CINCINNATI — Eyes big and full of Christmas wonder, Major Patterson couldn’t have been more excited.

What You Need To Know

  • The Pattersons are one more than 100 families staying at Cincinnati's Ronald McDonald House this Christmas

  • 'The House' gives families of critically ill kids a place to stay and support services

  • Ericka Patterson said it was great to see her son Major so excited about Christmas given all his physical battles

  • Ronald McDonald House relies on donations and hundreds of volunteers year-round to help take care of guests

​The 5-year-old, his mom, Ericka, and older brother Mario, took part in an evening of seasonal festivities earlier this week at Cincinnati’s Ronald McDonald House in Avondale.

Ericka Patterson holds her son, Major, as he greets Santa Claus at Cincinnati's Ronald McDonald House (Spectrum News/Casey Weldon)
Ericka Patterson holds her son, Major, as he greets Santa Claus at Cincinnati's Ronald McDonald House (Spectrum News/Casey Weldon)

The Pattersons are one of more than 100 out-of-town families staying there over the holidays. Each has a critically ill child in their family who’s receiving treatment at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center next door.

Guests constructed elaborate gingerbread houses and devoured colorful Christmas cookies. Santa’s helpers labeled plush elf dolls with the name of the sick child, destined to make it a cherished bedtime companion. String musicians performed holiday classics like “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”

There were even a couple of reindeer. They aren’t the famous ones from folklore and kids’ cartoons, but Noel and Sugar were a hit with the dozens of children of all ages in attendance.

Even under his tiny mask, covered in Disney characters, you could tell Major was smiling from ear-to -ear. He was one of the dozens of kids to shout with joy when the big man arrived – Santa Claus.

“Santa Claus! Santa!” shouted a gleeful Major, who is in Cincinnati from Jacksonville, Fla., for cancer treatment.

He fidgeted in his tiny wheelchair and outstretched his arms toward the Plexiglas wall separating him and other kids from Santa as a safety precaution. The glass was sanitized after each child and guest to ensure they wouldn’t catch germs when pressing their hands, and sometimes their faces, against it.

For Ericka, it was great to see Major – and Mario, too – experience a little bit of normalcy for the holidays. For a couple hours, it was just another Christmas.

“As a mother, you just want your children to be healthy and happy,” she said. “That’s all you ever want.”

Facing brain cancer, boy’s family seeks hope

Major is a typical young boy. He just happens to be very sick.

Ericka described him as a sweet, happy child with too much energy. He has a great smile and an infectious laugh.

Reading is one of his favorite things. He couldn’t pick a favorite book because he loves them all, she added. He also loves playing games with his big brother, although Mario sometimes feels like the younger sibling as Major “always tries to tell (him) what to do.” 

(Left to right): Mario, Major and Ericka Patterson pose for a family photo in front of a Christmas tree. (Provided)
(Left to right): Mario, Major and Ericka Patterson pose for a family photo in front of a Christmas tree. (Provided)

Mario doesn’t seem to mind though, especially not this year.

“Being with him, it means everything,” Mario said. During the school year, Mario stays with his aunt in Louisville, Ky. He’s at the Ronald McDonald House with his mom and kid brother for the holiday break.

Major is battling ependymoma, an aggressive brain tumor that attacks the central nervous system. In his few short years of life, he has already defeated the disease twice before – in 2017 and 2019 – enduring numerous life-saving treatments and surgeries in the process.

Tragically, Major’s disease has come back again, this time “far more aggressive” than in the past. It spread to not only the back end of his brain, which controls his motor functions, but to his spinal cord as well.

The combination of the cancer and the treatments has left Major unable to walk on his own.

Major’s medical team in Jacksonville told Ericka there was nothing more they could do for her son. That’s what led them to Cincinnati Children’s. The medical center helped set up the arrangements with the Ronald McDonald House.

This will be Major and Ericka’s third Christmas spent in the hospital in the past five years. They’re trying to see the bright side, though.

“We decided to start a tradition that every year for Christmas, we're going to go somewhere different,” she said. “Over the last couple of years, we've been able to travel. Being here in a way continues that tradition.”

Major and Mario got to see and experience snow for the first time a few weeks ago.

‘They’ve got enough to worry about’

Ericka is impressed by the Ronald McDonald House – from the living situation and the amenities to the kindness of its staff and volunteers.

“All things considered, we couldn’t ask for more,” she said. “We’re really appreciative.”

“The House,” as it's sometimes called, more than doubled its capacity last year as the result of a major expansion. The building where all the holiday events took place didn’t even exist two years ago. The project focused on enhancing the quality-of-life of guests.

Now, it can accommodate 177 families each night, making it the largest of the 376 Ronald McDonald Houses across the world.

An indoor play area at 'The House' in Cincinnati.

They've hosted people from not just every state, but numerous countries as well.

