What could get a group of teenage hockey players to trade in their sticks and pucks for kitchen knives and cutting boards?
As part of Ronald McDonald House Hamilton’s (RMHH) Meals that Heal program, five members of the Stoney Creek Sabres recently helped prepare and serve a hot meal for families of critically or seriously ill children.
The chance to give back to the community was just one reason why head coach Brian Cleary was happy his players could be involved.
“Going to RMHH and seeing how the other side of the world is doing brings them back to reality and grounds them a bit,” says Cleary. “They appreciate it and get a better sense for themselves and the world.”
RMHH serves as a home-away-from-home for families with kids being cared for at nearby McMaster Children’s Hospital. A family could be there for anywhere from one night to two years or more.
Cleary emailed his players, and no sooner had he hit “send,” he had his volunteers.
Forward Emily Calligan was on her lunch break when she immediately replied. “I drive by the house a lot and have always wanted to volunteer but never had the chance or time to go in there,” she says. “It was a chance to show the families we care and we want to help them get through it.”
Defenceman Amanda Butterfield’s brother had spent some time at McMaster Children’ Hospital, where there’s a Ronald McDonald Family Room. “I knew a little bit about RMHH from that and I wanted to help give back.”
Thanks to the sponsorship donation by Mike McDonald, the team’s communications and marketing coordinator, Calligan, Butterfield, defenceman Mallory Young, and goaltenders Serena D’Angelo and Hannah Miller spent a Thursday evening working on their culinary skills instead of their hockey skills.
Chef Shawn Rocchi greeted the players mid-afternoon and put them to work chopping vegetables for that night’s Asian-inspired meal. Most of the players admit they were fairly inexperienced in the kitchen, so Rocchi showed them the proper technique for using the large kitchen knives, how to stabilize the cutting board while chopping (put a cloth under the board) and how to get the most food from each veggie.
Once all the prep work was looked after, the players were given a tour of the house. “We like to show people what we offer families,” says Patti Majcher, director of family and volunteer services at RMHH.
The players saw the play rooms, family rooms, even the private theatre.
“They make it feel like a home,” says Young. “There are lots of nooks and crannies.”
“I didn’t know how big the house was,” adds Calligan. “It’s really welcoming and family oriented.”
When it was time to serve dinner, the team was joined by Bruiser, the Hamilton Bulldogs mascot. The players first introduced themselves to the families by taking drink and meal orders.
Did anyone feel nervous?
“I wouldn’t say nervous,” says Young, “other than maybe dropping the food.”
In fact, it was the interaction the players say they enjoyed most about the experience.
Several of the players expected to see families quietly eating with their heads down, says D’Angelo. Instead, they were met with smiles as big as their own.
Bruiser would help players serve their tables and give the kids high-fives, which got even bigger smiles from everyone.
Along all the smiles, a more poignant moment came courtesy of a grandmother Butterfield spoke with. “At the end of the night she came up and said, ‘Would you please pray for Marcus.’”
The teamwork that has served the Sabres so well on the ice this season was evident to both the families and staff at RMHH.
“I had three people come up to me separately and say you can tell they’re a good team just be the way they’re working back there,” says Majcher.
Majcher, herself, appreciated how proactive the girls were when they arrived and how willing they were to wait on tables, noting that adult volunteers are often hesitant. “They had to take turns because there are only so many serving roles,” she says, laughing.
The Meals that Heal program grew out of RMHH’s expansion from a 15-room to 40-room house. When the house first opened, says Majcher, its communal kitchen allowed families to store food to prepare their own meals. Occasionally, groups would come in and cook a hot meal, but for the most part families were left to fend for themselves.
“If you have a family that’s spent the day at the hospital, then has to go get groceries, bring them back and make their meal, they’re not going to bother,” says Majcher. “We would get feedback all the time that if it wasn’t for this home-cooked meal people would’ve just had a muffin at the hospital.”
Meals that Heals allows community groups to come in and work under Rocchi to provide a hot, home-cooked meal 365 days a year.
The program launched this past November, with Cassie Campbell-Pascall, the national ambassador for Ronald McDonald House and a two-time Olympic gold medallist, helping serve the families breakfast.
Parents often neglect their own health when looking after their kids, with cooking a nutritious meal for themselves often at the bottom of the priority list, says Campbell-Pascall. But eating a proper meal gives them the strength they need to think clearly about the decisions they need to make about their children’s health.
“The families I met told me how a good meal can make a big difference,” she says. “Some of them even broke down in tears.”
The Sabres players were equally moved by their visit, and they hope they can continue to give back.
Says Young: “I told my mom on the drive home that this would be something I would want to volunteer at on a regular basis.”