40 From Our 40: Karen Campbell

In 1980, Karen Campbell became the first vice-president of a group that would become Ronald McDonald House Charities of Central Indiana. Since that induction, she’s been a key advocate for the organization for over four decades. Widely recognized as a pillar of the Indiana House, fewer are aware of the impact Karen has had globally. She is truly a Ronald McDonald House ambassador to the world.

Karen didn’t begin her professional life as a champion for sick children and their families. While attending Georgetown University, and after earning her master’s degree in political science in 1969, Campbell served on the staff of Indiana Senator Birch Bayh where she was part of a team that drafted the 25th and 26th amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

In 1972 Karen and her husband, Howard, settled in East Chicago, Indiana. The second woman to serve as a Civil Rights Investigator with the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare in the Chicago region, Karen commuted to Chicago. Concurrently, Howard worked as the director of East Chicago’s public housing program.

The Campbells’ first son, Kevin, was born in 1973 and was diagnosed with leukemia in 1975. Kevin’s treatments took them to Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago, 65 miles from their home. Karen slept in a chair next to Kevin’s hospital bed.

The first Ronald McDonald House (RMH) opened in Philadelphia in 1974, the second in Chicago in 1977. One day, Dr. Edward Baum, Kevin’s physician, asked if Karen would be interested in volunteering. After an enthusiastic “yes!”, her first job was to get beds for the new RMH. She telephoned the president of Serta Mattress Company and asked for 18 beds. When he replied, “I suppose you want me to donate frames and headboards too?” Karen realized she could accomplish many things by simply asking for what she needed. “We were off and running!”

In 1978, the Campbells moved to Indianapolis when Howard became area manager of all federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) programs in Indiana. Kevin’s cancer treatments continued at Riley Hospital for Children (now operating as Riley Children’s Health) and Karen saw again parents sleeping in chairs by their children’s beds, for there were no other options.

Interest in building an Indiana Ronald McDonald House grew in the Fall of 1978 when a group of McDonald’s owner/operators from the Indiana area attended a presentation by the individuals involved in creating the Chicago House. Several pediatric doctors from Riley Hospital visited the Chicago RMH and, in the spring of 1979, another meeting was held with supporters in Indianapolis. During this meeting, Riley Hospital, then owned by Indiana University, was represented by the Dean of the IU School of Medicine, Dr. Steven Beering. Dr. Beering was clearly supportive.

The Ronald McDonald House of Indiana opened in October of 1982 and within three months, the 25 bedrooms were consistently full. A long waiting list showed the need was overwhelming, so planning for an expansion was begun. In 1989, 21 rooms and six apartments were added to the original House.

Cities across the U.S. and throughout the world began contacting McDonald’s corporate offices looking for information. Community leaders were connected to executives from McDonald’s marketing and communications office who would join RMH founders and present to groups of local hospital representatives and McDonald’s owner/operators.

When Coral Gables, FL contacted McDonald’s Karen was asked to join the presentation. Though she had played a role in founding the Chicago and Indiana Houses, Karen knew the executives were skeptical about her ability to deliver and she was nervous.

During the presentations, a film promotional film closed with a scene of a young boy flying a toy airplane with his younger brother in tow. The boys were the Campbell’s sons, Kevin and Scott. After the film, Karen began, “My name is Karen Campbell and you just met my motivation, my son Kevin, who has leukemia.” The impact she brought to the conversation was palpable and Karen soon began speaking to communities in Florida, Maine, and New York; in cities like Denver, Montreal, Toronto, and Quebec and on college campuses such as Stanford, Texas Tech, and Texas A&M.

Karen shared her passion for respite and healing for families with sick children across the world. She helped galvanize communities that were considering a Ronald McDonald House and was a key contact with many chapters while they were building. She drafted white papers on fundraising, volunteer management, and facility development that could be left after presentations so, “people would have something tangible to hold onto.”

Karen remembers a tough negotiation with a McDonald’s owner/operator in New York who demanded that Long Island Jewish Hospital (LIJH) give land to the House on which to build. Karen noted that a standard ground lease would suffice as it had in Indianapolis. Letting nothing stand in the way of getting Ronald McDonald Houses built for families, she collected a portfolio of leases and made them available to LIJH lawyers. The 100th RMH opened on Long Island in 1986.

In Buenos Aires, Argentina, she helped a chapter choose between two potential partners. One hospital was in desperate shape. Feral cats surrounded the building. Doctors made their rounds with unsheathed hypodermic needles. Karen advised against a partnership with that facility, recommending another smaller but safer infirmary. In so doing, she chose to make the world much better for 50 families rather than try to take care of 100 families poorly.

In the late 1980s, Bridget Coffing, head of PR for McDonald’s worldwide, whose responsibilities included oversight of the burgeoning RMH movement, asked Karen to join her trip to Houses in Paris, Munich, Vienna and London. In Germany they met Karin Zeiter, head of Ronald McDonald House Charities, Germany. When they asked if Zeiter had any hope East and West Germany would reunify, she said, “sadly, no.” Later at a RMH International Conference in Chicago, Zeiter shared, “The (Berlin) Wall has fallen. We opened a House where we thought was a dream that could never come true, in Aachen.”

In Austria, Coffing and Campbell attended a reception with the local RMH parents’ group. One mother asked, “Do you ever forget your child’s illness?” Karen replied, “I promise you; it won’t always be the first thing you think about every morning.” Diverse countries and language barriers never mattered because every parent shared a common experience, each had a sick child.

Karen helped host visitors from England, Sweden, Holland, and Japan. She remembers Freda, a Dutch mother, who shared that when she learned her daughter was ill, she asked a neighbor to pick up groceries for her family and another neighbor to pick up her other child. Freda declared, “We must ask our country to be our neighbor.”

Karen Campbell spent 21 years on the International RMH Advisory Board. “The Houses gave me a chance to pay back the greatest gift ever given to me, my son’s life.” For about a year, the Indianapolis House was the largest in the world. Today there are over 365 Ronald McDonald Houses in 39 countries.

By Karin Ogden

Heart & Hearth Winter 2022