Families are not asked to pay to live at the House, although donations are welcome. It costs approximately $140 per night to house a family, which includes all meals, activities, laundry, lodging and more.

There’s a library, salon, fitness center, gathering spaces, a game room, an arts and crafts and an outdoor playground. The younger guests love the indoor playground and parents love the rooftop terrace as a place to unplug and get their bearings.

The facility is designed to meet the needs of the entire family, not just the patient. Kristen Klein said that is vital, especially for the siblings.

“Those kids have to burn energy, they have to play, they have to get to know other kids, they have to play with their siblings when they're feeling well,” said Klein, chief marketing officer for Ronald McDonald House of Greater Cincinnati.

In 2020, they provided 13,771 nights for 622 families. They came from 38 states and four countries. Those families saved more than $3.1 million in lodging and meal costs, per estimates from Ronald McDonald House Charities.

Barb Tofani, a Ronald McDonald House board member, said the nonprofit strives to offer the comforts of home to the families.

The House employs a team of chefs who prepare meals every day, and a separate kitchen provides the space and materials for families to make meals together on their own schedule, if they prefer.

“The families traveling here for care are stressed and exhausted, so to have a place to stay right next door to where their child is being treated is a relief,” said Tofani, who is senior vice president of Patient Services at Cincinnati Children’s. “But especially during the holidays, having a place to stay that feels like a home is everything.”

By easing the financial and emotional burdens of caregivers and taking care of practical needs, the House allows parents to focus entirely on caring for their children.

A play library inside Cincinnati's Ronald McDonald House.

“They’ve got enough to worry about,” Klein said.

Klein pointed out a little girl playing in one of the 24-hour play rooms. She couldn’t have been more than 2 years old. Half of her head is shaved and she has a nasogastric tube, a thin line that carries food and medicine to her stomach through the nose.

It was obvious to anyone who looked at her that she was sick. “But at that moment, she was just a kid playing and having fun,” Klein said.

The average length of a stay is 48 nights. But visits can range from a few days to weeks or months at a time. In other instances, families will need to stay for years. Klein said after about two years, their doctors will start having discussions with a family about possibly relocating to the area.

The situation isn’t always easy for the staff. They understand not every family’s story will have a happy ending. Sometimes when a family is going home, it’s because there is nothing else the doctors can do.

“Being able to support families in those moments are some of the hardest, but that is our most important job as a staff,” Klein said. “Whatever the family is going through, we are prepared to handle it and support them in whatever they need.”

The level of support has meant a lot to Ericka and the boys in the nearly two months they’ve been in Cincinnati.

“It's really nice just knowing that there's others that you can maybe talk to or be around who are experiencing the same type of things and can relate to you,” Ericka said. “I’ve actually found it to be really powerful.”

Volunteers play a key role

The Ronald McDonald House staff gets the same question over and over again this time of year: “How will Santa know where we are?”

The kids often get nervous, Klein said. After all, they’re sometimes hundreds of miles from their home.

To offer a little extra assurance, the staff sets up a mailbox in the main lobby for all the letters addressed to a certain workshop at the North Pole.

A child greets a reindeer at Cincinnati's Ronald McDonald House during a Christmas celebration. (Spectrum News/Casey Weldon)
A child greets a reindeer at Cincinnati's Ronald McDonald House during a Christmas celebration. (Spectrum News/Casey Weldon)

Klein joked that they sometimes “intercept” those letters before they go to Santa. If they see something that a child wants, they’ll try to purchase it, or get someone to donate it.

For example, Major is a big fan of dinosaurs. He asked Santa for a few dino toys, including an indoraptor, a hybrid dinosaur breed engineered by scientists in the “Jurassic World” movies.

Klein called that granting Christmas wishes one of the little things the facility does to make a difficult situation slightly less stressful.

“We want these kids to have a celebration as similar as possible to what they’re used to having,” she explained. “They're going through so much, but they still want that.”

Like other nonprofits, Ronald McDonald House relies a lot on volunteers and donations. They keep a “Wish List” of both everyday staples and bigger items they need.

“Toys are big for us year-round,” Klein said. “We give a kid a gift from the toy closet that they can take home and keep when they first arrive. It’s a reminder to them that this isn’t the hospital; this is a place where they can have fun and just be a kid.”

Some of the more extravagant gifts, like video game systems, are used in common areas for all the kids — and maybe some of the adults — to enjoy.

Volunteers are essential to the success of Ronald McDonald House.

On Christmas and Christmas Eve, two Jewish organizations will provide meals. Congregants from Temple Shalom will serve brunch on Christmas Eve. Then on Christmas Day, members of the Women of Rockdale organization from Rockdale Temple will prepare a holiday feast.

“I know they see a lot of people come and go, but most know our names and always stop to say hello and ask how you’re doing,” Ericka said. “Sometimes, that’s all it takes.”