Building communities, providing opportunities


SUMMARY: As CEO and president of Ronald McDonald House Charities of Maryland, Sandy Sneen Pagnotti (’84) is making a difference in the Baltimore area. In her tenure, she has overseen the construction of Maryland’s only Ronald McDonald House and developed partnerships to restore local parks.

By Jacob Neff, alumni relations communications coordinator

James Madison University is community. At least, that’s how Sandy Sneen Pagnotti (’84) sees it. If anyone could provide a firsthand account of the impact that Being the Change can have on a community, it would be Pagnotti.

During her tenure at Ronald McDonald House Charities of Maryland, she has seen several dozen JMU alumni become involved in the projects of the organization, which supports families whose children are receiving treatment for chronic illness or injury. Whether there was a need for donations of time, talents or finances, JMU alumni have fulfilled these needs enthusiastically.

A Baltimore resident and public relations professional for over 25 years, Pagnotti saw her “empty nest” as a chance to begin a new career. With her daughter living in Harrisonburg at her alma mater, Pagnotti set her sights on the nonprofit sector. “I was motivated to spend the second half of my career in service to others,” Pagnotti said. “It’s been the greatest and most rewarding decision I’ve ever made.”

In August 2010, she was chosen as the next CEO and president of Ronald McDonald House Charities of Maryland. Her first task was to build a Ronald McDonald House in Baltimore, a project that would take seven years to complete and cost $35 million. As shocking as those figures were, Pagnotti was unfazed.

Pagnotti (left) at the groundbreaking for the Ronald McDonald House in Baltimore, the first and only Ronald McDonald House in Maryland. 

Change begins “with a big impact in a small place, and builds from there,” she said. “We can certainly lift the burdens of these families.”

As the home grew in size, so did the number of JMU alumni making a difference in the build. Diane Lewis Robinson (’85), owner of DLR Marketing, worked tirelessly with Pagnotti to promote the project and bring a Ronald McDonald House into the Baltimore skyline. Kim Hobart Zaruba (’85) is a longtime volunteer with RMHC Maryland, donating countless hours to the project. There is a “spirit of service and community” in JMU alumni, Pagnotti said, “an underlying sense of pride that is shared.”

If you ask the RMHC team what it’s like to stay at a Ronald McDonald House, they likely will tell you that “it’s kind of like the Ritz meets Disney meets grandma’s house.” Their goal is to provide opportunities for children to enjoy childhood despite their medical situation. “We are set up like a hotel,” Pagnotti said. “What they [the children] know at the hospital is poking, prodding and chemotherapy… at Ronald McDonald they know that dogs visit and they can be a kid.”

In addition to constructing Maryland’s only Ronald McDonald House, Pagnotti and her team have partnered with Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks to restore McKim Park. The renovation will include a new basketball court, playground and upgraded park space. McKim Park and the newly built Ronald McDonald House sit across from each other in Jonestown, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Baltimore.

Few have impacted the lives of Baltimore youth like Pagnotti. “At the Ronald McDonald House, we can’t make the medicine taste better, the hospitals less scary or the treatments less painful … but we can Be the Change for a sick or dying child and their family by bringing comfort, compassion and even joy to their journey.”

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Published: Friday, November 22, 2019

Last Updated: Tuesday, November 10, 2020

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