April Volunteer of the Month – Joe Hobein
For more than 40 years, Joe Hobein has provided a lush and beautiful garden sanctuary at Ronald McDonald House Charities of Chicagoland & Northwest Indiana – an oasis of calm for thousands of families, volunteers, staff, and visitors alike.
“When I make a commitment, I stick to it,” Joe said of his decades-long volunteerism – quite the understatement when you consider the hours he has dedicated to improving the daily experience for families under immense stress while their child is in the hospital. “Joe is one in a million,” said Lora Batdorff, Associate Program Director for the Ronald McDonald House near Lurie Children’s, who has worked with Joe since 2004. “He isn’t a ‘look at me’ type, but he has a very natural way with families and the other volunteers. We’re so lucky to have him.”
Joe’s involvement began at a volunteer spring cleanup in 1979 when the first Ronald McDonald House in Chicago was located on Deming Place. “One day while I was volunteering in 1984, the president [of RMHC-CNI at the time] asked if I would take charge of the outside of the House,” Joe recalls. “I told him I didn’t have any knowledge about gardening, but he said to do the best I could, so I did.”
For twelve years, Joe’s commitment inspired those around him, from other volunteers to families who simply wanted to keep busy as they waited on news from their children’s doctors. “I remember once shoveling the walkways to the House and this tiny woman, a mother I recognized who was staying at the House, came out and grabbed a shovel,” said Joe. “I told her she didn’t need to do that, but she said she wanted to, it was her first time seeing snow and she wanted to experience it.”
Over the years, Joe volunteered in many different capacities, from helping at a Ronald McDonald House summer camp in Lake Geneva to joining families and other volunteers on a ski trip to Park City, Utah – an experience he describes as “unforgettable.” But he always returned to the garden.
When Joe retired from his job in 1996, he knew he wanted to do more with the outdoor space at the House, so he picked up dozens of gardening books, joined a volunteer gardening program, and taught himself the ins and outs of, as he likes to say, “knowing the difference between a flower and a weed.” He began leading an informal garden volunteer group each Saturday afternoon that began beautifying the space with everything from new perennials to container gardens.
Joe’s drive to learn has evolved and grown alongside his gardens over the years. “When I worked on the gardens at the House on Deming, I had to learn all the gardening basics. Then, when we moved to the House near Lurie Children’s, the rooftop garden was in full sun and we had a summer with 60 days above 90 degrees. That was a challenge – I did a lot of watering that year,” Joe remembers with a laugh. “As buildings went up around us, I had to learn which plants do well in shade.” His current favorite? “Coleus – there are so many different kinds and colors, and I love finding new varieties.”
“Joe runs the show when it comes to the gardens,” said Lora. “We give him volunteer groups in spring and summer and he puts them to work making the space beautiful and welcoming. It would take a full team to manage what he does on his own, and he takes incredible pride in giving families a beautiful, peaceful oasis.”
“The courage that these kids and their families have – I can’t just walk away from that,” said Joe when asked what keeps him coming back week after week, year after year. “It helps me keep perspective on what’s important and I’m lucky to be able to help in this small way.”