People: Honey Meir-Levi: building a house of love

Publication Date: Wednesday Jun 17, 1998

PEOPLE: Honey Meir-Levi: building a house of love

When Honey Meir-Levi gives a tour of Ronald McDonald House, it might as well be her own home. She knows each corner well, from storage rooms to kitchens, the special computer room for immune-sensitive children who have had bone marrow transplants, the cheery murals, and inviting rose gardens.

She points to photos of smiling children, some bald from the effects of cancer treatments, and tells stories about most every one of them. She talks about the families who stay there as if they were her own as well, full of love and compassion.

She proudly shows a visitor the computers, which the children use to keep up with homework, learn to surf the Internet and find "chat rooms" for sick children.

"The role that this house plays is so important," she said. "It's a very simple mission: to provide a home away from home for families with ill children."

The Ronald McDonald House opened in 1979 as a place for families with children with life-threatening illnesses to stay, often for months at a time while they receive treatment for diseases like cancer, or recover from bone marrow transplants. After expanding in 1992, Ronald McDonald House now has 24 bedroom/bathroom suites, three kitchens, living areas, a reading room, and a playground and garden.

Families are charged a nominal $10 per night.

"We want the families' needs to be taken care of so they can focus on the most important thing, which is taking care of their children," Meir-Levi said.

Her efforts were honored in March by Assemblyman Ted Lempert, who nominated her to be the 21st Assembly District's "Woman of the Year."

"Honey Meir-Levi is the kind of woman we all want to have in our community," Lempert said. "She has worked selflessly on behalf of seriously ill children and their families for years."

"People use the phrase, 'it's a privilege to work here.' It's really, really a privilege to work here," Meir-Levi said. "There is something very special that happens here. It just has to do with doing the right thing. Even when you had a bad day, if you look back, it's going to improve the lives of the families." Meir-Levi, 54, came to her new "home" nearly four years ago as the new executive director. She and her husband and daughter left their Barron Park home and moved to an apartment at the facility 18 months ago, so she could be closer to her charges. Living there, she said, gives her more opportunity to interact with families when she's doing ordinary things like laundry or unloading groceries from her car.

In spite of the gravity of the situations that the families find themselves in at the house, Meir-Levi finds the joy in it all.

"When I took this job, a lot of people asked if it would be depressing. It's not depressing." She acknowledged that it can be "terribly sad" sometimes, but "the reason it isn't depressing is, I really think we've done everything to support the families. I really feel you see miracles. When children seem so ill . . . (it's uplifting) seeing them later coming back selling Girl Scout cookies, living wonderful lives."

Ronald McDonald House is partially funded by local McDonald's restaurants. The rest of the facility's $680,000 budget is raised through individual donations and two major annual fund-raising events, the "Denim to Diamonds" gala and the Randy Cross Invitational golf and tennis tournament.

Meir-Levi left a career as a professional potter, making sculptural forms with function (such as soup tureens and platters) to join the nonprofit sector. After taking a battery of career-interest tests, she channeled her interests in the area of raising money for the arts. She headed the Community School of Music and Art in Mountain View, then was the development director of the San Jose YWCA. And she's a former member of Palo Alto's Public Arts Commission.

Her interest in art goes back to her childhood in New York City's borough of Queens, when at 13, she and a friend used to take the subway on Saturdays and spend the day visiting the city's art museums.

Meir-Levi attended Queens College, where she received a degree in American Studies. Later, she and her husband, David, both devout Jews, moved their children to Israel, where he was a professional archaeologist, and she attended the Betzalel Art School at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The family lived in Israel from 1968 to 1979, then came to Palo Alto. The couple has two sons, Gabbi and Azzan, and a daughter Samara, who just graduated from Gunn High School. They also have a nearly one-year-old granddaughter.

"Art and children are the two things that I love most in the world," she said. Today, she paints and writes in her spare time, and hikes weekly with a hiking group at local open space preserves.

Her first-floor office has a big picture window where she can see roses and hummingbirds flitting about. She marvels at her luck, and at the people she comes across at Ronald McDonald House, also known as "The House that Love Built," who donate their time or resources to help. "Every day, you say, 'There are a helluva lot of nice people in the world.'" 1 n

--Elizabeth Lorenz 

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