Babe, age 9, and Eagle’s Quarterback, Roman Gabriel on opening day of the first Ronald McDonald House
Ronald McDonald House
Babe Canuso was the catalyst for world’s first Ronald McDonald House. Renovated and transformed by the Canuso Foundation and Canuso Builders in 1974, the Philadelphia home became a symbol of hope and a safe haven for families with hospitalized children. Since then, the Foundation has been involved with the renovation or building of three additional Ronald McDonald houses in the Philadelphia region.
This is Babe’s story; this is how it all began…
Babe & RMH: The Start of Something Big.
When nine-year-old Babe Canuso was diagnosed with leukemia in 1974, few children survived the disease, and even fewer had families that were poised to tackle that problem head-on.
As a successful South Jersey homebuilder and father of six, John Canuso knew that his life had changed forever the day Babe was diagnosed, yet he did not know what impact Babe would have on the lives of other cancer- stricken families.
As he rushed to Children’s Hospital the day he learned of Babe’s disease, all he thought about, all he cared about was her life. But as he learned about this other world, the world of childhood cancer, he was compelled to get involved, to take his God-given talent and passion and to do something, anything, not just for Babe, but for all the kids with this dreaded disease.
Recognizing a Need
The Canusos shuttled their five other children back and forth from the hospital to their South Jersey home, with one or the other parent always staying in the hospital with Babe as her treatment progressed. They spent the nights in the hospital with Babe along with other families that were in the same predicament, a child diagnosed with leukemia. Families came to Children’s Hospital from faraway towns and were force to sleep on cots in the hallways.
Surprised by the lack of accommodations and support for parents whose children were facing the fight of their lives, Canuso did what he usually does when he sees a problem. He tried to get involved by offering “What can I do, how can I help?”
But the doctors deferred, telling Canuso that there was no hurry in helping. Their advice: Keep your family together and support each other through this tough time right now. Canuso understood. He and his wife comforted their children, explaining to them that Babe was very sick and that she would lose her hair and that she would be gaining weight and that she would need to get special attention from Mommy and Daddy for a while. The young Canusos understood.
On the first night of Babe’s return home, her father knelt by her bed as she slept, and offered a devout and silent prayer. “Dear God, If you would save my daughter, I would be committed to whatever you would want me to do. Just show me the way.”
The House That Babe Built
Within a month, Dr. Audrey Evans, head of Oncology at Children’s Hospital, Dr. Mickey Donaldson, Babe’s doctor, and Jimmy Murray, general manager of the Philadelphia Eagles, reached out to Canuso — the father who happened to be a homebuilder—and discussed the need for a house — a place that would be home away from home for families of children with cancer, a safe respite where they could find support and comfort.
Eagles player Fred Hill’s daughter, Kimmy Hill, also had leukemia, and Jimmy Murray wanted to offer the team’s support in any way possible. So, he asked Philadelphia area McDonald’s franchisees to donate proceeds from its new St. Patrick’s Day promotion, which featured green milkshakes called Shamrock Shakes, to Children’s Hospital.
With the $34,000 raised and donated by Philadelphia area McDonald’s restaurants, Children’s Oncology Services of Children’s Hospital bought a ramshackle fraternity house on the University of Pennsylvania campus at 4032 Spruce St.
Just blocks from the hospital’s soon-to-be new location at 34th & Civic Center Boulevard, the frat house was in a convenient location, but it had major issues. Inside, it was dilapidated, bug infested and needed to be totally gutted. Canuso said he would take care of it all.
As father of six children, John Canuso knew how important a house was to a family. He understood the intricacies of a home, how rooms should flow, how shelter could transcend utility and promote a sense of calm reassurance, even in the worst of circumstances.
He eagerly got to work.
A Labor of Love
Knowing that Babe’s disease was the catalyst for the home’s existence, the Canusos began the renovation as a labor of love. And as they watched their daughter struggle through treatments, lose her hair and fight her disease, they became even more determined and empowered to do everything possible to create a safe haven for the other families who were suffering, too.
Utilizing his connections with those in the homebuilding industry, Canuso enlisted the help of other contractors, suppliers, vendors and tradesmen to work together to transform the house into a home. Everyone pitched in, donating countless hours, materials and merchandise to create a masterpiece. Carpenters pulled double shifts. Painters worked through nights and weekends, sleeping at the house to save precious time. Joan Canuso, Babe’s mother, worked tirelessly to dress the home, decorating it to be warm and inviting for its future occupants.
