Two men bake cookies for Chapel Hill's Ronald McDonald House

aweigl@newsobserver.comFebruary 26, 2013 

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    There are Ronald McDonald Houses in Durham and Chapel Hill. To find out how you can help, go to rmhcofnc.org or call 919-913-2040 for Chapel Hill or 919-286-9305 for Durham. There are only two in the Triangle but five Ronald McDonald Houses across the state.

— The Cookie Guys – as they are known – are already in the kitchen at the Ronald McDonald House by 10:30 a.m. on a recent Thursday.

Sichele Sikazwe has lined up the ingredients for chocolate chip cookies and peanut butter cookies on the counter. Kelvin Patterson sits in a chair pulled up to the counter.

For almost nine years, Sikazwe, 65, and Patterson, 41, have been baking cookies every Tuesday and every Thursday for the families, volunteers and staff at Ronald McDonald House, which provides housing, meals and support for families with seriously ill children undergoing treatment at UNC hospitals. That’s an estimated 41,000 cookies.

Sikazwe sees the baking not only as a way to give back to the community but also to help Patterson, who has cerebral palsy. Sikazwe works for ResCare, a company that provides assistance to people with disabilities.

“These guys have to be the most loyal cookie bakers,” said house director Shelley Day.

In surveys, Day said the families often mention the men’s fresh baked cookies.

The 29 rooms at the Chapel Hill house are available to families who live more than 35 miles away but have a child seeing a pediatrician or having surgery at UNC. The house helps about 2,200 families a year and refers another 700 to discounted or subsidized hotel rooms.

Many assume Ronald McDonald houses receive significant funding from its namesake fast food chain but just 7 percent of the Chapel Hill house’s $1 million annual budget comes from McDonalds. The rest comes from donors. The house also is supported by about 80 volunteers who clean, answer phones and even do yardwork.

Marketing Director Elizabeth Hullender said the last thing these parents need to worry about is where they are going to sleep, what they are going to eat and where they are going to do their laundry.

The tantalizing aroma of fresh baked cookies makes the house feel more like a home.

“Once you smell them, you have to have one,” said Kimberly Minyon of Raeford.

Minyon has been staying at the house since she was discharged from the hospital after the birth of her first child, 8-week-old Lexi. Her daughter has spina bifida and heart problems. “She just had heart surgery yesterday,” Minyon explained last week.

About Sikazwe and Patterson, Minyon said, “That’s just so nice of them to take time out of their day twice a week.”

Sikazwe sees value in their small gesture of baking cookies: “It’s amazing how little things can be important.”

Sikazwe, a trained librarian originally from Tanzania, works with Patterson to help improve his independent living skills. Patterson uses a walker, and his conversations are limited to one or two words, party due to shyness, partly due to his cerebral palsy. These twice-weekly trips to the Ronald McDonald House help keep Patterson physically active, teach him kitchen skills and improve his social skills.

Patterson obviously enjoys his time there. He is quick to laugh at Sikazwe’s jokes or smile at a greeting from a staff person, and even waved goodbye to Minyon when she left to go to the hospital.

After nine years, Sikazwe and Patterson know the preferred cookie flavors: chocolate chip, peanut butter and oatmeal-chocolate chip. And they have their cooking-making routine down. Sikazwe pours the cookie mix and butter into a large bowl. Patterson does the stirring. Sikazwe places perfect orbs of dough on the cookie sheet. Three trays make their way into the oven and then out onto cooling racks.

In the meantime, staff, volunteers and family members wander in and out of the kitchen getting cups of tea or coffee or something to eat.

Day recalls when Sikazwe first came to bake cookies. “He didn’t know how to use a measuring cup,” she said, laughing.

Volunteer coordinator Cathy Hall recalls how a month-long kitchen renovation led the men to bake cookies next door at the SECU house, a residence for adult patients. “They wanted to keep them,” Hall said. But of course, the men returned.

Sikazwe wraps up four cookies – two of each flavor – for Patterson to take home to his grandmother. The rest go into two ceramic cookie jars, which sit on the kitchen counter so anyone can enjoy a treat.

Into the kitchen walks Stacey Moore, the house’s community outreach coordinator.

Sikazwe teased: “Late.”

She replied, “My nose doesn’t say I’m late.”

She snagged a peanut butter cookie from the jar. Taking a bite, she said, “Thank you, Kelvin and Sichele.”

Weigl: 919-829-4848

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