The night starts out rocky. We’re been planning for weeks to join friends and neighbors at the Ronald McDonald House on Valentine’s Day to cook and serve dinner to its guests. Adjacent to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, RMH offers food and housing for families of children receiving long-term medical care.
Less than a mile from home, F. starts to cough. From the sound of it, I expect to see a pink, spongy lung on the seat next to him.
“Do you think he should go?” Chaz asks. The meal coordinator specifically asks sick volunteers to stay away.
“Sorry, buddy,” I turn the car towards home to drop Chaz and the little boys at the house.
I’d hoped to be the first ones there but returning to the house puts us behind schedule. By the time we arrive, several families are waiting.
“What should we do first?” one asks.
“Everyone wash their hands,” I say and quickly tick off kid-friendly jobs.
Within minutes, kids are washing asparagus and cutting tomatoes. Kids open packets of pasta and decorate tables with red hearts. They stack plates and sort silverware. They jockey for counter space to a resounding chorus of “What else can I do to help?”
Ronald McDonald families form a line at ten to six. We aren’t ready. Technical difficulties (or operator error) keep the ovens from heating up and many of the dishes sit lukewarm inside the closed oven doors.
We roll with it. Everyone works as a team as we shuffle the hot dishes forward and press every button on the oven until it dings. Houston, we have power!
We’ve brought red and pink paper, stickers and markers for the kids to make Valentine’s for their families. One problem: there are no kids.
“Did you notice that?” a friend asks. I haven’t until she says so but she’s right. All but three of the kids in the dining room belong to us.
Plan B. We gather the kids and tell them the change.
“This is very important. Do you think you can help?” Ernest faces nod in response.
The kids decorate Valentines like it is their job. A pile of red hearts grows in the center of the table which we'll give to the front desk to pass out.
Angel-faced E. approaches a man and woman at a nearby table and hands them a card. “Do you have anyone you can give this to at the hospital?” It is a sweet exchange that comes straight from her heart.
In my mind, tonight is a success. We didn’t run out of food. We feed over a hundred people. The kids help in a hands-on, tangible way.