February 21, 2018
Mary Pat Armstrong honoured with Order of Canada
It started with a phone call.
In late 1978, Mary Pat Armstrong picked up the receiver to hear her daughter’s oncologist, Dr. Peter McClure, ask 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 prior, 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 about her enthusiasm that day.
Mary Pat and her husband, Bob, had only recently lost their five-year-old daughter, Marion, to leukemia after a three-year battle. It had been a difficult journey, but along the way, the Armstrongs had met many other families who were struggling as much or even more than them.
Mary Pat knew her family was fortunate because they lived in Toronto – less than a 10-minute drive to the hospital. But many families from outside the city faced long commutes, rough nights sleeping in a waiting room or high expenses to rent hotel rooms near SickKids. The comfort of a ‘home-away-from-home’ near the hospital would help the families immeasurably in financial, practical and emotional ways.
Helping to establish Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC) Toronto turned out to be a “phenomenal way to grieve,” says Mary Pat. “It was a way to turn our sad emotions into something far more positive, because I was doing something for other people, trying to make their lives better.”
Under Mary Pat’s leadership as Chair of the inaugural Board of Directors, Canada’s first Ronald McDonald House opened in Toronto – on Dundas Street – in April 1981. By the end of September that year, the 19-bedroom House had already welcomed more than 100 families from across Canada and the U.S.
At that time, children with cancer were treated almost exclusively as inpatients, so it was only their family members who stayed at the House. But over time, the House became part of the circle of care for patients, recalls Mary Pat.
“SickKids came to lean on what the House was doing,” she says proudly. Doctors and nurses knew families could get their children to the hospital right away if they were experiencing a setback, and they knew they could quickly reach families at the House if they needed to speak with them. That meant children undergoing treatment were increasingly allowed to stay at the House with their families, instead of staying exclusively in the hospital. The House began to bristle with energy and activity more than ever.
Helping found RMHC Toronto was Mary Pat’s first taste of philanthropic leadership, but it was not her last.
“I really saw that I loved creating something from scratch, getting it running, standing it on its feet and then turning it over to someone else to have fun with.”
She went on to found Camp Oochigeas for children with cancer in 1983. And in 2011, she helped found LIGHTS, a charity that assists individuals with an intellectual disability to live with a greater degree of independence.
“My 14-year-old granddaughter recently called me a philanthropic entrepreneur.”
Just weeks ago, Mary Pat was awarded the Order of Canada, the country’s highest honour, for that entrepreneurial spirit and her 40-plus-year commitment to improving the lives of families of children with cancer and people with disabilities.
“To receive this kind of recognition is a little overwhelming and humbling,” she says. “As a volunteer, when you do these things, you are driven by a passion to make the world better for people who are not as lucky as you are. A thank you from a family has always meant the most to me.”
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.”
Looking back, she’s incredibly proud of how far RMHC Toronto has come in the 40 years since that first phone call.
The House – now in its third location – has expanded to 81 rooms and supports families with children with a range of life-threatening illnesses. RMHC Toronto also operates seven Family Rooms in hospitals across the GTA and in Sudbury to give parents rest and respite just steps from their child’s bedside. Combined, the House and Family Rooms supported 5,139 families last year. And, RMHC Toronto is regarded as a leader among RMHC Chapters worldwide.
For Mary Pat, the best part of the first House on Dundas Street was the feeling of warmth and brightness it gave people when they walked in. “That’s never changed. Ronald McDonald House is still bubbling.”