40 From Our 40: Brenda Duncan

Brenda Duncan and others smiling in group photo

Brenda Duncan, front, left.

In 1974, the first Ronald McDonald House opened in Philadelphia. This innovative approach to helping families of seriously ill children being treated at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia became a reality as the result of an extraordinary partnership representing the hospital, McDonald’s restaurant owners, and community volunteers.

1977 saw the opening of the second Ronald McDonald House located in Chicago. Just a year before, Brenda Duncan had become the regional marketing manager for McDonald’s Corporation, working from their Indianapolis Regional Office. Remembering those early days, Brenda says, “Throughout our history, McDonald’s philosophy has been to give back to the communities where we do business. The concept of the Ronald McDonald House truly had the potential to bring our philosophy to life in a very significant and impactful way. Understandably, news of the success of the Philadelphia and Chicago Ronald McDonald Houses spread quickly throughout the McDonald’s system.” By the end of the 1970s, more than 40 Houses would be built or were in development.

Brenda Duncan presentingDuncan recalls, “The McDonald’s family (corporate employees and restaurant owners) in central Indiana agreed we needed to found a Ronald McDonald House. Riley Children’s Hospital (now operating as Riley Children’s Health) was a world-class children’s hospital. Therefore, helping families from all over Indiana whose children were being treated at Riley was a critical need that a Ronald McDonald House, built near to the hospital, could meet.”

Brenda knew that developing a House at Riley would require forming the same partnership structure that built the first Houses, the “three-legged stool.” The legs are represented by the groups vital to the success of founding a House – McDonald’s, hospital partners, and volunteers from the community. The stars aligned when Karen Campbell, a founder of the Chicago Ronald House, relocated to Indianapolis. In 1978, Duncan, Campbell and McDonald’s restaurant owners Gerald Cassidy and Jim Props began working in earnest to cultivate interest at Riley Hospital to develop a Ronald McDonald House. They discovered a group of similarly minded individuals, that had already connected due to their experiences at Riley including Jim and Cheri Forslund and Dr. Stephen Beering, among others.

Those efforts paid off by late 1979. Duncan explains, “Dr. Stephen Beering, who at the time was Dean of the Indiana University School of Medicine and Director of the Indiana University Medical Center, let us know of his team’s interest in building a House at Riley. The potential reality of an Indiana Ronald McDonald House really kicked into high gear when Dr. Beering successfully negotiated with IUPUI to donate one of their properties close to Riley to be the location of the Indiana Ronald McDonald House.”

Duncan recalls the ambitious fundraising goal the founding board set. “Our board treasurer, Jim Props, said that we could not break ground until we raised the $1.6 million dollars ($5.6 million in today’s dollars) to build the 24-bedroom Indiana House, making it one of the largest Ronald McDonald Houses in the United States at the time. We set a goal of opening debt-free in fall 1982 and immediately embarked on a very ambitious, non-stop, two-year statewide fundraising campaign.”

Brenda Duncan smiling

Hundreds of fundraisers, both big and small, from bake sales to a telethon and McDonald’s statewide 25¢ Hamburger Day would be held over the course of those two years. Duncan reminisces, “I am still amazed whenever I think about our 25¢ Hamburger Day. We raised a grand total of $487,546 ($1,710,600 in today’s dollars), the biggest fundraiser held for a Ronald House at the time. Its phenomenal success ensured we could break ground in fall 1981.”

“Thanks to the leadership of our board, partnerships with Riley Children’s and McDonald’s, and the efforts of our tireless volunteers, we were able to open the Indiana Ronald House debt-free on Thursday, October 14, 1982,” Duncan shares. “Personally, it was a day I will never forget. It was the realization of a dream to open the Indiana Ronald McDonald House. For me, it represented a celebration of a tremendous amount of hard work, friendships formed that would last forever, and the fulfillment of knowing that, together, we had built a home away from home that would forever support families of critically ill children being treated at Riley Children’s.”

It was a powerful, memorable experience that has lasted Brenda, now happily retired, a lifetime. “In my 40 years with McDonald’s, I moved to other regional offices, and I served on other Ronald House boards. However, I must admit that I never experienced the same emotional connection that I had and continue to have with the Indiana Ronald McDonald House. I know it’s because I was a founding board member. For me, it is the most meaningful and fulfilling thing I have done in my life, and I will be forever grateful for that experience.”

By Adam Lowe

Heart & Hearth Summer 2022