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Jill Christopher, Ronald McDonald House Charities, Fargo, ND

Join us as Jill Christopher, CEO of Ronald McDonald House Charities in Fargo, shares their vital role in supporting families during medical emergencies. Discover the uplifting impact of their work and community contributions. Also, tune in to this week's 'Natural North Dakota', where biologist Chuck Lura delves into archaeological records and hunting seasons. Plus, hear from environmental engineer Linsey Marr on “Conversations on Health Care”. Despite initial WHO doubts, she was certain about COVID being airborne. She'll discuss her groundbreaking research and recent findings with hosts Mark Masselli and Margaret Flinter, beginning with the study that unraveled the virus's transmission method.

Jill Christopher, Ronald McDonald Charities Transcript

Main Street
Today on the show, we're joined by Jill Christopher, CEO of Ronald McDonald House Charities in Fargo.

Ronald McDonald House Charities provide crucial support to families in medical crises, and their endeavors are genuinely uplifting, and we wanted to know more about their impactful work and community contributions. Jill, welcome to Main Street.

Jill Christopher, CEO, Ronald McDonald Charities
Well, thanks for having me. Good to be here.

Main Street
It's a pleasure to be here, Jill. And I think many listeners have heard about Ronald McDonald Houses, maybe here or across the country, but give me a brief overview of what is the Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Red River Valley.

Jill Christopher, CEO, Ronald McDonald Charities
Sure. So Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Red River Valley, we provide housing and support for families who have children in the hospital. So we do that through our Ronald McDonald House, which is the program most people have heard from.

It's a space where families can come and stay while their child is in the hospital. We really want to make sure families can focus on what matters most, and that's getting their child well. In addition, we have our Ronald McDonald Family Room.

So our Ronald McDonald Family Room is a space within Essentia Health here in town that supports families who have children in the NICU, which is a nice way to extend some of our services outside of just the Ronald McDonald House. It really comes down to, you know, making sure families have a place where they can rest, where they can handle a lot of those things, where they don't have to worry about cost. There's no charge to stay at the Ronald McDonald House.

They don't have to worry about the mounting bills that they have when you might not be working. You know, you're eating out, you have maybe gas when you're coming back and forth. So a number of things that families need to worry about, we want to make sure that they don't have to worry about those.

Main Street
Jill, what's your background? You've been here for quite a while. Yeah.

Jill Christopher, CEO, Ronald McDonald Charities
So I have been here for 13 years. Prior to that, I actually went to Concordia here in Moorhead, Minnesota, and then worked for Thriving Financial, a financial services company, and just felt that tug that, you know, had that service, that volunteer work, and kind of was just tugging. So I joined the board, actually, for the Ronald McDonald House.

And then when the job came open, I had to go for it and I been here ever since.

Main Street
This is a beautiful facility. Let's give our listeners a virtual tour. We walk in the front door, and what do we see?

Jill Christopher, CEO, Ronald McDonald Charities
One of the things that's great, we opened this location in May of 2018. And you built it. We built it, yeah.

So we got to build this, which really gives us this welcoming space. When you walk in, there's a front desk, which sounds silly, but our old locations didn't have that. They were modified, you know, modified house, a modified apartment building.

So it gives us where there's a welcoming face right at the front desk to say, hi, you know, what place to know where families go. On our first floor is really all of our community spaces. So we have this expansive kitchen that allows for multiple families to cook at once.

We have a whole volunteer kitchen. We have volunteers that come in and cook almost every day of the year. So that really allows a gathering space.

You know, we have five dining room tables. So families can connect with each other. You know, they can sit down as a family and eat.

They can meet new people that are also have sick kids. That's probably really helpful. It's really helpful.

You know, one of my favorites is from quite a few years ago, but you know, when your child is sick, sometimes it's easy to talk about and sometimes it's not. But here everyone's child is sick. And I know I remember quite a few years ago now we had three families had children in the eating disorder program at Sanford at the same time.

The connection they built, like they, they had tears when they left because they were leaving these friends they'd made. And it was so nice to get to see them find someone who could, they could really truly talk to you about the struggles and the successes and people would understand all of that.

Main Street
So let's resume our tour.

Jill Christopher, CEO, Ronald McDonald Charities

Main Street
We're in the community area, in the kitchen area. It's beautiful.

Jill Christopher, CEO, Ronald McDonald Charities
The kitchen, I love the kitchen. But you know, off the kitchen, there's a playroom, there's a game room. We have outside, we have a play set for kids.

