By Special Guest Writer C.J. Kirkland
When I first toured Ronald McDonald House of Memphis, Don’s name was one that kept coming up. He is the Facilities Manager for Ronald McDonald House of Memphis and has been with them for 11 years. He has a way with the kids, I was told; they gravitate towards him.
“Listen, I have four children, seven grandchildren. Kids know who they can reach out to. They know without me saying it that they can come to me,” Don responds when I ask him about what I’ve heard. One storyline in particular intrigued me and I wanted to learn more about it from him.
“So tell me about your JENGA games with Ashton.”He laughs and it’s one of those laughs that makes me laugh, even though I don’t yet know what I’m laughing at- the infectious kind. Don is full of animation as he shares the connection he and Ashton, who left the house a few weeks ago, had. It started out as just a game, he explains, but then turned serious. “I couldn’t keep letting this kid beat me at JENGA.” So they played as often as they could and Don’s confidence grew as his victories increased. Even so, he says, Ashton still walked away as the JENGA champ after one of their final games. “But it wasn’t really my fault,” he says with a smirk on his face. “I had to run an errand so I called my co-worker Ashley and asked her to finish the game for me. When I left I was winning. When I came back Ashton had won 3-2. Wait, there she is.” Serendipitously, Ashley is walking by as he’s finishing his story. He signals for her to come over, repeats what he just told me, and we laugh as she reminds Don that Ashton really was a JENGA force to be reckoned with.
“Now listen, C.J. I may be one of the biggest liars you’ll meet here.” I offer a sheepish smile that I’m sure he’s realized is the result of my perplexity.
“People ask me where I work and I say ‘I work at Ronald McDonald House.’ But that’s a lie. I don’t work here, because this isn’t work. Me being here is a gift that was given to me. It’s a ministry.” He says even if he wasn’t paid a penny he would still do all he does. “Don’t tell my wife I said that. She may get nervous because she knows I mean it.” The infectious laughter again takes over, followed by a slight pause. He shares that his son actually volunteered at Ronald McDonald House for a year and a half, often working eight hours a day. And there is a reason that father and son have such passion for the work and people of Ronald McDonald House.
Don reveals that his son Robert, now 25, was nine years old when he awoke one morning with a tumor the size of a plum lodged between his eye socket and brain.
“It just appeared overnight?” I ask.
“Yes. Literally overnight.”
It was the scariest thing he’s ever been through, Don says, yet he couldn't let his family see that fear. So he pushed his shoulders back, took control of his emotions and told them “it’s not as bad as it looks.” He silently began to pray because what he saw was bad, really bad. But his family didn’t need to know that; he would carry that burden for them. The tumor turned out to be benign though that offered very little relief to Don. “They were still cutting open my son’s head. All I could say was God, please let that surgeon keep a steady hand. Please don’t let that scalpel slip and hit anything it isn’t supposed to. God heard me.”
Robert was awarded the Rookie of the Year award for all of his volunteer efforts at Ronald McDonald House. Don and his wife accepted the award on his behalf because Robert did not attend the ceremony. He didn’t want the attention, preferring the focus be on his work rather than on him. Don feels the same way. He gives so much of himself because he understands the fragility of life and the fear in wondering if your child will live to see tomorrow. He doesn't ask for and doesn't expect anything in return for the work he does.
“But like I said, this isn’t really work,” he reminds me. We stand up, shake hands and shortly after I walk away Don is in conversation with someone else. Before I reach the end of the corridor I hear his trademark laughter echo through.
Editor's note: Since this
story was written, Ashton’s battle with cancer came to an end. He passed
away peacefully at home surrounded by his family. His mom wishes to
extend her gratitude and love for everyone at Ronald McDonald House of Memphis.