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Couple serves 17th Thanksgiving meal at Ronald McDonald House

For the 17th Thanksgiving in a row, Cheryl Wilson will fire up the oven at 7:30 a.m. and pop in a turkey Thursday morning.

George and Cheryl Wilson of Rochester, along with friends and family members, have been cooking Thanksgiving dinner at the Ronald McDonald House in Rochester for 17 years. They use every oven in the house and this year 12 turkeys are defrosting in the community room kitchen.

For the 17th Thanksgiving in a row, Cheryl Wilson will fire up the oven at 7:30 a.m. and pop in a turkey Thursday morning.

Make that 12 turkeys. And 12 dozen rolls. And 15 pies. And green bean casserole, mashed potatoes and dressing.

Cheryl, her husband George and about 10 volunteers serve a traditional Thanksgiving feast annually at the Ronald McDonald House in Rochester . They usually feed about 100 people, but that varies a lot — sometimes it's 30, sometimes it's 130, Cheryl said.

"You never know how many people are going to be coming. … We cook the same amount every time," Cheryl said.

The Ronald McDonald House has 42 rooms housing 42 families, all of which are full right now. There's also a handful of families on a waiting list. All are invited to Thanksgiving dinner.


After so many years serving the meal, the Wilsons' operation runs pretty smoothly. Cheryl has a checklist with the times each item needs to be cooked. George knows just how to cut the turkeys.

One year, a little girl who was staying at the house came downstairs and said it smelled just like grandma's house, George said.

"That's exactly what we want," he said.

"The house smells like Thanksgiving. That's part of the whole specialness of the day," Cheryl said.

The Wilsons know the Ronald McDonald House well. George was part of the group that started the Northland House in 1978, which eventually became the Ronald McDonald House. They also volunteer with an annual motorcycle cruise that raises funds for the house, bringing in more than $106,000 this year.

In 1978, the Wilson's daughter, Jennifer, was diagnosed with leukemia at age 3. They spent tons of time at Mayo Clinic's children's oncology unit as Jennifer underwent treatment, and they got to know the other families there. All were locals, but they got to talking about what out-of-towners being treated at the clinic were going through.

"Where are they going at night? And what are they thinking about?" George said.

The Northland House opened not too much later.


"It's been a success ever since," Cheryl said.

Eventually, the need outpaced the Northland House and a new property was built with more space.

"We just ran out of room. Our waiting list was horrendous," George said.

Now, Mayo sees some of the most complex cases, which often require patients to stay in town longer, he said. The Ronald McDonald House becomes a home away from home for dozens who live outside Olmsted County. Many come from outside the country to Mayo Clinic, the Wilsons said.

"A lot of them have never experienced Thanksgiving before," George said.

The Wilsons' dinner serves as the first introduction to lots of people from around the world, so they stick to a pretty traditional menu with turkey, stuffing, potatoes, corn and rolls. When Cheryl added in a green bean casserole a couple years back, it was a "major deviation."

They use all of the ovens in the house, about 12 or 13 in total. Cherly cooks the turkeys (smaller ones, 10 to 12 pounds) in six of the ovens, then uses the others for side dishes.

"It's quite a production. … We've got it pretty down pat," George said.


Much of the food is donated to the house, and having seasoned volunteers on hand to keep the operation moving along is invaluable, they said.

George and Cheryl have a "warm presence, open hearts and devotion" to the Ronald McDonald House, said the house's Executive Director Linda Bonow.

"On Thanksgiving, a day when most people are home with their families, the Wilson family has chosen our house as their home," Bonow said. "Their support makes the day extra special for our families who can't make it home for the holiday because of a sick child."

The Wilsons' three kids and six grandkids come along to help out, too. It's their family tradition, and they've worked hard to instill a sense of volunteerism in their kids, they said.

"We have a lot to be thankful for. Our daughter lived. … That's what you hope for all of these families, too," Cheryl said.

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