would come over the intercom saying: â€˜Mom, we need you up here,’ ” Debbie says. But Lindsay says the girls took their mom’s dedication in stride. “She always had a home-cooked meal for us so that we could sit down and eat as a family. She never missed any of our events,” she recalls. “But she would drive hours to attend a band concert or graduation of one of the RMH kids. These are her kids, too.”
And while many of the RMH children made their way up to the Ross’s apartment — “they liked to play in the loft-like space up here” says Debbie — her own girls loved hanging out with the other children in the house. Occasionally, Debbie even unofficially adopts a child. Seven years ago, for example, the wife of a man who performs as Ronald McDonald for house events died in childbirth. Debbie took the couple’s baby girl to live with her family for several months while he grieved for his wife. When he was ready to claim his daughter, Debbie taught him how to care for her. To this day, the little girl still calls Debbie “Mom.”
Steve Ross, the program director of the perinatal outreach program at Albany Medical Center, acknowledges that, as parents, he and Debbie had to ensure that their girls understood that death was part of life at the house. But they never prevented them from befriending any of the RMH children. As a result, the girls inevitably lost friends. “My mom helped me by reminding me how much some of the kids were suffering,” says Lindsay. “I didn’t want that.”
One eight-year-old girl had an especially strong bond with Debbie’s daughter, Kelsey. In fact, her dying wish was to have Kelsey at her bedside in the hospital. Debbie and Steve felt that that was too much for a 10-year-old to handle, but Kelsey had ideas of her own.
As Debbie tells the story, her daughter said defiantly, “I am going over to that hospital!” Her friend beamed from ear to ear when Kelsey arrived and climbed into bed next to her.
As the girls got older, Debbie and Steve thought that it might be time to move out of their small apartment and into a nearby house of their own. They asked the girls if they wanted to move. “I was in tears at the thought of moving,” says Lindsay. “I said â€˜No, that would just be too weird!’ ” Her sisters agreed that there was no other place that they would rather live.
So how has Debbie been able to avoid the burnout that plagues so many house managers? “I can’t carry the burdens of all of the families,” she says. “Although I do often say to myself, â€˜I really miss that kid.’ ” On a recent day, Debbie was wearing what she describes as a “crazy pair” of green and yellow Green Bay Packer earrings that had been given to her by a young boy before he died. She says that she remembers him with a smile every time she puts them on.
“You have to know what clears your mind and your heart,” she says. “I can go to places in my mind to refresh myself. My husband and I also walk two to three miles a night, just to talk and catch up with each other.” The family also retreats to their cabin on New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee several times a year, although they allow RMH families to use it when they are not there.
When Debbie started at RMH, she was the only employee; now there is a full-time staff of six. And while these 26 years have included nonstop board meetings and lectures, she is now less inclined to get involved in the business aspect of things. “People ask me to be on boards of directors every other month and I just say no. I don’t want to. I want to make a difference one on one with children and families.” Looking back, Debbie is deeply satisfied with the work she has done. “I get so many letters that come in. The other day, I got one with $100 in it. Someone wrote, â€˜I couldn’t pay then, but I never forgot the kindness.’ The rewards of this job are just so tremendous.”