Forty years ago last month, the first Ronald McDonald House opened in Philadelphia to provide temporary housing and support services to families of children receiving life-saving medical care at a nearby hospital.

By the end of 2014, Ronald McDonald House Charities® (RMHC®) will reach nearly 9 million children each year through a global network of 350 Ronald McDonald Houses, 195 Ronald McDonald Family Rooms and 52 Ronald McDonald Care Mobiles in 62 countries and regions around the world. Additional programs support community health and wellbeing in countries such as Kenya, Peru and Ecuador.

While RMHC has grown significantly over the years, its mission has remained the same: To create, find and support programs that improve the health and wellbeing of children. At the cornerstone of this mission is the Ronald McDonald House program, which helps to keep families together by providing a “home away from home” where they can rest and refresh, so they can be by their children’s side to help them heal.

At Ronald McDonald Houses, families can enjoy many of the comforts of home, receive meals prepared and served by volunteers, and obtain emotional support by sharing their day with other families experiencing similar situations.

According to J.C. Gonzalez-Mendez, president and CEO, RMHC, Ronald McDonald Houses provide what families need most during times of hardship: togetherness.

“Accommodation needs are a significant stressor for families of critically ill children," he adds. "RMHC and the House program help alleviate some of this stress helping the family to heal and cope better."

No one is turned away for an inability to pay, and many families stay for weeks or months while their children receive medical treatment.

“Unfortunately, illness discriminates against nobody. But RMHC is a charity born out of the goodness of the community and, over the years, organizations, the medical community and individuals have jumped onboard to help us provide compassionate care and hope for families,” Gonzalez-Mendez says. “We couldn’t have done it without the support of partners like Coca-Cola.”

A Partner From the Start

Coca-Cola has supported RMHC since the beginning. Local bottlers around the world provide vending machines and an estimated 6 million cans of free Coke products each year to all Ronald McDonald Houses. Guests purchase drinks for a quarter apiece, with all proceeds going directly to the RMHC Chapter (the vending program has raised more than $15 million, to date).

In 1985, The Coca-Cola Foundation pledged a five-year $1 million grant to RMHC and has since renewed the commitment six times. Chairman and CEO Muhtar Kent has served on the global RMHC Board of Trustees since 2008, and more than 40 Coke executives sit on local RMHC boards around the world. Additionally, employees volunteer their time to cook meals, help around the House and support RMHC special events all around the world.

Ronald McDonald House
The World of Coke recently welcomed families staying at an Atlanta Ronald McDonald House.

This support speaks to a broader, 55-year partnership between Coca-Cola and McDonald's that began with a handshake and is steeped in trust, respect and friendship.

“Nothing reflects more the shared values of our two companies than the mission of Ronald McDonald House Charities," explains Javier Goizueta, president of Coke’s McDonald’s Division Worldwide. He says Coke’s support of RMHC has evolved over the years to meet the needs of the growing charity.

This commitment can be seen first-hand in Coke’s hometown of Atlanta. Goizueta has served on the Atlanta RMHC Board of Directors since 2008 and currently chairs its capital campaign to build a new Ronald McDonald House on Peachtree Dunwoody Road. A new 31-bedroom facility, which will open by December 2015, will triple the capacity of the existing 11-bedroom home.

Ronald McDonald House
Coke's Javier Goizueta (left) with Tony Raffa, McDonald’s operator; Beth Howell, president and CEO, Atlanta RMHC; Ronald McDonald; J.M. Owens, McDonald’s operator; Rusty Paul, mayor of Sandy Springs, Ga.; and Jeff Wansley, board chair, Atlanta RMHC, at the groundbreaking of a new Atlanta-area Ronald McDonald House.

Goizueta regularly visits Ronald McDonald Houses during his international business travels, having recently stopped by a House in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

“The breath of their impact, and the consistency of the hospitality and care the provide, are unbelievable. The love and compassion is duplicated in every Ronald McDonald House around the world,” he adds. “It touches you when you personally experience what Ronald McDonald Houses do for the families they serve... I have witnessed that the appreciation of these families lasts a lifetime.”

Ronald McDonald House
Coca-Cola commissions artists to create original paintings embodying RMHC and Coca-Cola, such as this one from Steve Penley.

José Armario, corporate executive vice president of global supply chain, development and franchising for McDonald’s, agrees.

“RMHC isn’t about statistics,” he says. “It’s about the stories of the individual children and their families whose lives are touched by this incredible organization.”

Armario would know. When his son, Joey, was diagnosed with cancer 10 years ago, the Los Angeles Ronald McDonald House became a “home away from home” for he and his wife, Mary.

“We met other families, talked about our fears and felt the support and love that comes when you’re surrounded by other moms and dads going through the very same thing,” he recalls. “It was a Godsend."

Joey is now cancer-free. “I truly believe that my family made it through that ordeal because of the strength and support we received from RMHC,” Armario says.

Share Your Stripes

Ronald McDonald House

Ronald McDonald House Charities is marking its 40th anniversary through a global social media campaign celebrating the children, families and volunteers who have been touched by the organization. Join the movement by sharing your pictures, videos or stories with the #forRMHC hashtag. Get in the spirit by sporting your red-and-white striped socks in honor of RMHC.

“It’s a campaign to help people – particularly Millennials – understand our mission and inspire them to get involved by joining forces with our more than 305,000 volunteers worldwide,” Gonzalez-Mendez explained. “We hope to convey the message that togetherness heals and they can be a part of a movement to help children in their community and across the Globe.”

The Shamrock Shake Connection

It all started in 1974, when Philadelphia Eagles football star Fred Hill's 3-year-old daughter, Kim, was being treated for leukemia at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Hill and his wife camped out on hospital benches and sat in cramped waiting rooms during Kim's three years of treatment. They met many parents and families who’d traveled great distances so their children could receive medical treatment. Few could afford hotel rooms.

Ronald McDonald House
The first Ronald McDonald House was built in Philadelphia in 1974.

Determined to come up with a solution, Hill rallied the support of his teammates. Through Jim Murray, the Eagles' general manager, the team partnered with Dr. Audrey Evans, head of the pediatric oncology unit at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, who had long dreamed of a "home away from home" for families of children being treated at the hospital.

Murray called Don Tuckerman from the local McDonald's advertising agency, to inquire about his next planned promotion in the Philly area. "St Patrick's Day," Tuckerman said. "Shamrock Shakes."

The shakes and the Eagles happened to share the same color -- green -- creating the perfect combination for a local campaign. A week-long promotion donated all Shamrock Shake profits going to the cause, enough to help buy a four-story, seven-bedroom house near the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Later that year, it opened as the first Ronald McDonald House.