So it really feels like your house potentially, but just bigger. And then upstairs we have guest rooms. So we have 24 guest rooms, so 12 on each floor.

The guest rooms look very much like a hotel. They have their own private bathroom, which we did not have in our previous location. So that's very exciting.

It doesn't sound very big, but it was really a huge, a huge win. We have an elevator to get to those rooms, which we didn't have before. So we love that.

And you know, the rooms have two queen beds, just a very cozy space. And then in addition to those 12 guest rooms on each floor, we have a living room and a laundry room. So we have, you know, a space where they can expand out of their room and watch TV, play a board game, do what you would do at home with your family.

And then of course, laundry. All of our laundry is free, but you know, you do need to do laundry. So some of our families are here for many, many, many weeks.

Main Street
I'm guessing that you have folks that can plan, if that's a good word to use, their need for your services. But others maybe didn't realize they were going to be here yesterday.

Jill Christopher, CEO, Ronald McDonald Charities
Absolutely. Yeah. It can be very set in when families end up here and that can be stressful.

It can be, it's not only stressful for the family, but their whole support system. Everyone's trying to help and they're trying to figure things out. We work very closely with our hospital partners.

So they figure out who, particularly with the Rodhamstown House, who's coming in from out of town to get this specialty care that's offered here in Fargo. You know, we're very fortunate to have the medical care we do. For those families to be able to come in, we work with social work and the different staff over at the hospital to make sure that they know that this is an option for them.

Main Street
So you said earlier, there is no cost. So literally anyone can benefit.

Jill Christopher, CEO, Ronald McDonald Charities
Yeah. There's no income requirement. I mean, we really feel like everyone with a sick child can benefit from the community environment that the Rodhamstown House brings.

So yeah, they don't, they're not required to pay here. Of course, if they wanted to make a donation, we would always say yes, but there's no requirement to pay. And last year, 90% of our families paid absolutely nothing when they stayed here.

They didn't donate, you know, and that's great. That's what we want. How many folks did you serve last year?

So we served about 750 families last year.

Main Street
And that might've been for one day or two weeks or more.

Jill Christopher, CEO, Ronald McDonald Charities
We actually had one family last year that finished up a 20-month stay with us. It's everything from one day to a couple nights to literally months. It really depends on the course of treatment for their child and what they need to figure out in order to move to the next step.

Main Street
Have you ever been so full you had to say, I'm so sorry, not today?

Jill Christopher, CEO, Ronald McDonald Charities
Actually, yes. So one of the things that was nice, you know, that was pretty common in our old locations. We moved here.

It helped a lot. When we originally moved here, we opened 17 rooms and we've since been able to add an additional seven up to 24 and that's helped a lot. So it's pretty rare.

But yeah, actually just a couple weeks ago, we had to turn a few families away, which is always a bummer. And it's not that we turn them away forever, but it's just deferring them. So we have to wait until somebody checks out.

Yeah, you have the room as long as you need it. So we can't really take reservations. You know, you never know how long you're going to be in the hospital.

Sometimes it can go both ways. You think you're getting home tomorrow and you're here for another week, or you think you're going home in a week and you get to go home tomorrow. So it really, you know, things can change really quickly.

Main Street
You came to work today from your home, as did others on your staff. Give me an idea of what a normal day looks like from your staff here at Ronald McDonald House.

Jill Christopher, CEO, Ronald McDonald Charities
Great question. Really from our team, we're staffed 24 hours a day. And so a lot of it is, you know, kind of this turnover of switching, you know, for the person who's leaving to the people who are coming, what they saw.

So our days are filled with cleaning. You know, we have David on our team who does a fabulous job of cleaning during the day. You know, he's the one making sure all the rooms look great and ready.

And we just want it to be a beautiful, comfortable space. You know, we're talking to the hospital, making sure that if there's families that need to get here, talking to the families, checking them in. When they come, we have a little meeting with them, making sure they understand where things are, what's available to them here.

Because in addition to the kitchen, you know, we have a fully stocked pantry. We have everything you might've forgot. Toothpaste, deodorant, all of those things when you go on vacation or go on a trip that you might've forgotten.

We try to have on stock because they might not have time or capacity or money to go and get those things at that particular moment. So yeah, so the day is just a lot of that, a lot of, you know, connecting with families. And then we try to have some fun stuff throughout the day.

See if there, you know, is activities that we can do. We have an arts and crafts room. So we have team members that make craft ideas for the kids so they can go in there and have some fun.

Main Street
And so what is that age breakpoint of folks that maybe are too older to have your services or would be welcome?

