Step inside the Ronald McDonald House at Riley Hospital for Children, and you might just run into Bert and Ernie.
We’re not talking “Sesame Street” characters here. We’re talking about super volunteers Bert and Ernie Harvey, whose 1965 marriage pre-dates the premiere of “Sesame Street” by four years.
“We thought we were the original Bert and Ernie,” Bert (Bertha) Harvey said. But she later learned that Muppets co-creator Jim Henson loved the 1946 holiday classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
If you’re a fan of that film, you know that two of its characters (a taxi cab driver and a police officer) were named Bert and Ernie. “That’s where he picked the names,” Bert said.
She loves to see the look on people’s faces when she introduces herself and her husband to unsuspecting visitors.
“People always think I’m kidding.”
The couple have been fixtures at the Ronald McDonald House on Limestone Street for 15 years and at the house inside Riley Hospital for the past seven years. They prepare meals, clean and, perhaps most importantly, offer a kind word to weary parents whose children are being treated in the hospital.
In addition to her volunteer hours, Bert accepted a paid part-time staff position at the hospital RMH, and she brings along Ernie when she needs a helping hand.
“He’s my number one volunteer.” To which he responds, “I work for food.”
That Ernie, he’s a jokester. He admits it. It’s hard to get a straight answer out of the retiree, who said he’s had 31 different jobs over the past 40-plus years. He’s been a salesman, a shoeshine guy and a police officer, to name a few.
“She’s the smart one,” he says about his wife, who retired from a long career with the State of Indiana, working in human resources.
The Harveys have five kids, 14 grandkids and three great-grandchildren, a blessing that inspired the couple to want to give back.
“It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” Bert said. “You just feel like you’re helping.”
“We get to know some of (the parents) pretty well,” Ernie said. “We build relationships.”
The house at Riley includes a day retreat area open to any family with an inpatient at the hospital. There is a pantry and kitchen stocked with food, a laundry room, quiet room, showers and six guest rooms for overnight stays. The Limestone Street facility has 46 guest rooms and six apartments.
The holidays are a tough time for families to be dealing with hospital stays, but that’s where Bert and Ernie and all of the IU Health volunteers shine.
“Sometimes you can tell just by looking at someone that they’ve had a bad day,” Bert said.
A friendly face, a cup of coffee and an occasional hug can make all the difference.
-- Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist