First Month

CEO Update

April 9, 2014

jessicaAt the end of last week I celebrated my first amazing month on the job. I wanted to take a moment to thank each and every one of you for so warmly welcoming me into this incredible organization and to share some highlights from my first 30 days.

There are several exciting opportunities to expand our impact for children and families that I have been thrilled to join with our Program team to explore. We are looking at developing a Family Room program for both Sacred Heart Medical Center – RiverBend in Springfield, Oregon and at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. We have reignited the planning process for a transformative remodel of our East House. And finally, our Outreach Program Committee will be having a strategic planning session later this month to consider ways to deepen the impact of our grant-making program and broaden awareness statewide.

Meanwhile, our fundraising and communications team is leading the development of an inspirational new website and organizational video, finalizing our annual Community Report and setting the stage for our 2014 Mike Rich & Friends Golf and Social on July 20-21st and our 30th Anniversary Gala on September 19th. And daily I relish the opportunity to send thank you letters and call on donors who continue to flood our organization and the families that we serve with support and encouragement.

Every day at RMHC has been truly inspirational. Earlier this week, many of us gathered to celebrate an amazing volunteer team from the Marriott during a ribbon cutting ceremony for the East House room that they adopted and remodeled. Last week I had the pleasure of spending nearly three hours learning the ropes at David Stoller’s beautiful McDonald’s in Woodland, Washington. And on Monday I got an impromptu sign language lesson from the energetic 4-year old who has moved in next door. I can now proudly sign “pink mermaid” and “sea turtle”.

I am awed every day by the passion, energy and acumen of our phenomenal community of staff, board, volunteers and donors. Thank you for the inspiring work that you do and beautiful culture that you create! I am endlessly grateful that you have welcomed me to RMHC and allowed me to join you in bringing comfort, support and skittles to the children and families that need us the most.

Jessica Jarratt Miller, CEO

Welcome!

A note from our new CEO

March 12, 2014

jessicaI am beyond thrilled to be joining Ronald McDonald House Charities® of Oregon and Southwest Washington as the Chief Executive Officer. It is an honor to be part of such an inspiring organization and to have the opportunity to provide comfort and support to thousands of families in need.

After 24 years in the non-profit sector I have come to believe that even the darkest days can be made light with the compassion, creativity and commitment of just one person. Here at RMHC, our family of staff, volunteers and supporters is thousands strong and growing – lighting up those dark days for the 50 families who make our House their home every night.

As we commemorate our 30th year in Oregon and Southwest Washington, there is so much to celebrate. Our work keeping families together is on the forefront of a family-centered care movement that has revolutionized treatment at our local partner Hospitals. Our innovative partnerships with local businesses, like McDonald’s Owner Operators and Marriott Residence Inn, engage the wider community in making a powerful impact on the families we serve. And our investments in preventative care for children have made us a statewide leader in promoting oral healthcare.

But we’ve only just begun.

Reaching local families at hospitals around the state by introducing Ronald McDonald Family Rooms; continuing to expand our capacity and in-house programs for families who must travel to support their hospitalized children; growing our impact in preventative care through our Outreach Program – these are just a few of the many exciting initiatives ahead.

Thank you for welcoming me into the RMHC family! I look forward to meeting and working with you as we harness our compassion, creativity and commitment to continue growing this innovative organization for years to come.

Jessica Jarratt Miller, CEO

Tom’s Musings

Final words

February 24, 2014

Tom Soma 2011 Portrait - Web Sized“I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”
- William Faulkner

I’ve been cleaning out my office the past few weeks. I can’t believe all the old files—hundreds of pounds that should have been shredded long ago.

Photos evoke cherished memories. Jason King, the 13-year-old cancer patient who met me at the door on my first day in February of 1999, popping a wheelie in his wheelchair. Goldie in her long gold wig; Teah in her track uniform; Princeton and Wade making a Tom sandwich; and separate shots of Thomson and Chloe, each with me, taken about eight years apart—the latter clearly evidencing my receding hairline. I just packed an angelic portrait of Chuck Carter, which has graced my desk since his passing in October, 2012. But I’ll wait another day or two before boxing the eight-by-ten glossy of Ronald McDonald and me at our 2011 golf tournament.