The Board of Children’s Oncology Services gave Canuso full authority to do whatever he saw fit. While they took care of sick children, he took care of the house.
The project moved at warp speed as Canuso promised to complete the house in 120 days, just in time for a special dedication by Ray Kroc, McDonald’s founder, and then Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo. No one realized, at the time, that this house could jumpstart an international program that McDonald’s Corporation would ultimately support. The home at 4032 Spruce Street became the shining example for many other children’s hospitals around the world.
The Big Reveal: A House Becomes A Home
On the day before its formal dedication, Canuso, Babe, and the entire family took the doctors and Eagles GM Jimmy Murray to dinner. Afterward, Canuso drove the group to the house and stood at the curb, where he instructed his children to go in through the back of the house to turn on all the lights. Canuso wanted to showcase the home in all its glory, in the same way a model is shown to prospective buyers.
With Babe by his side, he opened the front door, stepped aside, and invited the doctors and Jimmy Murray to walk in first.
Canuso recalls, “It was the proudest moment I ever had in showing a home to anyone. I was nervous and excited and I couldn’t wait to share it with them.”
In the foyer, stood a grandfather clock. In the living room, a baby grand piano. Seven bedrooms, stylishly decorated and beautifully furnished, looked like something from a home magazine. In the kitchen, there were state-of-the-art appliances and a fully-stocked pantry that resembled a small grocery store. This was what the families of sick children needed, “a home away from home”.
“Our passion to make it a home was what made it important for people who were going to be there for each other, to cry on each other’s shoulders and to offer each other support. Looking back, it was so like God’s will to put me in that position to help at that time,” Canuso said.
The following day, the house was dedicated by Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo and McDonald’s Founder and Chairman Ray Kroc. Television and news coverage was generous, and the world’s first “Ronald McDonald House,” as dubbed by the Philadelphia area franchisees, was ready to become home-away-from-home for the families of children with cancer.
The following morning, the Ronald McDonald House opened its doors and embraced its first families.
More Room for More Families
The House at 4032 Spruce Street, the first Ronald McDonald House, served hundreds of families whose children had cancer or other serious illness. As Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia became more world-renowned for specialty care, Children’s Oncology Services recognized the need for more rooms to serve more families with sick children. In 1980, the group purchased an historic estate at 3925 Chestnut Street which had been converted to a funeral home. Canuso, with the help of architect, Joe Tarquini, restored the building to its original grandeur. With a major addition to the Mansion, the circa 1890 home, yielded 24 bedrooms, a new kitchen with communal dining area, laundry facilities, and a recreation area as well as a game and outdoor play area. The home opened in May, 1981.
Camden Ronald McDonald House
Dr. Mickey Donaldson transferred to Cooper Hospital to head up the Children’s Oncology Department. When Cooper Hospital wanted its own Ronald McDonald House, Dr. Donaldson reached out to Canuso. The hospital owned a house on Benson Street across the street form the hospital. “As a local homebuilder, I knew that my industry in South Jersey would be eager to participate in such a worthy project,” Canuso said. Members of the Builders League of South Jersey, along with Canuso, renovated the house to the same level of detail as the Philadelphia houses.
St. Christopher’s Hospital: Fulfilling a Need
In Northeast Philadelphia, children have long received world-class care from St. Christopher’s Hospital. In 2006, Jimmy Murray, the spokesperson for Ronald McDonald House nationwide, contacted John Canuso for his assistance with this much-needed project. “It was soon after Babe’s passing, and my wife and I were still significantly grieving our loss,” he said. “But we just knew we had to take the project on in Babe’s memory and in her spirit.”
Canuso worked with an architect, Tony Giorgio, and a construction management firm, P. Agnes, to handle the intricacies of building the house from the ground up to abide by city ordinances. As in all the other Ronald McDonald Houses, Joan Canuso spearheaded the interior design process, presenting concepts and taking part in the installation process. When the first families moved into the house on Babe’s birthday, January 7th, Joan said, “It’s so gratifying to be a part of something that provides comfort to families who need support during their children’s treatment.” “All parents realize that it must be hard to watch your child go through an illness, but because we lived through it with our daughter Babe, we actually understand how hard it really is,” she said. “These houses are special places. We are so proud to be a part of this legacy.”
For the Canusos, Babe’s diagnosis provoked massive action, a desire to use the collective skills of family members, associates and anyone who could lend a hand to make a difference in the lives of children with cancer.