A Determined Family and a Lot of Hamburgers Create a Place Where Sick Kids and Their Parents Can Stay

updated 04/12/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/12/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

Fred Hill, once a football star at USC, was a tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles in 1969. That summer, when his wife, Fran, and 3-year-old daughter, Kim, visited the Eagles' training camp in Reading, Pa., the parents noticed Kim's legs were badly bruised.

The child underwent lab tests, and when the Hills sat down with their family doctor to talk about the results, he began to weep. Kim had acute lymphocytic leukemia. "I remember him saying that she would probably live six weeks, maybe six months," says Fred.

Today Kim is a vigorous and healthy 15-year-old. But out of those desperate days for the Hills came a program to help families during the hospitalization or treatment of a seriously ill child.

It is a particularly agonizing time when parents live too far away to visit for long periods. Now, as a result of a campaign started by Fred Hill, 32 "Ronald McDonald Houses," sponsored in part by the big hamburger chain, offer accommodations to such families near major medical centers around the country. Some 350 families are currently using the houses where they can visit or stay with daughters, sons, brothers and sisters undergoing treatment (the majority are cancer victims). The houses charge at most a nominal fee of $5 to $15 a day.

Most of the patients know McDonald's supports the houses, but few have heard of Kim Hill of San Juan Capistrano, Calif. When her illness was diagnosed 12 years ago, she was taken to St. Christopher's Hospital in Philadelphia. There oncologist Dr. J. Lawrence Naiman applied a new therapy developed at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis. It involved spinal injection of drugs and irradiation of the brain. The treatment was long (three years for Kim) and painful, but it worked. The Leukemia Society of America estimates 40 percent of the children who contract acute lymphocytic leukemia today survive at least 10 years. They are then deemed free of the disease. "Kim," Dr. Naiman says, "is cured."

Fran Hill, who was at Kim's side throughout the treatment, remembers thinking how helpful some sort of lodging for parents and siblings would be. Fran had to drive only an hour to the hospital from their home in New Jersey. Some families commuted up to six hours a day to be with their children; they could not afford motel rooms.

As a result of Kim's case, Fred Hill became active in the Philadelphia Leukemia Society. One day in 1971 a local tavern owner called to say he would donate half a night's receipts if Fred would bring some of the Eagles over. Fred took eight teammates along and, unknowingly, started something.

A New Jersey furrier told Diane Skaggs, wife of Eagle guard Jim Skaggs, that he would stage a charity fashion show and donate a $2,000 coat as a door prize if Eagle wives acted as models. That event's proceeds went to battle leukemia too.

Not to be outdone, Eagle owner Leonard Tose pledged his and general manager Jim Murray's resources to the drive. Even the Eagle fans were mobilized. Since 1973 they have donated more than $200,000 to the cause through collections in the stadium.

Money was pouring in, but where should it go? Dr. Audrey Evans of Philadelphia's Children's Hospital drew up a list of needs. One jogged Fran Hill's memory: a sort of halfway house near the hospital where a family could stay while its child was being treated. Murray contacted the local headquarters of the promotion-conscious McDonald's. In exchange for naming it "Ronald McDonald House," the owners of local franchises pledged all the proceeds from a special line of milkshakes to the project. In Philadelphia the restaurants still sponsor fund-raising campaigns.

The first house, opened in 1974, was a run-down place bought for $42,000. It was renovated free by a New Jersey builder, John Canuso, whose own daughter had leukemia. Similar stories of generosity lie behind all the homes operating in the U.S., Canada and Australia; more are being planned. A fund set up by Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald's, now gives each new house a $25,000 send-off grant. Last year the first national fund-raising drive brought in more than $1.3 million. Each house has a communal kitchen, playrooms and private bedrooms for all guests.

Fran Hill gives much of the credit for the program's success to Murray, a father of five. (The Eagles organization has raised more than $2 million for various leukemia-related causes.) "Jim is an unbelievably enthusiastic Christian," she says. Murray credits Fred Hill; Hill credits a network of other people. Kim philosophically accepts her share of the applause too.

"I didn't enjoy being sick," she says. "But if I wasn't sick, all this might not have happened."

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