The new Ronald McDonald House wowed officials and some families it will serve at a Dec. 17 ribbon cutting.

“I was overwhelmed when I walked in,” said Donna Hyland, president and CEO of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, about the luxurious, hotel-style building at 5420 Peachtree-Dunwoody Road in Sandy Springs. Of the roughly 350 Ronald McDonald Houses worldwide, said Hyland, who has served on the international charity’s board, “I’m willing to bet this is the best.”

The new Pill Hill Ronald McDonald House. (Photo by Ed Wolkis Photography)

The 31-bedroom facility, which opened for business Dec. 21, houses families of ailing children when they are treated in local hospitals, especially CHOA’s Scottish Rite. Beth Howell, president and CEO of Atlanta Ronald McDonald House Charities, said they call it “the house that love built.” An unusual feature of Pill Hill’s house that attracted attention is a three-story “treehouse” in the lobby. It’s an elevator shaft decorated to appear tree-like, with two treehouse-style play rooms built into it.

More than a hundred people attended the ribbon cutting, including many local McDonald’s restaurant operators, who were among those contributing more than $18 million to build the facility. The houses are run separately from the restaurant chain, but get major financial support from it. An actor portraying restaurant mascot Ronald McDonald, who declined to give his real name, joined the ribbon cutting.

“We go all over the world,” the Ronald McDonald actor said. “This [house] really stands up as one of the top ones.”

Joining children from families served by the organization at the ribbon-cutting for the new Pill Hill Ronald McDonald House Dec. 17 are (from left) Javier Goizueta, a McDonald’s and Coca-Cola executive who co-chaired the facility’s fundraising campaign; Beth Howell, president and CEO of Atlanta Ronald McDonald House Charities; restaurant mascot “Ronald McDonald”; Donna Hyland, president and CEO of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta; and Thomas Kirbo, ARMHC’s board chairman. (Photo John Ruch)

Most importantly, the facility impressed the families who will use it, including the Winstons of Valdosta, Ga. Son Erick Jr. needed a kidney transplant in 2009, just shy of his sixth birthday, and father Erick Sr. was his organ donor. Erick Jr. continues to need treatment at Scottish Rite. Instead of a four-hour drive from southern Georgia, the Winstons can stay blocks away and take a 24-hour shuttle to the hospital.

The Winstons have stayed in other Ronald McDonald Houses, including one in Atlanta, but they expressed astonishment at the Pill Hill facility’s amenities.

“I’m speechless. The kids love the treehouse,” said mother Shaneka Winston.

“It’s like a mini resort,” added Erick Sr.

“They treat everybody like that’s their whole house. It’s fun,” said Erick Jr.

The Winstons’ stay in other Ronald McDonald Houses have ranged from days to months. “It’s a home away from home,” said Shaneka. “There’s a fee if you can pay. They don’t press you to pay.”

“Just money-wise…can you imagine staying at a hotel three months?” said Erick Sr.

For the Winstons, the biggest luxury is staying close to Scottish Rite and Dr. Edwin Smith, who has long treated Erick Jr. “The level of care, it’s unreal,” said Erick Sr. about Scottish Rite.

“We need more facilities like this,” said Shaneka. But the Pill Hill house had a long road to expanding.

ARMHC opened an Atlanta house in 1979, followed by the Peachtree-Dunwoody location—originally an 11-bedroom house—in 1994. Both saw heavy demand and wait lists, leading to the construction of new facilities in recent years. The Atlanta house, near CHOA’s Egleston site, was rebuilt with 50 bedrooms in 2008.

Efforts to expand the Pill Hill house began more than a decade ago. Fulton County approved the project in 2005, prior to the existence of the city of Sandy Springs. But a lawsuit from neighbors delayed it. The groundbreaking finally came last year.

A spokeswoman said that the new house’s capacity should prevent wait lists for families in need.

For information on eligibility to stay at the house, call 404-315-1133 or see

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.