At the age of 14, Jennifer French quickly learned the difference between a want and a need when she asked her mother for an Atari video game. The response came in the form of a strong suggestion that she take a volunteer job at the Ronald McDonald House in Philadelphia. French heeded her mother’s advice.
During that summer stint, French was a reader to the siblings of critically ill children who were receiving treatments in nearby hospitals. But her newfound passion for doing all she could to bring smiles to young faces evolved into a lifetime mission and calling. “That experience set the spark for philanthropy,” said French, one that continues to fuel her today. Following that eye-opening endeavor, French launched a fashion show at her high school to raise money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation and later became a hugger for athletes participating in the Special Olympics.
Fast forward nearly four decades. French, the president and CEO of the Camden-based Ronald McDonald House Southern New Jersey since July 2020, described her position as a dream job and the culmination of decades of experiences with the corporation, nonprofit and an array of onstage performance venues. Suffice it to say, Ronald McDonald, in multiple forms, has been a consistent theme in French’s life. And she firmly believes that “being in the right place at the right time” has played a part.
The 53-year-old, who was raised in the Juniata Park section of Philadelphia, attributes much of her inspiration to her late mother. “I was blessed with a wonderful mother who instilled in me the importance of creating a positive ripple effect,” said French who resides in Wilmington, Delaware with her 16-year-old son, Giancarlo, whom she refers to as her greatest achievement and the light of her life.
French attended Gettysburg College where she majored in Theatre and English. Her passion for the stage led her to take bold chances. Before her senior year of college, while vacationing in California, she tested the waters in the entertainment world by auditioning for a part in a five-person play produced by the Los Angeles Children’s Theatre. Although she didn’t secure the part, she was offered a position as the assistant stage manager. She gladly accepted, grateful to learn as much as she could about the craft. The director also offered her a one-night gig as a hostess at an awards ceremony for actress Shelley Duval. French jumped at the opportunity and found herself immersed among big Hollywood names and talent galore.
When the lead actress in that same play didn’t want to perform for sick children at Mount Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, French was asked if she’d take the role. Today, she looks back and finds that experience a valuable life lesson.
French later worked for five years for PhilAdMac (a McDonald’s owner/operators’ co-op) as Ronald McDonald’s assistant, performing in a variety of venues including hospitals, school assemblies and Ronald McDonald Houses. Her vast experience also includes corporate marketing and public relations for a McDonald’s account and opening a Ronald McDonald House (La Casa Ronald McDonald) in Madrid, Spain. In 2000, French traveled to Spain for a two-week language immersion course. A lot happened – personally and professionally – in the ensuing years that delayed her from returning home, including 9/11. She moved back to the States in 2014 to be near family. Eventually, she became the Director of Development at The Grand Opera House in Wilmington.
“Every road has led me to here,” said French, reflecting on her position overseeing all operations and development. In the three years since taking the job, she has done everything in her power to make enhancements and build a more cohesive community. “We celebrated seven capital projects since I joined the RMHSNJ family,” shared French. These include the addition of a cinema and game room, a caregiver’s gym with an adjacent KidZone, a self-service dry goods shop (free of charge), a closet filled with gadgets and toys called Dorothy’s Door of Surprises and an inclusive playground with hand-selected equipment tailored to the needs of the children.
French explained that after taking the helm, she met with every member of her staff. She discovered that the team members, which now number eleven, had interests and talents that weren’t being utilized. So, she moved things around, adding and adjusting roles and responsibilities. “I believe that everyone on my team deserves the spotlight, and I look for opportunities that allow them to shine,” she said.
The house in Camden was established in 1983 across the street from its present location. “We are celebrating our 40th anniversary,” said French. To commemorate the milestone, a 40th Ruby Anniversary Gala will take place at the Four Seasons Philadelphia on October 14.
French noted that the first Ronald McDonald House was founded in 1974 in Philadelphia. The co-founder was the late Dr. Audrey Evans, with the help of Jimmy Murray, a former general manager of the Philadelphia Eagles. “Dr. Evans was a pediatric oncologist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and dreamed of a place that would offer free housing to the families of her patients,” said French. “Many of the families were sleeping on the floors of the hospital.” Today, there are more than 230 Ronald McDonald Houses worldwide in over 60 countries.
The RMHSNJ includes 25-bedroom suites and has hosted families from all 50 states and over 50 countries. “Because our region has the best orthopedic and ocular hospitals, we see a lot of families from Central and South America and Asia where those issues are common,” said French. Since its inception, the house has served tens of thousands of families with children being treated for critical illnesses and traumatic injuries. They also operate 11 Family Rooms in area hospitals.
Children receive care at numerous locations including Cooper University Health Care, Inspira, Jefferson New Jersey, Virtua, AtlantiCare, Shore Memorial Hospital, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Penn Medicine, Wills Eye Hospital and Shriners Hospital.
French said that the culture has changed dramatically in the house since her arrival. It has become a more tightly bonded community, something of which she is particularly proud. “I have a different perspective from most on not just what the pediatric patients need, but also what the caregivers need,” explained French. She shared that when her son was just shy of two, he was rushed to the hospital in Italy. French didn’t speak the language and sat frantically in the waiting room trying to make sense of it all. Her son spent four weeks in the pediatric intensive care unit. Thankfully, she revealed, he made a full recovery.
French has observed that children as well as caregivers in the house bond over a shared sense of trauma. “Friendships are forged and thanks to technology, families stay in touch and even schedule future appointments for the same dates,” she said.
FRENCH is also proud of her approach to fundraising, which she likens to her outlook on life. “I am always looking to get to know people, not just their titles,” she said. “I like to meet people of all different backgrounds.” French finds it most impactful to lead a tour of the house, which enables her to demonstrate why she loves the organization. “Then, I let each person get acquainted at their own pace and choose with their hearts how they would like to get involved,” she said.
Named by South Jersey Biz magazine as “One of 21 Executives Leading the Way in South Jersey,” French is the recipient of the 2022 Chairman’s Award from the Non-Profit Development Center of Southern New Jersey and was selected as a 2023 Philadelphia Titan 100. She also volunteers for AARP and serves on the boards of Theatre N and Safe Haven Healing, Inc., a nonprofit that supports victims of domestic abuse. “As a survivor, I will do anything in my power to help others see there are options and a healthy path to a new life, although seemingly impossible,” she said.
French continues to be driven by the ripple effect of a simple kindness or a smile. “I get the most joy from helping others to achieve dreams and goals,” she said. “When I leave there [the Ronald McDonald House] every day, I feel energized.”