It’s night-time in Baltimore, Maryland, a city with its fair share of troubles—high poverty rate, high unemployment rate, high crime rate . . .
But if you scan the city skyline, what you see there might help you forget your troubles a while, or at least breathe a little easier.
See that gigantic neon-red heart? It keeps watch over the city all night long (and, less conspicuously, all day too). It’s a constant reminder that, whatever our worries and problems, we aren’t alone. We’re cared about. And we, too, have the capacity to care.
Zoom in on that heart. It’s perched atop Baltimore’s Ronald McDonald House. RMH is a “home away from home” for families with critically ill or injured children who are being treated at one of six world-class partner hospitals in the city. In 2022, the families served by RMH hailed from fifty-five American states and territories, plus twenty-three other countries.
If you tour RMH, as I did while visiting Baltimore recently, you’ll likely run into Sandra Pagnotti, President and CEO for the past twelve-plus years. She’s an absolute dynamo with a heart that seems only to know how to expand.
“We want the families who come here,” Sandra explains, “to experience `The Ritz meets Disney meets Grandma’s house.’” In other words, RMH should be top-notch, like a Ritz hotel; family-focused, fun, and magical, like Disney; and, most of all, nurturing, loving, and safe, like Grandma’s.
Until 2019, RMH had operated in a much smaller building—so small that the staff was forced to turn away over a thousand families a year. So Sandra and her team rallied the community to create this beautiful, spacious new house. With a whopping sixty thousand square feet, it rises six stories above the street. It hosts fifty-five families every single night, providing free lodging, homemade meals, laundry facilities, shuttle service to and from local medical centers, and more. The families pay not a penny. All of this is made possible by the staggering generosity of donors and the vital work of 10,000 unique volunteers per year. (Yes, that’s right: 10,000!)
While planning the new RMH, Sandra and her team dreamed of putting a big red heart on its roof that would glow at night. “But the city,” she says, “told us no. The city was great to work with, overall, but on this issue we were really getting pushback.”
But what’s a little pushback when a dream is at stake?
The feisty folks at RMH went ahead and designed such a heart. As Sandra puts it, “Our thought was, `Who doesn’t need love?’ We were double dog daring everybody to not let a big red heart go up over the city of Baltimore!”
Eventually they won the city’s approval for a heart of a certain size. Even then, Sandra says, with a wry laugh, “We went just a little bit bigger! We followed the rules, but we bent them a bit! We were daring them to tell us, once the heart was up, that we had to take it down!”
Formed of steel, the heart sculpture on the roof stands 27’ feet tall and 24’ wide. At night, RMH kids at Johns Hopkins Children’s Hospital and Kennedy Krieger Institute can look down and say, “Where that big red heart is, that’s where Mommy and Daddy are sleeping.” Meanwhile, Mom and Dad, having returned to RMH after a long, taxing day, can look for their child’s hospital window through a tower viewer next to the heart.
Surprise! Since the heart’s installation, nobody has said a single word in complaint. Instead, the sculpture has quickly become a Baltimore icon, much like the famous neon Dominos Sugars sign, erected in 1951. But here’s the difference: the heart’s significance isn’t commercial. It’s all about kindness—and not only kindness for RMH families.
“When you’re in a moment of crisis,” Sandra says, “every act of kindness is magnified, and every act of indifference, too.”
That statement is true, no matter who you are or where you live or what hardship you face.
“When you’re in a moment of crisis, every act of kindness is magnified, and every act of indifference, too.”—Sandra Pagnotti
“Our neighborhood is transitional,” Sandra says. “There’s some really tough stuff going on here. We purposely chose this location to build RMH because we wanted to be an anchor of change. Part of our mission is not just what happens inside our own bricks and mortar but also what happens outside in the community. There’s a whole neighborhood full of kids right here whose health and well-being we also want to improve. When those kids walk out their front door and look up, that’s what they see—this big, glowing, red heart. It represents not only the love that’s in the building but also the love spreading out to them.”
Sometimes, my friend, we wear our heart on our sleeve.
Sometimes we wear it on our roof.
Always, we hold the world’s heart in our hands.
Thank you, Sandra—and everyone at RMH—for showing us how.