Located at 1501 Streit Drive, right across from Amarillo Botanical Gardens, the new 17,500-square-foot house has been designed specifically for the families it serves. “The most obvious design change from the previous RMHC home is the second story,” says architect Mason Rogers of Playa Design Studio. “The height of the house and accent lighting allows it to be seen from BSA hospital.” Children receiving medical care can see where their families are living, which helps with separation anxiety. Meanwhile, windows in each of the family rooms face Northwest, BSA, and BSA Harrington Cancer Center.
The exterior design is just as intentional. Rogers and Playa partner Mike Ritter conceived the eye-catching steel framework to express strength and stability. “The families that stay here are typically in a time of high stress and uncertainty,” Rogers says. “The new House is designed to be a place of peace and comfort.”
The following scenario plays out every week inside the spacious new Ronald McDonald House near Amarillo’s medical center: A family from a Texas Panhandle town like Dalhart or Pampa welcomes a new baby into the world. The child is born premature and needs specialized neonatal ICU care in Amarillo, far from home. The NICU stay can last days or even weeks.
What does the family do?
Once Mom recovers, does she drive to Amarillo every day to see her baby, then back home to Pampa? Does the rest of the family join her?
And what about a pediatric cancer patient undergoing weeks of chemotherapy in Amarillo?
The expense of local hotel stays and meals adds up quickly.
“That is the point of the Ronald McDonald House,” says Shelley Cunningham, executive director of the Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC) of Amarillo. “We want to be a home away from home, a place where families can be together and have privacy that’s not a hotel.” She still hears of families sleeping in cars or waiting rooms because they can’t afford a hotel. “The kids are getting the medical care. It’s mostly the moms and dads we’re taking care of.”
The RMHC concept started in the early 1970s, designed to serve families who have to travel to access children’s medical care. Located in communities all over the world, these homes are designed to reduce financial burdens and stress for these families during an already stressful time. Families can make a donation to the House if they wish—and many do, for years and years afterward—but don’t have to pay any costs while they’re using it.
Amarillo’s House, the 51st in the United States, dates back to 1983 but has recently been rebuilt from the ground up. More than a makeover, the original house was torn down and a brand-new one constructed on the same property. Miraculously, it all took place while the organization continued to serve families during the 2020 pandemic.
That 1983 house began with a shoestring budget with donated building supplies. “We had avocado green bathtubs and harvest gold sinks,” Cunningham says. Bathroom colors are cosmetic, but the old house depended on donated, cast-iron pipes for the plumbing. Several years ago, it became clear that the infrastructure was failing. “We started having roof trouble and plumbing trouble,” Cunningham says.
Ongoing repair work made the space inconvenient for families, so Cunningham and her board began discussing a capital campaign. “We needed to do either a major remodel or a rebuild,” she says.
It quickly became clear that building a whole new house was the best option. In the years following, a combination of grants and fundraising set aside nearly $4 million for the new construction.
“This was a golden opportunity,” says Marketing Manager Luke Oliver in the spacious, brightly painted living room that now welcomes families into the House. “We needed to address the structural and mechanical problems, but also the needs of patients had changed drastically over the last four decades. The capital campaign has allowed us to design a house more efficiently to meet the needs of families.”
The fundraising began in 2018. By 2019, the organization had rented apartments at a nearby apartment community to house families during construction. In January 2020, demolition crews started tearing down the old building. Then COVID hit. Because the organization had already ordered materials, work continued even during the early days of the pandemic. “So much of the beginning of our project was outside, so we could still keep people employed. It didn’t delay the process at all,” Cunningham says.
In hindsight, the timing couldn’t have worked out any better. Because families were being housed in separate apartments during the pandemic construction, Amarillo’s RMHC never shut down its services. “There were Ronald McDonald Houses that closed for a year and couldn’t reintroduce families. We kept them all the way through,” she says. “That was a huge blessing.”
Designed by the local architects at Playa Design Studio and built by Southwest General Contractors, the new building finally opened in the summer of 2021. It offers 14 bedrooms for families, but due to the city’s COVID status has remained near half capacity. “Still, we haven’t had to turn any families away,” says Cunningham.
She and Oliver guided Brick & Elm on an exclusive tour of the new facility.