Jill Christopher, CEO, Ronald McDonald Charities
Great question. Yeah. So we work with families who have children 21 and younger.

So if you're anywhere in that kind of pediatric. So it's everything from NICU babies who are born prematurely, cancer, eating disorders, feeding therapy, surgeries, all of those things, but anyone 21 and younger.

Main Street
We're enjoying our conversation with Jill Christopher. She's the chief executive officer of the Ronald McDonald Charities of the Red River Valley. Jill, I'm guessing that folks who need medical care here in Fargo or West Fargo or Moorhead can stay at home.

It's the folks that come from maybe farther away. Give us an idea of where folks come from that have services here.

Jill Christopher, CEO, Ronald McDonald Charities
The vast majority of the families we work with are coming from Northwestern Minnesota and then the entire state of North Dakota. So it might be as close as Grand Forks or we have families from Dickinson, Minot, all over Western North Dakota, but the vast majority of our families are from North Dakota and Northwestern Minnesota.

Main Street
There is one other Ronald McDonald's Charities in North Dakota. It's in Bismarck, but they're operated independently. Tell me about that and what it means to you as a CEO.

Jill Christopher, CEO, Ronald McDonald Charities
Yeah. So one of the things that is really nice, I think, about Ronald McDonald House is that we operate as our own 501c3. So Bismarck is its own 501c3, Fargo is its own 501c3.

And what that means is that when you donate to your local Ronald McDonald House, that money stays there. You know, when you donate to Fargo, it stays in Fargo, but we also have this wonderful community of people we can call. So if I have an issue, I have a question, I need an idea, I'm stuck on something, there is this network of literally hundreds of other Ronald McDonald Houses that I can reach out to.

So it might be talking to Kathy in Bismarck or Kevin in Sioux Falls or Jill in Minneapolis. They're all really close. We all work with a lot of the same families, so we can talk about how we would handle a certain situation, what we would do, what ideas have been working for them.

Main Street
Give us a little more of a history of how Ronald McDonald Charities started. Where in the country did it begin?

Jill Christopher, CEO, Ronald McDonald Charities
Absolutely. So the first Ronald McDonald House was opened in 1974 in Philadelphia. And the story is fantastic.

In fact, there is a feature film coming out about Dr. Audrey Evans, who was a huge part of opening that first Ronald McDonald House. She was a pediatric oncologist in the early 70s as a female when women couldn't even get their own credit card. She talked about that.

She just passed away in the last year and a half in her 90s. But she was funny. You know, she was ahead of the curve on pet therapy for kids.

She was really instrumental in doing some really unique therapies for kids with cancer. At the time, there was a Philadelphia Eagles player that had a child named Kim that had cancer. And so they were being served, Fred and Fran Hill were their names.

They were being served at the hospital there. And so the Eagles did a fundraiser for the hospital. And out of that became this idea from Dr. Evans that they still needed a place for these people to stay. People were noticing that families were sleeping in their cars, they were sleeping on the floor, and they needed a place to stay. And so they located a house and they needed a little bit more money. And at the time, the Eagles are doing a promotion with McDonald's for the new Shamrock Shake.

So when you have your Shamrock Shakes, you could think of their own McDonald's house because that's how it all started. So just this really unique partnership was born and McDonald's has been part of it ever since. Still today?

Still today. They're one of our biggest supporters. So that started and it really took off like wildfire across the U.S. about how this was really something that children's hospitals could really use a place for these families to stay in. Locally, it started because of a few moms, one being Bev McAllister. Her daughter, Sarah, passed away from cancer very quickly. It's a lovely story that she tells about Sarah and her sparkle and this beautiful little girl that passed away at a year and a half.

After Sarah passed away, she was in a grief group with a number of other mothers that had also lost their children. And they heard about the Ronald McDonald House going up in the Twin Cities. And so they went down to see it and they brought the idea back to Wayne Allard, who was a social worker at what is now Sanford.

Wayne took it and ran with it and got all these volunteers. And so we actually opened in 1982. Really, when you think about the size of what Fargo was compared to Philadelphia at that time, we were really on the forefront.

So we've been here 40 years already, which is amazing.

Main Street
I'm sure much of your time, Jill, is spent making sure there are funds to continue what you do here.

Jill Christopher, CEO, Ronald McDonald Charities
Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, fundraising, we couldn't do what we do without the generosity of the amazing donors that make it happen.

Because we're locally owned and operating, we have to fundraise the vast majority of what we do locally. So yeah, it is a big part. We have a number of ways we do that, a number of really great partners.