Two folders overflow with letters from guests (adults and children alike, some with drawings), praising the care they received. While each is uniquely elegant and specific, all echo a common theme: “We couldn’t have made it without the people here.” A single line—penned by a guest during my first year—remains the most profound, if only for its elegant brevity: “The Ronald McDonald House is a working model of grace and generosity.”

Then there are all my notes—overheard phrases, compelling quotes, and dozens of ideas for future musings scribbled on yellow and green and blue and purple and pink sticky notes. So much inspiration—so little time.

Each day, the Ronald McDonald House® brings into focus what’s truly important. These musings have been an attempt to “make sense of it all”—to sort and integrate what I’ve had the privilege to observe. In another way—eloquently captured by William Faulkner in his 1949 Nobel Prize acceptance speech—the weekly reflections have been a means of celebrating the “honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice” that can help us not only endure, but prevail.

In 2012, 24 of my favorite musings, along with nine guest portraits taken by award-winning photographer, Bob Ray, became the book, No Small Thing. In June, NewSouth Books will publish a second collection. Entitled The Secret Ingredient, it marries 31 recent musings with the photography of Bob Ray and Aaron Hewitt. In addition to generating sales revenue for RMHC, I hope the new book serves as both pillar and prop for those who carry on the Charity’s daily work.

Next Monday, Jessica Jarratt Miller assumes the helm as our new CEO. Six weeks later, I’ll set out in my RV on a year-long journey around the United States to work on another book. I invite you to participate in that adventure at www.lookingforgodinamerica.com. I’ll continue to share “sights and insights” there—and I hope you’ll reciprocate.

For now, I echo the noble assurance of Brian Andreas, the creator of StoryPeople® who I’ve quoted often in the past. “I promise you,” he declares,

“not a moment will be lost as long as I have heart and voice to speak, and we will walk again together with a thousand others and a thousand more and on and on until there is no one among us who does not know the truth: there is no future without love.”

The legacy we share and future we anticipate at RMHC are equally bright—because both are so remarkably full of love. May we continue to celebrate and extend that most precious gift.

With abiding gratitude and best wishes,

Tom Soma, Executive Director

Tom’s Musings

Turning over the reins

February 5, 2014

Tom Soma 2011 Portrait - Web SizedFor 15 years, I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of serving as RMHC’s Executive Director. As I anticipate my transition next month, I’m deeply grateful for the tremendous encouragement and support extended to me by the board, staff, volunteers, donors, and families we serve. I will forever appreciate the warm embrace and treasure the wonderful memories of our time together.

More than 25,000 families have stayed at our Houses since 1999. We’ve grown from 32 rooms to 50. We’ve added an Outreach Program that supports oral health care for an average of 10,000 children each year. And we anticipate the opening of a Ronald McDonald Family Room (an RMHC-hosted “hospitality” space within a hospital) in the near future.

As our services have increased, our financial health has also strengthened. We’ve established healthy capital and operating reserves, and our endowment now exceeds $5 million—a ten-fold increase in 15 years.

While we can be justifiably proud of our past service and success, we must prepare to assist even greater numbers of children and families in the future. A qualified board and caring staff are up to the task. And under the leadership of a new CEO, RMHC will rise to the challenge.

On March 3, I’ll turn the reins over to Jessica Jarratt Miller. Jessica has been Executive Director of the Creative Advocacy Network since 2009. Previously, she was a strategic planning and fundraising consultant for many local nonprofits, including Children’s Cancer Association, SOLVE and Crater Lake National Park Trust.

