The Ronald McDonald House in Lawrenceville, Pa., provides comfortable, low-cost lodging to families with children receiving treatment at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. Families are often stressed from dealing with a child’s serious illness, tired from long days spent at the hospital—and weary of eating hospital cafeteria food.
Five times a year, these families receive a welcome and heartwarming surprise in the form of a multi-course buffet dinner prepared and served by two local families, the Halls and Flanagans, and other community volunteers.
Lori Hall and Molly Flanagan, who are cousins, began hosting these events at the Ronald McDonald House in 2010 when they founded Lydia’s Love Project, a nonprofit named in honor of Lydia McKenzie—the daughter of a friend of Flanagan—who died at age 3 of cancer that year.
“I had experienced the pain and stress of having a child going through long hospital stays with my first son, who had to have two heart surgeries when he was very young,” says Hall. “When Lydia got sick, Molly and I saw the ordeal her family went through over eight months when they had to travel long distances to be with their daughter. We tried to help ease their struggle by taking home-cooked meals to the hospital and helping in other ways. That’s how Lydia’s Love Project was born.”
Hall and Flanagan want each dinner to be special—to provide some real relief and even fun to patients’ families—so they go all out when they organize an event. The two recruit as many as 20 families from the community to help with each dinner by providing food, cooking, and serving.
“We don’t want this to be like another cafeteria experience for them, so we usually have around 10 main dishes, five or more kinds of salad, a variety of side dishes, and at least 10 desserts,” says Hall. “It’s a big feast. We usually feed between 50 and 70 people, and there’s something for everyone. It makes it very homey.”
Then comes the after-dinner dance for children. That’s when the event turns into a true Hall and Flanagan family affair. Hall has four children: James, 14, Camryn, 10, and twins Andrew and Aidan, 7. Flanagan has a daughter Reagan, 5, and a son Jackson, 2.
“All of our kids come to the events,” says Hall. “The ones who are too young to help with the dinner take part in the kids’ dance. Each dance is as carefully planned as the dinners. We have seasonal themes, so the play area might be decorated for Halloween, or like a beach party, depending on the time of year.”
The Hall and Flanagan kids help keep the dances lively, and afterwards they sit and get to know the visiting children.
“Our kids love doing it,” says Hall. “And I think it helps teach them to put others first, which is something I hope they carry through their whole lives.”
In 2012, Lydia’s Love Project was one of four grand-prize winners in the Disney Friends For Change contest. Hall and Flanagan donated their $5,000 prize to the Ronald McDonald House.
“The Ronald McDonald House is just great,” says Hall. “They’re performing an important service, but they’re also wonderful people. We are friends with the whole staff. Last January, they threw a dinner for all of us who have volunteered. It’s a great feeling to be doing something for the families there. We feel blessed to be able to help.”