A Home for LOVE

At the Ronald McDonald House of Southern New Jersey, Ann “Teddy” Thomas smiles and sits down on the rug next to Mateo Bonacquisti.

He’s barely a year old, has been diagnosed with cancer, and is going to have surgery to save his sight. She’s the president and executive director of the 25-bedroom house in Camden where Mateo and his Detroit-area family are staying.

Thomas helped get the house started in the early 1980s and has been synonymous with it ever since. But at the moment, she’s playing a toy xylophone with Mateo.

Mateo’s mother, Ilse, tells me matter-of-factly that “there was no saving the right eye, so it was removed” at a Detroit hospital.

“But now there’s a tumor growing in his left eye,” she explains.

That’s why Ilse and her husband, Mike, a maintenance worker in a steel plant, drove to Camden from Michigan so their son could undergo potentially sight-saving surgery at Wills Eye. Being able to staying at Ronald McDonald, Mike says, has been “amazing.”

The house will celebrate its 35th anniversary on Oct. 4. Which also is Thomas’ birthday.

 “It just happened that way,” says the Tuscaloosa, Ala., native, her Southern twang intact despite her decades in the mid-Atlantic and Northeasterm United States.

“I get to have a very large birthday party every year.”

In 1982, Thomas was living in Cherry Hill and raising three children when her neighbor Milton H. Donaldson — a pediatric hematologic oncologist and also an Alabama native — asked if she’d volunteer to help launch a Ronald McDonald House in Camden.

The following year, she was running the place. Which is no surprise to anyone who’s seen her in action, as I have on a couple of occasions over the years.

“I was 35 when the house opened,” Thomas recalls. “I rarely tell people my age, because I would hate for them to think I should be walking out the door. I don’t intend to walk out the door.”

She’s too busy, for one thing. The house, like the 365 others worldwide, must raise the money for its budget. For Camden, it means $1.6 million each year, although the goal of local McDonald’s owners is to contribute up to 10 percent of the budget from donation boxes at their restaurants. The house has a full-time and part-time staff of 21 and relies upon what she describes as “700 very devoted volunteers” to serve about 700 families annually.

Often, the families have a child being treated for cancer, although some of the kids have other serious illnesses or injuries. The families are referred by one of four regional medical institutions: Cooper University Hospital, Wills Eye, Shriners Hospital for Children, and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

“We’re full 365 nights a year,” says Thomas. “We had to turn away 200 referrals last year, once as many as 15 in one day. That’s the hardest thing.”

The first Camden house, a 10-room renovated Victorian landmark on Benson Street, has long since been replaced by a spacious, three-story brick edifice on Martin Luther King Boulevard near Broadway in downtown Camden.

The number of rooms has been increased over the years, and renovations now underway include construction of a second kitchen. This will accommodate families who prepare food for themselves as well as the volunteers who arrive daily to make dinner.

Although the children do not receive medical treatment at the house, in recent years they have tended to spend much more time there.

“Thirty-five years ago, you rarely saw the children. They were all in the hospital,” Thomas recalls. “But as medicine has evolved, and outpatient [treatment]  has become more prevalent, we find that almost 80 percent of the children stay here with us and go back and forth to the hospital during the day.”

Two mornings a week, Pat Trautner,  a volunteer who lives in Clarksboro, Gloucester County, drives the kids and their families to medical treatment “and wherever they need to go.”

He started doing so after he retired as a union pipefitter with Local 322 in Winslow Township.

“I enjoy meeting the kids, and the parents. They’re so resilient,” Trautner says. “Their  kids are sick, they’re worried and they’re far away from home. They appreciate the house more than you can imagine.”

Thomas describes the house as “the world’s best informal support group. … The parents take incredible care of each other. At dinner, it’s everybody sharing tears, hopes and dreams.”

“We have something called the good news bell that can be rung at dinner. Maybe a child’s fever went down, maybe a surgery went well, maybe someone gets to go home.”

That looks to be the case for the Bonacquistis. Mateo had his eye surgery at Wills last Thursday, and on Monday, Mike told me that “from the information we have, the eye should be OK.”

“We should be heading back to Michigan today and returning in six weeks for a follow-up.”

Says Thomas: “That’s great news. We always tell our families that as sorry as we are to see them leave, we are happy when they can go home. Because home is where they belong.”