Main Living Area
“We planned for a lot of different living spaces in 2018 and 2019,” Cunningham says. She and her board had no idea how important those spaces would become in 2020 and 2021. The multitude of spaces, like this one near the entrance, allow families to gather outside their rooms.
Guest Services team member Jeff Jarnagin painted the kid-friendly playhouse in the center of the expansive foyer. “You walk in the door and that’s the first thing that jumps out at you,” Jarnagin says. “It makes it a little warmer for the kids.”
Each room has a bed and pullout sofa that allows it to sleep a small family. The hardwood floors and surfaces make the room easy to keep clean. Importantly, each is equipped with its own HVAC system. “Our referrals for pediatric oncology have probably quadrupled in the past eight years,” Oliver says. Two oncology suites have been dedicated to these patients, whose compromised immune systems require precautions. The new rooms help isolate airflow and manage temperature. “Once you’re in here, you’re self-contained,” he says.
Rooms also come with a private bathroom, refrigerator, and counter for food prep. The west-facing windows allow families to see the hospitals or cancer centers where children are undergoing treatment.
“We knew we wanted a space to offer to the community because it gives us an opportunity to talk about the House,” says Cunningham. Open to community groups, this space has an outdoor entrance, which helps isolate board or Rotary Club members from current RMHC residents. “We want anyone from the community to come use
The quilts—which are displayed throughout the House—date back to fundraisers and donations throughout the history of Amarillo’s RMHC. A large mounted TV on another wall makes it an ideal gathering place for movies after the pandemic subsides.
The massive kitchen is ADA-accessible and allows families to prepare their own meals while staying at RMHC. Six nearby dining tables accommodate six families at once, though use of the dining room is currently open by appointment only, to maintain social distancing. A community pantry offers basic groceries, along with breakfast items and snacks.
Large windows face an outdoor living space. “We really love having these floor-to-ceiling windows,” Cunningham says, pointing out that families have watched geese, foxes, possums and other wild creatures spend time in the RMHC backyard.
Funded by FirstBank Southwest, this upstairs coffee nook in the center of the house also serves as a living area. “Just like at home, our families go to the kitchen in their pajamas to get a cup of coffee in the morning,” Cunningham says. “We wanted to be able to have those things upstairs so they don’t have to go all the way down into the kitchen. You’re not just sitting on the edge of your bed trying to do everything, like in a hotel.”
A large window in this space perfectly frames the roof of the Botanical Gardens. “[Architects] Mike and Mason would probably tell you they built this whole building so that we could look out at the pyramid,” she says, laughing. “They situated it just perfect.”
Amarillo native and PGA Tour professional Ryan Palmer donated funds for this TV room. “We’re calling it the Man Cave,” Cunningham says. “In the original house, everything was quilts and flowers, so we created this as a place to go watch the game.” Palmer is helping the RMHC gather memorabilia from his career as well as other athletic decor.
With social distancing still in effect, this room serves as a dedicated living area for a family staying at the House.
What’s the Relationship to McDonald’s?
The McDonald’s corporation is a financial partner of Ronald McDonald House Charities, but does not own the organizations. However, McDonald’s franchisees and employees were involved with the opening of the first RMHC in 1974, and last year, more than $126 million was donated through McDonald’s restaurants to the nearly 700 RMHC chapters worldwide. As a nonprofit, RMHC of Amarillo largely depends on community contributions for its support.
Help Meet Needs at RHMC Amarillo
Amarillo’s RMHC chapter serves families from across the Texas Panhandle into eastern New Mexico, Oklahoma and Kansas. “But people from all over the world have come here due to the specialists at Texas Tech,” adds Shelley Cunningham. “They can use our services as long as they’re getting treatment. It could be a night or two or it could be seven months.”
In addition to financial support, RMHC regularly accepts donations of supplies, including:
- Gift cards to restaurants, Walmart, and United ($10 to $20)
- Travel-size toiletries
- Individual toothbrushes
- Snack-size food products (cup noodles, ravioli, mac-and-cheese, soup)
- Individual, plastic-wrapped utensil sets
- Gallon-size vinegar for cleaning
- Laundry detergent pods (regular and unscented for babies)
- Sanitizing wipes
- Lysol spray