Our Founding Director reflects on 40 years

June 09, 2021
Mary Pat Armstrong reminisces about the beginning of RMHC Toronto while celebrating the 40th anniversary.
Mary Pat Armstrong
As RMHC Toronto celebrates 40 years of keeping families close, our Founding Director, Mary Pat Armstrong, is feeling a great sense of pride in how the mission has grown since the first day she heard about RMHC in late 1978.
 
Mary Pat’s introduction to RMHC started with phone call from her daughter’s oncologist, Dr. Peter McClure. He asked if she wanted to be part of trying to establish a Ronald McDonald House in Toronto.
 
The first Ronald McDonald House had opened in Philadelphia just four years earlier, and leaders at McDonald’s Canada, including Founder George Cohon, now wanted to bring the concept to Canada. It would require a broad community effort.
 
“I had to take only a second to answer that question,” recalls Mary Pat.
 
Mary Pat and her husband, Bob, had recently lost their five-year-old daughter, Marion, to leukemia after a three-year battle. It had been a difficult journey and along the way the Armstrong’s had met other families from out of town, who were struggling with long commutes, sleeping in waiting rooms, and costly hotel expenses.
 
Mary Pat says helping to establish RMHC Toronto turned out to be a positive way to grieve. Helping to provide the comfort of a safe place to call home near the hospital would help families like hers in financial, practical, and emotional ways.  
 
“This was a way to turn my sad emotions into something far more positive, because I was doing something for other people,” says Mary Pat. “Since then, RMHC Toronto has exceeded my expectations. I’m so proud of all the volunteers and staff who have carried the mission forward for 40 years.”
 
Under Mary Pat’s leadership as Chair of the inaugural Board of Directors, Canada’s first Ronald McDonald House opened in Toronto in 1981. The first House was located at 365 Dundas Street West. It had 19 bedrooms available for families with a child receiving cancer treatment at SickKids.  
 
The House – now in its third location – has expanded to 81 rooms and supports families with children battling a range of life-threatening illnesses. The Chapter also operates seven Family Rooms in five hospitals across the GTA and in Sudbury to give parents rest and respite just steps from their child’s bedside.
 
“Seeing a child with cancer who has lost their hair always brings back memories of Marion and the need for a safe place like RMHC Toronto to shelter families during their time of stress. Sadly, the need for RMHC will never go away. But I’m so proud of how the House concept has grown and spread around the world,” says Mary Pat.

Mary Pat is quick to point out she did not pull off her accomplishments alone. “It always took a great team. We all worked together.”
 
George Cohon, Founder of McDonald’s Canada/RMHC Canada and McDonald’s Russia, is one of the key individuals who helped establish the first House. He continues to be an inspiring supporter and friend to RMHC Toronto to this day.

“When a child is sick, what they need most is their family. They need to be together. In 1981, it was the simple desire to help families with sick children that brought us together to build the first Ronald McDonald House within Canada in Toronto,” says George Cohon, Founder of McDonald’s Canada, McDonald’s Russia, RMHC Canada, RMHC Russia.

“Today, 40 years later, Ronald McDonald House Charities continues to do just that – help families stay together when its needed most, one family at a time.”

Thank you to Mary Pat and George for being incredible champions of our mission. Their continuous dedication and advocacy have made it possible for RMHC Toronto to celebrate 40 years of keeping families close – and to carry this legacy forward.