Joplin woman has volunteered Christmas Eve, Christmas since 2006

Joanne Bauni arranges a batch of cookies she helped bake Monday at the Ronald McDonald House of the Four States in Joplin. The 77-year-old Joplin woman has volunteered to help the visiting families on Christmas morning dating back to 2006. GLOBE | KEVIN McCLINTOCK

Joanne Bauni’s nearest relatives live in northern Kentucky, 550 miles from her Joplin home. But that doesn't explain why she's spent the last 11 Christmas mornings volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House of the Four States.

“The guests that come and stay here are so sweet,” said the nurse who retired from the former St. John’s Hospital. “I enjoy spending time with them and their families.”

How much time? Somewhere around 10,800 hours and counting. Volunteering at 3402 S. Jackson Ave. since 2006, she is the first volunteer to reach the 10,000-hour mark, said Director Annette Thurston.

It’s the reason why the full-time Ronald McDonald House employees often quip that Bauni knows more about the families staying there than they do, simply because the 77-year-old is such a constant and calming presence.

She chuckled when asked if she’d received 10,800 hugs along with those 10,800 volunteered hours.

“I just enjoy being there with them,” Bauni said with a shrug. “It’s more important to me that (the guests) have a nice day and can (focus) on what’s important. That's what we try to make it, a second home for the (families).”

That sums up the Ronald McDonald House's primary purpose — creating a comforting place where families focused on a seriously ill or injured child can stay for little or no cost.

One Christmas stands out in Bauni's mind over all the others: that of 2009.

“We were supposed to get really bad snow then, and they asked me if I could spend (Christmas night)," she said. "As soon as I went home I packed a bag. I then went to Mass at St. Mary's (Catholic Church). It wasn't snowing when I went in. But when I came out — big ol' flakes,” she said, using a thumb and forefinger show the size of what was coming down.

At the Ronald McDonald House, “I spent Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and the day after there. Six families were staying at that time, all of them with children, so the house was festive on Christmas Eve when Santa visited, and on Christmas morning when the kids opened presents in their pajamas around the decorated Christmas tree in the living room. Later, there was a Christmas meal."

Thurston said Santa and Mrs. Claus — Ed and Sherrie Moore of Pittsburg, Kansas — make a special stop at the house to distribute gifts to each family. One special gift is a handmade, embroidered blanket made by Lawanda Rhinne from Fredonia, Kansas. Family photos are also taken. On Christmas Day, guests wake up to gift bags placed at their bedroom suite doors. Later, there is a Christmas dinner by chef Mikel Clark, of Clark's Catering.

“It was just a wonderful day,” Bauni said. “I really got attached to the families (that year). But I've enjoyed all of them. The guests here, they are so thankful. They are always grateful.”

And though these families have a lot on their minds, plenty of hugs are given. “Especially when they go home,” Bauni said. “We've gotten some of the nicest letters too.”

Since opening in mid-1998, Joplin's Ronald McDonald House has served nearly 2,800 families through the end of 2016. Bauni is one of 130-plus adult and teen volunteers who keep the house functioning on a daily basis.

And while her Kentucky-based family members, particularly her sister and niece, have both begged her to leave Joplin to be closer to them, Bauni has balked at the idea.

“I love them dearly, but I'm happier here. I really am,” she said. Bauni has her cozy apartment in Joplin, with plenty of friends available to drive her to the Ronald McDonald House on the four days she volunteers each week.

“I've been so blessed to have so many friends here,” she said.

When she recently repeated the line above to a good friend, that friend smiled, patted her on the shoulder and told her: “(The families) have been blessed to have you too. It works both ways.”

“This is my family,” Bauni said, looking around the Ronald McDonald House's living room. “It's home away from home.”