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How I Got My Dream Job: Courtney Kenney, Program Associate at Ronald McDonald House New York

Topics: Career Profiles

For the past four years, New York-based social worker Courtney Kenney has worked as a program associate for Ronald McDonald House New York, an organization that provides temporary housing for pediatric cancer patients and their families. Located on East 73rd Street in Manhattan near 13 major cancer treatment centers, Ronald McDonald functions as a both practical and supportive home base for young people who are receiving treatment for serious, sometimes terminal pediatric illnesses. The organization, which can host up to 84 families at a time, is usually filled to capacity and has opened its doors to more than 30,000 families from all across the state, country, and world since it was founded in 1978. Kenney works directly with children and their families on a daily basis — playing, talking, and helping to facilitate the House’s many programs and services. Kenney recently spoke with PayScale to describe some of the rewards and challenges of her unique role, and share some of the experiences that have shaped her career.

ronaldmcdonald house

(Photo Credit: ell brown/Flickr)

Name: Courtney Kenney

Do You Know What You're Worth?

Age: 32

Hometown: Suburbs of Philadelphia

Current Location: Brooklyn, New York 

Company: Ronald McDonald House New York

Title/Position: Program Associate

PayScale: What do you do?

Kenney: Ronald McDonald House is an organization that gives kids and families a temporary home while they receive treatment for serious pediatric illness in New York. I work in the playroom. I get to spend time with the kids and I get to play — a lot! I can be spontaneous based on what a child wants to spend his/her time doing in the playroom. We have everything in the playroom and the kids are always excited to come when they return to the House. Part of my role is to assist in engaging children in all of the incredible programs we have in place: art, music, dance therapy, and special events. 

PayScale: What makes it your dream job?

Kenney: Being with kids all day in a nurturing, magical environment is a dream job. This is not school or daycare and kids view it as their own sacred space of play and camaraderie where you never know what excitement is around the corner. 

PayScale: What’s an average day on the job look like for you? 

Kenney: It changes from day to day. If a child or children are in the playroom, I will gently engage them, and oftentimes I already know them, so we just get right to playing. This could be building forts, playing house, Legos, art. I spend time with parents and listen to their stories. One day I might paint with three 2-year-olds from China, or there could be a 10-year-old from Norway ready to start the card game we play everyday. I also facilitate weekly projects for the kids, such as jewelry-making, cooking, swimming lessons, or sensory play.

PayScale: How did you end up here? What interesting or unexpected jobs have helped prepare you along the way?

Kenney: I was trying to find my way after working for a few years as a social worker. I wasn’t sure what kind of work I was going to do. My current role began as a part-time position around three years ago, and it just clicked. My other social work jobs have definitely prepared me for this one, though my roles were different. I did fieldwork at a residential rehabilitation facility in Harlem as a college student and at a group home for teenage mothers during graduate school. I worked in Brooklyn with children and families in need of counseling, and in Harlem again with children and families of residents. The specific interventions were different in each role, but the varied experience gave me a solid foundation. I was in so many different situations with different needs that challenged me.

PayScale: What is the best part of your job?

Kenney: Children, community, creativity, the common goal of joy.

PayScale: What’s the toughest part of your job that might surprise people?

Kenney: Many of the parents are going through an extremely difficult time, which can be emotional for me as well, but there are also kids being playful everywhere you look, which is a beautiful thing to be around.

PayScale: Best word to describe how you work.

Kenney: Thoughtfully.

PayScale: What’s your workspace setup like? 

Kenney: The playroom is very large and is neat to look at. In the back of the playroom, there is a door that connects to our large shared office, which has two windows that look out into the playroom. The office and the playroom are located in the lower level of the building. There is also a serene wellness center in the building, a chapel, a beautifully decorated living room, two large garden terraces, a large dining room and kitchens for families to gather, as well as other departments’ offices on the first and second floors. 

PayScale: Tool or device you couldn’t live without in order to do your job?

Kenney: Comfortable shoes.

PayScale: How did school prepare you for what you’re doing now? How did it not?

Kenney: I have a Bachelor of Science in Social Work from New York University, and a MSW in Social Policy and Practice from the University of Pennsylvania. I learned from interning, peers, and the academic material.

PayScale: What would you tell someone who wanted to follow the same path as you?

Kenney: You can make many jobs that involve working with children special. I think it can be important to remember that it’s not about you, it’s about them, and making the time you spend together something that makes their lives better. It’s important to have solid supervision and a healthy organization. If you’re interested in a role that involves working with people, I think it’s good to be someone who naturally takes delight in people, of course not always and all the time, but as an active element of who you are.

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Check It Out

More installments from PayScale’s “How I Got My Dream Job” series:

How I Got My Dream Job: Olden Polynice, NBA Star and Disability Awareness Advocate

How I Got My Dream Job: Carlo Chalisea, Owner of Don Lucho’s Food Truck

How I Got My Dream Job: Giulia Heiman, Bi-coastal Stylist, Columnist and Entrepreneur 

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