I talked about McDonald's. When you go through the drive-thru and you see that change box or they ask you to round up, that stays local. So we have 23 McDonald's that feed into this Ronald McDonald House, which is really a cool thing because you kind of think, where does that money go?

I'm dropping this in. What happens to it? It stays right here.

And so that is a little over $60,000 a year in paying, when you think about it, like rounding up, paying, dropping in those coins. Those 23 stores, I mean, that's a lot of money. We have our Sweetheart Ball, which is coming up in February.

That's our big gala fundraiser. I held that at the Delta on February 10th. So that's a lot of corporate sponsors, individual people sponsoring tables, inviting their friends.

We have about 600 people that come. And it's just a fun night to talk about the stories that families do. One of the cool parts of my job is getting to see that generosity.

It's amazing what people will do and what they'll do with their hard-earned money to make sure that other families are okay.

Main Street
Not only are there those great people, but there's also a volunteer force that helps you out. Tell me about that.

Jill Christopher, CEO, Ronald McDonald Charities
Yeah, absolutely. We are super fortunate to have an amazing volunteer base. In fact, last year we had over 2,300 volunteers that helped make what we do possible.

At the Ronald McDonald House, we're open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and we have a really small staff. And so in order to make that possible, volunteers extend our staff by so much. We had a group, they come every Friday and they mop our floors.

Like, it sounds little, but for us it's huge because it takes them, you know, half an hour, 45 minutes to mop our whole first floor. But if you took an hour out of our staff to do that, you know, two staff members for 45 minutes every week, that's a lot of time, you know, when you're trying to balance that. So volunteers cook our meals every night.

They come in and bake amazing food. They just make it smell fabulous in here every day. We have cleaning groups this afternoon.

We have a group that's coming in with some handy people and they're going to fix some things and, you know, help with some cleaning, but also just tweak all of those little things that break. You know, everything that breaks at your house breaks at ours too. So it's great when we have people with talents that can help make sure that's all possible.

Main Street
Have the needs of families changed and how have you adapted to those needs?

Jill Christopher, CEO, Ronald McDonald Charities
You know, the interesting part is at the end of the day, it really hasn't changed that much. As much as we wish this wasn't true, there will always be sick kids. You know, while some of the communication styles have changed, we have an online registration form or before you called us on the phone, some of those little things have changed.

But at the end of the day, the core of what makes this place special has continued to be the same. You know, families connecting with other families, families having that safe place to land. Right when I started, we had a little boy that would come every week for therapy.

We had a therapy dog that would come to the house every night. It just happened to be the same night that he would come every week was the night that the dog there and that special relationship, knowing what was going to happen when he got there, knowing what was going to look like. I think for our families that have long term therapies, long term treatments, cancer treatments, there's so much back and forth.

You get to go home for a few weeks, you come back, you get to go home for a few weeks, you come back. Having that spot that is always the same is so comforting. You know, all of our rooms look the same.

No matter what room you get, when you come back, it feels the same to the family. You know where the food is, you know what's happening, you know where the games are, you know, all of that really doesn't change. I mean, our building looks different, it's bigger, there's more families to connect with, which is fabulous.

But at the end of the day, those basic needs are still the same.

Main Street
There are some challenges that every organization has to, I guess, overcome. What are some of your challenges?

Jill Christopher, CEO, Ronald McDonald Charities
Staffing a 24-7 operation has changed. When I first started, we had staff that slept on site overnight, and now we're much bigger. And so we've had to change that, I think, keeping, you know, that same web of communication, keeping everybody on the same page as your staff gets bigger, your volunteer base gets bigger.

How do we make sure that we continue to do what we do very, very well? Continuing to grow and make sure that you're meeting the needs of the family is always that challenge. It goes back to what you were talking about with waitlists.

Whenever we have to tell a family we don't have a spot for them, it's always hard. And so, you know, looking at what could we do, what are the options? Before we went on the air here, we were talking a little bit about COVID, which I think made us hyper-aware.

While we'd always been really aware of keeping this place top-notch clean, it just heightened that even more in terms of the vulnerable population that we're dealing with. I mean, all of these children are sick. Them getting sick on top of being sick, or their family members getting sick, can be a really, really bad deal.

And so we have to do everything we can to make sure that we're taking care of our families really well.

Main Street
I'm guessing that the need for your services is year-round, but is there a certain time of year that you're busier than others, or is it just really the entire year?

