by Gary Norman

If it's true that all politics is local, then it may be equally true that the most effective advocacy occurs at the local level, and further, that advocacy that leads two disparate community groups to learn and care about one another may be the most satisfying advocacy experience of all. The ACB of Maryland (ACBM) and Maryland Area Guide Dog Users (MAGDU) recently engaged in some local advocacy with staff members from Baltimore's Ronald McDonald House. We found the experience a rewarding one from the perspective of everyone involved, and we came away reaffirming our belief that advocacy is best suited to developing local partnerships within our communities.

Pat Sheehan, president of the ACB of Maryland, and Gary C. Norman, Esq., president of Maryland Area Guide Dog Users, met on Aug. 11, 2006 with Marianne Rowan-Braun, the executive director of the Ronald McDonald House of Baltimore. While we met to introduce our non-profit organizations to her and her staff and to engage in follow-up relative to an alleged access denial to a guide dog team which later turned out not to have occurred, we left with a greater understanding of the constituencies which Ronald McDonald House serves and the processes through which a family gains admittance to its array of social services. Rowan-Braun emerged from our meeting with a "hands-on" understanding of our guide dogs and the ways in which they help us negotiate our world, and a commitment to help us educate the public and share information about our concerns.

We decided to write this article to share with members of ACB our newfound knowledge about Ronald McDonald House and the important services the organization provides to families.

Ronald McDonald House is located in what is known as Lexington Market, which comprised the shopping district in Baltimore during the 1940s and 1950s. The land on which the house is located was once owned by the University of Maryland and was purchased 24 years ago for the purpose of constructing a house for Ronald McDonald Foundation. Because the facility is a non-profit with limited resources, there is a referral process in place to screen and accept families to the house. We learned that as a non-profit dedicated to public service and compassion, Ronald McDonald House welcomes all families, including those who utilize assistance dogs.

When we arrived at the house, Rowan-Braun gave us a tour of the facilities, which include 30 or more apartments, a library, an accessible playground and a number of rooms where children of all ages can play videos and games. We had an opportunity to meet the staff, which includes dedicated and talented professionals such as a licensed graduate social worker who lives in an apartment located onsite and serves as 24-hour counselor to the families whose children are facing serious and life-threatening illnesses in local hospitals and medical facilities. We met several family members who were coming or going from the facility and taking advantage of the services available at the house. It was all one parent could do to contain her enthusiasm while she talked to us about how important Ronald McDonald House is to the community of Baltimore. She managed to restrain her impulse to hug everyone in sight while she was telling us about the invaluable services the facility provides to families in crisis, instead transferring her exuberance to the enthusiastic pets she gave to Langer, my yellow Labrador guide dog.

We learned that the Ronald McDonald House in Baltimore needs to raise $1 million each year just to keep the lights on and ensure that the doors of the house are open to the public. After having the chance to meet the dynamic and energetic Rowan-Braun, we could understand why Ronald McDonald House's board appointed her as the full-time executive director back in the early 1990s. She calls herself the facilitator of community partnerships and compassion.

As representatives of ACB and Guide Dog Users, Inc., we were very favorably impressed by the staff's compassion and their eagerness to reach out into the community and embrace opportunities to assist children in medical crisis and their families. As a result of our meeting and our mutual desire to know more about one another and to share information about our divergent needs and goals, ACB of Maryland and MAGDU agreed to host a guide dog partnership evening at Ronald McDonald House. MAGDU representatives, including Gary Norman and Jane and Patrick Sheehan, plan to talk about the American Council of the Blind and the guide dog movement with 34 families, including their children, and to answer questions about how guide dogs can assist people who are blind to navigate their surroundings. Rowan-Braun has agreed to give the event the kind of attention and publicity that will highlight the work of the American Council of the Blind of Maryland and the principles of MAGDU and GDUI. ACBM has agreed to participate in several additional Ronald McDonald House programs throughout the coming year and considers it an honor and a privilege to meet and interact with such courageous children and their families.

We are grateful to have had the opportunity to learn about the important work Ronald McDonald House is doing for sick children and their families and pleased to have had a chance to educate such a receptive and welcoming audience about the issues that are important to people who are blind, and the work of our two organizations. We encourage other ACB affiliates to reach out to the non-profit groups in your communities, where local advocacy can lead to mutual understanding and a shared commitment to educate, inform, work together, and engage in activities that may lead to improved understanding and shared goals that can make the world a better place for all of us.

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