Confident of RMHC’s future, I’m enthusiastically preparing for my own! On April 21, I’ll embark on a year-long journey through the United States in my RV, during which time I’ll be working on a new book. Meanwhile, I’ll have the rest of February to bid adieu before welcoming Jessica in early March.

There’s a reflection I really like at such times. Composed by Gregory Norbet, it’s spoken as an interlude in his song, “Wherever you go.” Though I’ve quoted it before, it bears repeating.

“When the time of our particular sunset comes,” Norbet observes, “our thing, our accomplishment, won’t really matter a great deal. But the clarity and care with which we have loved others will speak with vitality of the great gift of life we have been for each other.”

The Ronald McDonald House has long been called “the House that Love Built®.” As I look back with gratitude and ahead with hope, I believe we’ve worked diligently to merit that reputation here. In so doing, I know we’ve been—and will continue to be—great gifts of life for each other.

Thank you.

Tom Soma, Executive Director

Tom’s Musings

Juxtaposition

January 21, 2014

Tom Soma 2011 Portrait - Web SizedOne of my great pleasures is calling to thank donors. Often, it’s a chance to catch up with friends. Periodically, a gift from “out of the blue” leads to a great story and new relationship. Two years ago, the most pleasant surprise was a holiday gift from a couple from New York. They had adopted a baby in Salem the prior summer—and made a contribution in honor of a nurse who had been especially kind. Last year’s surprise was Buz McDonald, who, after making anonymous gifts for years, finally made one we could identify. When I called, he shared his personal experience with cancer. We hit it off immediately—and he now serves on our Finance Committee.

During the most recent holiday season, I found the juxtaposition of two calls particularly striking. One was made by our Development Director, Kimberlee Hanken, to a past guest from Illinois. The other was made by me to a long time donor, who, for several years, has contended with her partner’s early onset Alzheimer’s.

Kimberlee was caught off guard when the woman on the line responded to her gratitude with an enthusiastic, “Oh, we had a great time at the Ronald McDonald House!” Of course, we offer many enjoyable opportunities: massage therapy, pet therapy, special meals, movie nights, game nights, museum and zoo passes, and tickets to various athletic events and other activities. Depending on their child’s condition, families may be able to take advantage of several pleasant diversions on any given day. And, as the donor added, every guest is enveloped by the warm embrace of staff, volunteers, and other families. But, while visitors generally speak of the Ronald McDonald House in glowing terms, neither Kimberlee nor I could recall another family who so freely characterized their stay as a “great time.” Any organization delivering that degree of satisfaction under such unfavorable circumstances must be doing a lot right!

My call was a bit more sobering—at least on the surface. The donor, who I met in 1999, continued to participate in most of our events until a few years ago, when her partner’s condition deteriorated significantly. Much to her delight, however, she was recently able to bring her partner home from an extended care facility. Despite the added burden—and even though her partner no longer really knows her—she welcomed the return, and laughed dismissively when I called her a living saint. “Just being able to be together again, at our home,” she insisted, “is reward enough.”

Two phone calls. Two generous donors who returned our gratitude with equal measure. One thankful for “a great time,” the other relieved to be united at home with a partner who no longer recognizes her. The former affirming, the latter humbling. Both, however, evidence the precious ground on which we’re united here daily.

Tom Soma, Executive Director

Tom’s Musings

Beyond black and white

January 6, 2014

Tom Soma 2011 Portrait - Web SizedWe recently hosted a family whose infant was born with ambiguous genitalia—a birth defect where the genitals aren’t clearly those of a boy or a girl. While the condition isn’t typically life threatening, it does create considerable anxiety—immediately for the parents and eventually for the child.

The obvious challenge is choosing the child’s gender—a decision that can’t be made lightly, and shouldn’t be made hastily. With research increasingly demonstrating that gender tendencies reveal themselves early in a child’s life (often by the age of three), parents do well to wait before proceeding with interventions intended to ensure both healthy sexual function and psychological well being. But contending with such ambiguity—even for a few years—can be an overwhelming challenge in a society where gender is essentially a black and white proposition.