Jill Christopher, CEO, Ronald McDonald Charities

A few years ago, I would have said there were times where we were busier than others, but right now we are just busy all the time. I think the types of patients we see changes at different times of the year. You know, summer, there are some programs that might sound optional, but maybe I think it's just more that there's some flexibility on when you can get those treatments, like feeding therapy, things like that.

Some of the other programs, or some of the other needs, are heightened during the school year when stress for children is higher, you know, when you're looking at eating disorders or some of the mental health things. But babies are born early every day. Cancer diagnosis has happened every day, and so it really just is pretty steady.

Main Street
You bring up an interesting point that I really hadn't thought about. I've considered, you know, what you do for children who are undergoing cancer treatments or had been in a car accident, but also mental health treatments, et cetera. You provide services for those families daily.

Jill Christopher, CEO, Ronald McDonald Charities
I think one of the things that I really enjoy about what we do is, you know, when your child is born prematurely or your child has cancer, I think there has been a really big shift in how we can support those families from GoFundMe pages and CaringBridge sites, and people can tell their story in a way that works for them. But what we're still seeing is families who have children with mental health issues or diagnoses that they're working on or eating disorders, we're still not talking about that on a grand scale. And I think that gives us a really big opportunity here to talk about some of those challenges, some of those stresses that our young people are facing every day and what consequences that can have on their body and their health from top to bottom.

Being able to make sure that families can be here and near the care they need. You know, we are very fortunate in Fargo that we have excellent care. We work with Sanford.

We work with Essentia. We work with Prairie St. John's, and they provide amazing treatment for families. It's really nice to be able to walk alongside them and make sure that these families have a place to stay.

So that's not a barrier to getting that treatment.

Main Street
We talked about challenges that you encountered just a moment ago, but you probably also have some goals. What are you looking forward to?

Jill Christopher, CEO, Ronald McDonald Charities
Yeah, you know, I think for us right now, what we're really looking at, what is the next thing that we want to work on? You know, we're at this really cool time. We built this beautiful space, and now we've learned how to use it very well.

We've learned how to family, but we have a wait list sometimes. And so what is the next steps for that? What does the future look like as we continue to grow?

How do we expand our staff's capabilities? How do we start our learning? Those kind of things.

What are additional services that we could provide to our families to support them during their stay? You know, as they get here, as they leave, what do those things look like? To make sure that families have what they need, and it's flexible, you know, to make sure we're taking care of them.

And then what lies ahead? You know, I think it's a really fun time with our board to dream about what other things are needed in this area for families with sick kids. How can we use our services to help?

Main Street
If there are individuals or church groups or service organizations that want to help you, Jill, what should they do?

Jill Christopher, CEO, Ronald McDonald Charities
Yeah, absolutely. You could always go onto our website,, get more information there. Give us a call.

701-232-3980. If you, you know, if you have a group that wants a tour, you just want to come in and see what it looks like. You've heard a little bit on the airwaves and you want to come in and see what it looks like.

We love to show it off. We're so proud of this building. So happy to always to give a tour.

We're always looking for volunteers. So if you bake or you cook or you have a special talent you want to share, you know, it's fun to have people who can perform music or lead an art class. Or if you want to come and help us clean, we're always looking for volunteers.

Doing a drive, doing a fun thing. We're happy to come out to your group and speak. So there's a lot of things that we can we can do.

Main Street
Finally, Jill, how do you measure your successes? In other words, how do you understand the impact that you're having? How do you look at whether you're being successful in doing the things that you really want to do?

Jill Christopher, CEO, Ronald McDonald Charities
You know, I think there's that opportunity to show your success. You know, we of course, we survey the guests and we we take care of that. And I take that very seriously.

But for me, it's that moment you get to watch and it sounds silly, but when you watch a family go home and they're having that moment that some of us, you know, when my children were born, I got to take them home right away. And we have a lot of families that that's not their story. And so watching them getting to take that step home while nerve wracking, it's exciting.

It's, you know, it's happy for most of our families on the day they get to go home. And so when you get to see that, I think too, the the follow ups, you know, the the Christmas cards that come or the the drop ins of families that have been here before that just want to stop in and say hi. I think that's when you really know you've made a difference.

I just think those are those are really special moments to be a part of.

Main Street
Jill Christopher, she's the chief executive officer at the Ronald McDonald's House Charities of the Red River Valley here in Fargo. Jill, thanks for what you do.

Jill Christopher, CEO, Ronald McDonald Charities
Oh, well, thank you. Thanks for having me on. It was really fun.