News & Politics

My Life in DC’s Coronavirus Era: Karen Torres of Ronald McDonald House Charities of Greater Washington DC

A feature about how people around Washington are adjusting to our new reality.

Karen Torres, President and CEO of Ronald McDonald House Charities of Greater Washington DC. Photo courtesy of Karen Torres.
Coronavirus 2020

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Karen Torres is the President and CEO of Ronald McDonald House Charities of Greater Washington DC.

How has your organization been impacted by the pandemic?

Our programs have been greatly impacted by this pandemic. On March 21, the entire global RMHC system announced a temporary suspension on the acceptance of new families into Ronald McDonald Houses, as well as the temporary closure of Ronald McDonald Family Rooms and Ronald McDonald Care Mobile programs. These decisions were made to help stem the spread of COVID-19, protect our guest families and staff, and support public health efforts.

How have you had to change your operations in order to serve the community during the crisis?

We operate two Ronald McDonald Houses that provide housing for families whose children are seriously ill and hospitalized. Our Washington DC RM House was closed in January for extensive renovations and expansion, but our Northern Virginia House still has families in residence. We have closed the House to all volunteers, outside guests and non-essential staff. All other staff are working remotely from their homes. Our House staff are also taking extraordinary precautions to maintain a safe, heathy environment for these families.

Our two RM Care Mobiles, in partnership with MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, normally bring free medical and healthcare services to the neighborhoods and schools of underserved children. Now, the pediatric team is using telemedicine and video technology to continue to serve these families. 

We have also had to close our three RM Family Rooms (places of respite and psycho-social programming located within Children’s National and Inova Children’s Hospitals) as these hospitals are only allowing essential medical staff inside.

Have you seen the fundraising environment change as a result of the pandemic? If so, how?

Yes, in part. We have been very fortunate that volunteer groups are still delivering meals for our families and contributing supplies and donations for their support. However, many of our donors are also suffering setbacks in this environment, so we are definitely seeing a decline in general donations. We are also right in the middle of the desperately needed expansion and renovation of both of our RM Houses; the DC House expansion is currently in progress and the NoVA House expansion will follow in September. We are trying to be sensitive to the effect of this pandemic on everyone’s lives and haven’t been fundraising for the expansion and operations as we would have normally.

How concerned are you about your organization’s ability to continue fulfilling its mission amid the pandemic?

As I mentioned earlier, we have had to temporarily close or modify many of our programs. In a normal year, we serve around 11,000 children and their families. Even temporarily closing these programs will substantially reduce the number of families we can serve.

What’s your organization’s most urgent need right now?

I think, like most charities, our most urgent need is for monetary donations. We still have all of the ongoing costs associated with running our programs and staffing.

What can people in the area do if they’d like to help?

People who’d like to help can donate online through our website, or through our Facebook fundraising page. They can deliver or have meals delivered to our Inova Fairfax RM House to feed our families. They can also purchase items from our Amazon Wish list of supplies needed at the House.

Where are you working from these days? How has your daily routine changed?

I am working from my kitchen table while my husband is also working remotely upstairs in his home office. My daily routine normally involved meeting with people both in the office and out and about. Now I spend all day on the phone or in video meetings.

What’s the most heartening or encouraging thing that you’ve witnessed or read about since the onset of the pandemic?

I am always uplifted by the kindness of people, even in times of fear and uncertainty. So many people are willing to help others in any way they can.

When you get scared or stressed about the pandemic, what do you do to relieve the fear or anxiety?

I remind myself of all of the things, big and small, for which I am grateful. I also try to remind myself not to “awful-ize.” Although in my role it is necessary for me to make contingency plans for worst case, it doesn’t mean we will actually get to worst case. Weather permitting, I have also been making time in my days for a 45-minute walk outside to recharge my batteries.

What’s a book, movie, or pastime that you’ve rediscovered over the past week?

I have always been a big reader, but the extra time spent at home in the evenings and on weekends has allowed for even more books. I’m actually also enjoying spending more relaxed time with my husband. Usually his frequent travel and our work and social schedules keep us really running.

What are you most looking forward to when this is all over?

What I absolutely miss the most is not being able to see my family, who live spread out throughout the country. I will most look forward to spending time with my family and friends again.

Senior Writer

Luke Mullins is a senior writer at Washingtonian magazine focusing on the people and institutions that control the city’s levers of power. He has written about the Koch Brothers’ attempt to take over The Cato Institute, David Gregory’s ouster as moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press, the collapse of Washington’s Metro system, and the conflict that split apart the founders of Politico.