As this condition evidences, there are shades of gray associated with sexual formation and manifestation that go well beyond traditional notions of “male” and “female.” My heart bleeds for the parents, the children, and the families contending with physical challenges that carry the added burden of a social stigma. One of the best things about the Ronald McDonald House is that such families are safe here. No one judges them and everyone is supportive. Sadly, that’s not always the case elsewhere.

In his book, Far from the Tree, Pulitzer Prize winning author Andrew Solomon explores the trials endured by families whose children manifest a variety of socially isolating conditions and disabilities. “These parents,” Solomon writes,

have, by and large, chosen to love their children…even though they carry what much of the world considers an intolerable burden…. To look deep into your child’s eyes and see in him both yourself and something utterly strange, and then to develop a zealous attachment to every aspect of him, is to achieve parenthood’s self-regarding, yet unselfish, abandon. It is astonishing…how frequently parents who had supposed that they couldn’t care for an exceptional child discover that they can. The parental predisposition to love prevails in the most harrowing of circumstances. There is more imagination in the world than one might think.

As Solomon points out, there is much to be learned from these parents and children—especially when it comes to the long-term benefits of compassion. The start of a new year invites us to open our eyes to new ways of seeing and our hearts to new ways of being. My wish is that the “predisposition to love” extends considerably beyond parents of exceptional children. It will truly be a happy new year when we go beyond mere acceptance to actually embrace our differences. Like Solomon, I believe there’s more of that kind of imagination in the world than any of us might think.

Tom Soma, Executive Director

Tom’s Musings

Longer than forever

December 23, 2013

Stephen and Tom

Stephen and Tom

My friend, Stephen, recently suggested that I write something about friendship before my tenure ends. With the end of this year imminent and my departure looming early in the next, I figure this is a good time to celebrate the greatest reward of my job.

It’s been very easy to work here. The RMHC mission, as Stephen frequently characterizes it, is “bulletproof.” The thought of a seriously ill child engenders sympathy in even the hardest of hearts. The fact that so many people resonate with our efforts is understandable.

What’s fascinating, however, is that, while initially drawn to the cause, my attention very quickly shifted to the people—and not simply those we were serving. Rather, I found myself increasingly inspired by the board members, staff members, volunteers and donors who were devoting their hearts (and minds and resources) to the Charity. So, early on, I found myself not so much working for a cause but rather working with an amazing group of committed others. For 15 years, that’s been a tremendous privilege.

Admittedly, I derive great satisfaction knowing that both our operations and finances have grown more stable and healthy over the years. But at a deeper level, I’m far more gratified by the wonderful relationships that have been born here.

Many of those with whom I’ve shared this journey likewise share an appreciation for the special friends they’ve made along the way. For me, there have been so many—a few now departed, most still involved—that I can’t begin to name and thank them all. But each has touched me in a profound way—leaving marks that will far outlast my stay.

I’m reminded of a passage from Winnie the Pooh.

“We’ll be friends forever, won’t we Pooh?” Piglet asked.

“Even longer,” Pooh answered.

Thank you, Stephen, for both the reminder and your friendship. And thanks to each of you with whom I expect to remain friends even longer than forever.

Best wishes for the holiday season and new year!

Tom Soma, Executive Director

Tom’s Musings

The humorous touch of a big-hearted kid

December 9, 2013

Blake and his Grandma Mary

Blake Scott and his Grandmother, Mary

Question: What do you get from a pampered cow? Answer: Spoiled milk!

Welcome to our “Kids Joke of the Day”—compliments of nine-year-old Blake Scott. For the past several months, Blake has been volunteering at the East House with his Grandma Mary. Unfortunately, due to the onset of cold and flu season (and the corresponding risk to our vulnerable guest children), volunteers under the age of 18 are subject to medical furlough from November through February.

Undaunted by the imposed sabbatical, Blake came up with an interim service project he could do from home—and an entertaining one at that!

