Notre Dame's Brian Kelly, Kelly Cares Foundation donate to Ronald McDonald House

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Brian Kelly stood amidst the chaos, his discerning eyes hidden under reflective sunglasses, as children in red-and-white striped socks flung footballs under the beating sun. Some wore Buchanan Bucs football jerseys, their heads topping out around Kelly’s chest, staring up at the winningest active coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

Beside him, Ronald McDonald stood with his hands on his hips — an unmistakable celebrity in his own right — donning red sunglasses, shock red hair and floppy red shoes that would never pass for football cleats.

Notre Dame Head Coach Brian Kelly and Ronald McDonald meet a group of kids on field at St. Joseph High School, Tuesday, July 26, 2016 in South Bend. The event was put together to announce a donation from the Kelly Cares Foundation to the Ronald McDonald House Charities. Tribune photo/BECKY MALEWITZ

Kelly’s wife, Paqui, grabbed a football and directed an aspiring wide receiver to run towards the nearest end zone.

“I can throw it further than that,” she declared. “Go to the corner!”

He went, and she kept her promise. The football ricocheted off the boy’s hands, then his chest, before falling harmlessly to Leighton Stadium’s picturesque green turf below.

“When I get on the field, I’m always thinking about who’s the next great young superstar,” joked Kelly, Notre Dame’s seventh-year head football coach. “But they’re a little young.”

At St. Joseph High School in South Bend, Kelly failed to identify many future stars on Tuesday morning.

But that was hardly the point.

What he did do, alongside Paqui, was donate $100,000 on behalf of the Kelly Cares Foundation to help build a 20-bedroom Ronald McDonald House to be located in the Skyway Building across from Memorial Children’s Hospital in South Bend. In May, construction began on the new house, which will serve as a temporary home for the families of seriously ill and injured children.

“The expansion of the Ronald McDonald House gives more opportunities to be home — to get that home care that was lacking in this area,” Kelly said. “It creates an atmosphere of health and healing and allowing you to go through these very difficult times. We’re honored that we could be a part of it, to help Memorial Hospital and the Ronald McDonald House continue to grow and provide great opportunities.

“We see the kids out here today running around on a football field,” added Kelly, whose Irish open fall camp in Culver, Ind., next weekend. “For me, any time you can get me on a football field, I’m anxious to be around.”

Kelly was also anxious to be involved, specifically with a project that directly affects the South Bend community.

“This is really about community and providing opportunities in this community for those that need it,” Kelly said. “Our foundation has been built on health, education and community. When we see an opportunity that can really affect the community … that’s why this one was a special one for us.”

Since 2002, the “Ronald McDonald Family Room” — which has three bedrooms to be used by the families of ill or injured children — has been located on the third floor of Memorial Children’s Hospital, down the hall from the Newborn Intensive Care Unit and the Pediatric Unit. The Family Room was utilized more than 20,000 times by more than 2,000 families in 2015 alone, a 30 percent increase from 2014, according to the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Michiana.

Unfortunately for the parents and children, three bedrooms is rarely enough.

“I’ve had the opportunity to go through the Ronald McDonald House, meet the staff, see the facilities, and I’ve got to say, the need is strongly there,” Paqui Kelly said. “I’ve had an opportunity to meet with some of the families.

“When you’re away from your own place, finding that home away from home during a time that’s pretty critical and also having the ability to have a little space for the siblings that are there, too … it’s a huge help in terms of getting through those really trying times. So we were very blessed and honored to be a part of this.”

The Kelly’s were an integral part of Tuesday’s event, too, even if they left Leighton Stadium without any verbal commitments.

Football may be fleeting, but their impact on the community will be felt for years to come.

“It just brought such peace to our family in a time that was really difficult,” said Angela Spier, whose daughter, Ada, spent months at Memorial Children’s Hospital in 2013 and 2014.

“We just want to say that we are so appreciative of everyone — the volunteers, the staff, the people who donate. It’s an amazing gift to give to families.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame Head Coach Brian Kelly, Ronald McDonald and a group of kids cheer on the field at St. Joseph High School, Tuesday, July 26, 2016 in South Bend. The event was put together to announce a donation from the Kelly Cares Foundation to the Ronald McDonald House Charities. Tribune photo/BECKY MALEWITZ