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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Ronald McDonald House expansion a $14.5 million investment in region’s children and families

There was one delay the expansion of Spokane’s Ronald McDonald House just couldn’t avoid: all that snow.

The $14.5 million project, which will add 34 rooms and 35,000 square feet to the nonprofit’s children’s health care campus on Fifth Avenue, stayed its course through the lack of steel on the international market driven by President Donald Trump’s steel tariffs; it survived the shortage of skilled labor in the region: and it found its way around the lack of concrete after the rising Amazon fulfillment center on the West Plains vacuumed it all up.

But it couldn’t avoid the weather.

“We were saying we were going to be open Jan. 1,” said Mike Forness, executive director of the Ronald McDonald House Charities in Spokane. “Now we just say January.”

Even with the slight delay, the project is years ahead of schedule. This time last year, Forness said, the local chapter had no idea the new building at the base of the South Hill would be under construction.

The chapter, which provides free housing to families of hospitalized children with life-threatening diseases, knew it wasn’t fulfilling the need in the area. For eight straight years, it had a waitlist of families seeking its help but didn’t plan to expand until 2022. Preliminary plans for the expansion had been drawn up, but no real design work had been done.

In May 2018, AbbVie, the pharmaceutical manufacturer behind the drug Humira, gave $100 million to Ronald McDonald House Charities to build more housing and programs. The gift put Spokane’s project on the fast track, and in August it was awarded $5.6 million of AbbVie’s gift.

About $8.5 million has been raised so far, including $250,000 from the Kalispel Tribe of Indians and other seven-figure donations from anonymous donors.

With the kick-start from funding, the project has hurried along. Motorists entering eastbound Interstate 90 from Monroe Street have seen the foundations poured and walls begin to rise.

When complete, the expansion will add 34 rooms to the current tally of 22, bringing the number of rooms to 56. The lowest two levels will be a parking garage with 72 stalls. Spokane’s Bouten Construction is the project’s general contractor. Wolfe Architectural Group, also based in Spokane, designed it.

New indoor gathering spaces will be built, as will eight additional kitchens for the families staying there.

The new facility also will include one industrial kitchen where larger meals can be prepared. The expansion will bring three new laundry rooms, two exercise rooms, two movie rooms, and indoor and outdoor spaces for kids and adults.

“The most precious thing that happens here is the families get to know each other,” Forness said. “That’s the type of thing you can’t get at a hotel.”

The charity, which has hundreds of chapters in dozens of countries, was named after the mascot clown of the fast-food restaurant chain in 1974 when the young daughter of Fred Hill, a professional football player with the Philadelphia Eagles, was being treated for leukemia at Philadelphia’s St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children. During the three years she was treated, he got to know other families in a similar situation and realized that many traveled long distances but couldn’t afford a hotel.

Hill decided to do something about it and got help from the regional McDonald’s to run a promotion, where all proceeds from the St. Patrick’s Day green milkshake went to purchasing a house near the hospital, which became the first Ronald McDonald House.

Nowadays, the corporation isn’t as entwined with the charity. Locally, the chapter receives about 7 percent of its funding from local McDonald’s franchise owners, putting them among the top five donors.

Forness said the regional Ronald McDonald House plays a key role in supporting Spokane as a medical hub serving a 176,000-square-mile area. Families living more than 40 miles away have the opportunity to stay for free, regardless of wealth. The chapter asks, just once, for a $32 donation from each family, Forness said.

The average stay at Spokane’s Ronald McDonald House is 30 days, but some families stay up to nine to 12 months. About 30 percent of the families come from the Columbia Basin, which represents the largest contingent. Nearly 20 percent come from North Idaho.

“We want them to not worry about logistics,” Forness said.

About 60 percent of the families housed are there because they have infants who were born prematurely or with complications. Another 30 percent are families with children being treated for cancer. The remaining families have kids contending with a number of issues, such as respiratory diseases or trauma.

Those are heavy burdens for any family, and it makes the Ronald McDonald House’s goal easy to articulate, Forness said.

“Just letting them focus on their child,” he said. “Just taking that all off their shoulders.”

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