Question: How do you make a tissue dance? Answer: Put a little boogie in it!

I have no idea where he finds the jokes. But he writes each one on a note card, packs a two-week supply in a large envelope, and sends them via Grandma Mary. We post them on a display stand he made for the front desk.

They all make me laugh. More importantly, they make our guests laugh. And you know what they say about laughter being the best medicine!

Question: What’s the difference between a guitar and a fish? Answer: You can’t tuna fish!

This is one of the most clever “work-arounds” I’ve ever seen. Instead of being deterred, Blake found a way to contribute despite the temporary ban. Now that’s perseverance.

One more thing. Blake was actually a guest here as a two-year-old. His younger sister was born with a congenital diaphragmatic hernia. Although Blake doesn’t remember his early days at the Ronald McDonald House (which included his sister’s passing), Grandma Mary insists that he feels a deep connection.

I’m sure he does. I appreciate him acting upon it. And, all joking aside, Blake’s spirit sure puts a little boogie in me!

Tom Soma, Executive Director

Tom’s Musings

Thanksgiving

November 25, 2013

Tom Soma 2011 Portrait - Web SizedI don’t think the Lord wants any pompous proclamation of thanks on one Thursday in November as much as He wants a little humble service from us every day in the year.
-  Burton Hills

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. Gratitude is my preferred emotion, food is my primary indulgence, and any excuse for pairing the two is my kind of gathering!

I don’t know anything about Burton Hills. And while I’m not inclined to speculate as to how “the Lord” might view Thanksgiving, I welcome every opportunity to offer thanks. At the same time, I also appreciate the encouragement of some humble daily service.

One thing I do know: Gratitude and service go hand-in-hand at the Ronald McDonald Houses. The service takes dozens of forms, as numerous individuals and organizations unite to create a lovingly hospitable environment. And the gratitude is expressed in hundreds of ways, by guests who deeply appreciate the kindness of both volunteers and staff. But it doesn’t end there. Those performing the service extend heartfelt thanks for the opportunity to help. And our grateful guests are equally generous in their varied means of “giving back.”

I guess you could say that the plates are full and second helpings plentiful when it comes to service and gratitude here. I’ll be celebrating that this Thursday—and throughout the year as well.

Tom Soma, Executive Director

Tom’s Musings

Thought for the day

November 11, 2013

Tom Soma 2011 Portrait - Web Sized“I have a thought for you.”

A guest extended that Halloween greeting outside the East House. Though she’d been here several weeks, we had spoken only briefly—and then at my instigation.

“What is it?” I replied.

“We see each other at our best and worst here.”

This was clearly one of the better days. With her were four children, the older three in costume. Along the brick wall behind them were 22 freshly-carved pumpkins. One bore the letters “RMHC,” and another, nearby, “HOPE.”

“And what’s the consequence of seeing each other at your best and worst?” I asked.

She paused momentarily, then answered, “Silent understanding.”

“I’ve never heard it put that way,” I confessed.

What she was alluding to—and what I’ve witnessed repeatedly over the years—is a kind of understanding for which words aren’t necessary or adequate. If I were to condense the collective emotions of hundreds of guests, I’d put it this way: You can’t know what it’s like to care for a child whose life hangs in the balance until you’ve been in that place yourself. And when you are in that unenviable position, it’s enough knowing that someone else understands the ups and downs—and can share both without words.

“One of the tasks of true friendship,” writes John O’Donohue in his lovely book, Anam Cara, “is to listen compassionately and creatively to the hidden silences. Often secrets are not revealed in words, they lie concealed in the silence between the words or in the depth of what is unsayable between two people…. The…substance of a friendship mirrors itself in the quality and shelter of the silence.”

The “hidden silences” shared by guests—strangers who become friends—is both substance and sustenance of this place.

Silent understanding. I must say, it’s quite a thought.

Tom Soma, Executive Director

Older Posts »