Helping environment makes for happy employees at Ronald McDonald House

“You see a lot of strength out of the families,” says one manager. “They motivate us to do our jobs as best as we can.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gary Zielinski, left, is helped by Jason Luu after donating over 300 puzzles to the Ronald McDonald House on Oct. 19, 2021. The Ronald McDonald House has been selected as a Top Workplace in Utah.

A group of employees standing inside the colorful lobby of Salt Lake City’s Ronald McDonald House excitedly told 18-year-old Britton Bolgen to close his eyes.

About once a month, the Ronald McDonald House, a charity that provides support and short-term housing accommodations to families with children receiving medical care at a nearby hospital, does something special for one of its guests.

This month Bolgen, who is staying at the facility while he undergoes radiation treatment to fight his brain cancer, was on the receiving end of a once-in-a-lifetime gift.

With Bolgen’s eyes sealed shut, Jason Luu, the hospitality manager, brought out a transparent box with a pristine pair of Jordan basketball sneakers with Utah Jazz player Mike Conley’s autograph squiggled on them.

“No way!” Bolgen exclaimed immediately after realizing what was placed in his hands.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ronald McDonald House hospitality officer Jason Luu, left, presents Britton Bolgen, 18, with a pair of Jazz basketball player Mike Conley's shoes, trading card and tickets for his entire family to a Jazz game through the Ronald McDonald House's Grandparents Fund on Oct. 19, 2021. Bolgen, who lives in American Falls, Idaho, is receiving cancer treatment at the Huntsman Cancer Center. The Ronald McDonald House has been selected as a Top Workplace in Utah.

Even through pandemic-prompted masks, pure giddiness was written all over his face.

“I can’t believe it,” Bolgen said, unable to remove his eyes from the box. “I’m still in awe.”

Along with the signed sneakers, Bolgen was handed prime tickets to a Jazz game.

“I really like basketball. I played all my life. My favorite thing to do is play basketball,” Bolgen said. “So this is awesome.”

The overwhelming joy the teen experienced, especially in the wake of immense hardship, is one of the reasons why Luu enjoys showing up to work 40 hours a week. As hospitality manager, Luu is in charge of organizing events, such as birthday parties and music therapy sessions that lead to unforgettable stays at the Ronald McDonald House.

“You see a lot of strength out of the families. They motivate us to do our jobs as best as we can,” he said. “I want to stay here for as long as I possibly can.”

Luu is hardly alone in loving his job. For the third year in a row, the nonprofit Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Intermountain Area has been named a Top Workplace in Utah, this year earning the No. 1 spot among small companies.

There’s no other place Angela Moon, the Ronald McDonald House’s chief people and culture officer for the Intermountain West, would rather be employed. Moon has worked with the organization for the past nine years and climbed her way up the managerial ladder.

“The culture,” Moon said, “is about supporting and strengthening each member of the team.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) "Our mission is to keep families close," said Angela Moon, chief people and culture officer at the Ronald McDonald House. Oct. 19, 2021.

Moon works closely with the charity’s 40 or so Utah employees to gather their perspectives — all the goal of fulfilling the organization’s mission: Uplift families through support programs that directly improve the well-being of families and children.

“We have a really diverse team, which we talk about as our superpower because we serve families from all over the world, with different races, religions, socioeconomic status and life experiences,” Moon said. “Our team is strong and can really capitalize on our different strengths and talents and ways of looking at the world, allowing us to be the very best for these guest families.”

Navigating COVID-19

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) "Our job is to ease daily burdens," said Ronald McDonald House chief program officer Toni Takeno. Oct. 19, 2021.

In 2019, the Ronald McDonald House served around 15,000 families across the Intermountain West its residential locations and hospital family rooms, including the house on South Temple in Salt Lake City and two family rooms inside Primary Children’s Hospital.

For families staying inside the physical house, Toni Takeno, the chief programs officer, says employees provide a mix of “practical support, like the lodging and the food and transportation,” and “comfort support, like distracting, joyful activities for families to do after their appointments during the day,” such as sugar cookie decorating.

The hospital-based rooms operate differently. They act as “a small house within the hospital for families to get away from their patient’s room,” Takeno explained, so they can take a shower, watch TV, make a phone call or get a meal.

The communal environment that brought families together through home-cooked meals, crafting activities and holiday parties came to a halt when COVID-19 struck Utah.

Staffers had to rethink their routines, because if the virus sneaked into the building, it could mean life or death for the sick or injured children seeking medical care.

When faced with the threat of COVID-19, Ronald McDonald House employees leaned on one another to brainstorm innovative workarounds to still meet their mission.

“We value the conversation and communication and collaboration to be able to come together to come up with these unique solutions,” explained Moon, referring to safety protocols in place and transforming the gift shop into a free snack room for guests as examples. “Everybody feels like they’re part of the solution and that their ideas and perspectives matter, and it’s made us stronger as a whole.”

Chloe Sneary, a guest services coordinator, is one of the first people guests see when they walk into the building. Sneary has watched the organization adapt to COVID-19 and believes management does well at taking a team member’s idea and turning it into action.

For example, since the pandemic shuttered the community kitchen, guests haven’t been able to cook and mingle.

“We were just talking with our hospitality manager and we’re thinking, how can we get our meal groups back?” Sneary said. Team members noticed the two cottages located in the Ronald McDonald House park were untouched.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Alejandro and Anna Balcazar, head chef at the Ronald McDonald House, and her staff serve over 200 people Monday through Friday. Oct. 19, 2021.

“So we decided to get some new kitchen stuff and then we’ll have groups of five go into the cottages and cook their meals there,” said Sneary. “That was a really cool idea that we’re going to get going.”

Guest care wasn’t the only concern when COVID-19 arrived. Employees were siloed, and team interactions became scarce.

“We had the incredible fortune of keeping everybody employed, keeping everybody paid,” Takeno said. “Everybody was checked in on, and we still tried to keep the team together.”

Despite the lack of team gatherings, staffers did their best to look out for one another through video chats, socially distanced meetings outside in the facility’s newly built park and food drop-offs for those living alone.

Managers urged team members to prioritize self-care, move their bodies, and ask for help.

“We’ve had a lot of open conversations with the team about emotional health and mental health,” Takeno said. “We talk about it a lot so that the team doesn’t just feel like they’re secure in their positions but that they also can openly say if they would like some more resources.”

Looking forward

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) In June 2020, the Ronald McDonald House completed the park adjacent to the facility in Salt Lake City. Oct. 19, 2021.

Regardless of the challenges COVID-19 presented, the organization is growing. Another family room is already in the works at Primary Children’s Hospital. Within the next year, the nonprofit hopes to open one at the University of Utah Hospital. And once a new children’s hospital is built in Lehi, a family room will be up and running there.

The Ronald McDonald House is also building three more rooms, creating a total of 75 suites, in its main Salt Lake City building, which is projected to accommodate 150 to 200 additional families annually.

Even as the organization grows, employee turnover is rarely a concern. Staffers tend to stick.

Jamie Pecor started as a volunteer before securing a full-time gig as a guest services team member. In July, she was promoted to the front desk manager.

“They’re [management] really good here about looking at where you would like to go and making sure that there’s always room for growth,” said Pecor, “because they want to keep people here.

“It’s been three years since I started working here,” she added, “and I have loved every minute.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Ronald McDonald House has been selected as a Top Workplace in Utah. Oct. 19, 2021.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Ronald McDonald House helps some 250 families every year who are receiving medical care at Salt Lake City hospitals. Oct. 19, 2021.