By Emma Lynch
After her grandson was diagnosed with autism, Liz Atkinson learned the difficulties a family faces when they have a special needs child. Atkinson immediately quit her job to help her family, and when she finally decided to go back to work with the state, Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC) swooped in and stole her for itself.
The executive director at the time told Atkinson’s sister-in-law, Beth Atkinson, she was in need of someone who could “cook, clean and gush at guests.” Atkinson said she knew the perfect candidate.
Ten years later, Liz Atkinson is the director of operations at RMHC of Columbia and loving every moment of it. Atkinson greeted me with a warm hug at the entrance of the house, along with the therapy dog, Alphie. We walked through the new house into her office. Atkinson waited for me to begin with her hands together on her desk. After the first question, her face lit up. It was impossible for her to hide her smile while she talked about RMHC.
The Columbia chapter of RMHC was able to expand into a new house in August 2016. It is just across the street from the old house and holds double the amount of families. When asked how the new house has been, Atkinson says, smiling from cheek to cheek that the new house is: “Amazing.”
“Right now, we have 16 bedrooms as opposed to eight in the little house. There used to be a waiting list, and the hardest thing I had to do every day was to tell a crying mom I don’t have a room,” said Atkinson.
Expansion in the new house is not complete. The third floor in the RMHC house must still be finished. The flood in the fall of the transition from the old house to the new house caused damages that temporarily stopped the development of the third floor. “Hopefully, if I keep my numbers up, they’ll know I’m ready for it, and they’ll do it. After the third floor is complete there will be 22 total bedrooms for families,” said Atkinson.
After moving into the new RMHC house, Atkinson came up with the idea to adopt a therapy dog for residents to enjoy. “When Liz puts her mind to something, there is really no way you can tell her no. She is stubborn like that,” said Karen Marinelli, executive director of RMHC of Columbia. A couple months later, Atkinson’s request was approved, and Alphie was welcomed.
Atkinson talks about the families that come through the house as “my family.” Without a blink. “We meet them. We talk. We hug. We cry together, laugh together. We celebrate the small steps like when babies get to be with their moms for the first time or when you have a child that has been in a car accident, and they wake up,” said Atkinson.
There is one particular patient who holds a special place in Atkinson’s heart. Naomi was an adopted child and drowned in a pool when she was three years old. She was pronounced dead on arrival (DOA), twice. The family did not give up on Naomi, and she survived through it all. Today, she can walk and is attending school. The way Atkinson told this story was enchanting. She did not spare a detail, and her face was illuminated the whole time. She called Naomi “our little miracle.”
Margaret Deans Fawcett, the marketing manager at RMHC, said, “Liz has a true heart for Ronald McDonald. She gets to know each family by name and story. They are not just a name to Liz. She makes sure to follow up with all of them.”
When Atkinson interacts with the families, her compassion and care for them was obvious. Atkinson has a special connection with the children who come to the house. Her energy is that of a child, and the children respond very well to her. They all want to play and spend time with Miss Liz. She has created a big toy closet located in the lobby of the house and allows every child to choose a toy after his or her stay.
Mitch Atkinson, Atkinson’s husband, said, “Liz gives everything to her Ronald McDonald. She does it because she loves being able to help these families and wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Working for a nonprofit organization is no walk in the park. “I am on call 24/7,” Atkinson said, “There are only three of us here on paid staff. The volunteers and interns are everything for us.”
Volunteer Hannah Haskin, said, “Anyone immediately feels welcome at the house with a greeting from Liz. I always love going to the house to see Alphie and Liz and help out in any way I can.”
Another difficult part of working in a nonprofit, RMHC in particular, is the heartbreak that comes with working with families who have sick children. Not every story has a happy ending. Atkinson, unnaturally sullen, said, “The hardest part of working here is when we lose a family. When we lose a patient. I have been to more funerals since I came to work here than I thought I ever would because these families become my family.”
Atkinson has a variety of daily tasks at RMHC. One day could involve cleaning bathrooms and the next could involve a board meeting. The job requires patience, a sharp mind and the will to do whatever must be done. Atkinson completes all her tasks with a positive attitude and a smile. “Liz is a big ball of energy. It would be quiet and not nearly as exciting here without her. The most important thing she has taught me is how to care for the families here,” said Fawcett.
Atkinson’s goals for this year are to start fundraising for the third floor and to take over the waiting room in the neonatal intensive care unit. She hopes to turn this waiting room into another RMHC family room because there are many families that stay at the house with children in the neonatal unit.
Atkinson said, “I can’t imagine working anywhere else. You meet so many amazing people here that you wouldn’t meet sitting behind a desk crunching numbers. It is not a glamorous job, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Lynch is a public relations senior