First and foremost Sarah Ferguson is a mother.

The rest of us may know her as the red-headed divorced wife of a prince with a weight problem she turned into a career with Weight Watchers.

But yesterday the Duchess of York, now also an author, charity fund-raiser, movie producer, and occasional TV hostess, dropped those roles to comfort parents and children at the oncology unit of St. Christopher's Hospital for Children.

The duchess, who was in town as the Global Ambassador for the Ronald McDonald Charities, visited St. Christopher's to kickoff a campaign to raise $7.2 million to build and operate a 15-room, three-story Ronald McDonald House for families of children treated at the North Philadelphia hospital.

Before the gala lunch, Ferguson walked the oncology floor surrounded by a crowd of photographers, hospital personnel and her own personal entourage. She stopped for autographs, posed for pictures, handed stuffed toys to children, asked how each was doing and offered a few words of encouragement with a smile.

Ferguson took a minute to sit with Michelle Connelly, of Bensalem, there with her son Tyler, 2, who was undergoing treatment for leukemia.

Tyler, complete with a pacifier, sat with his arms folded in a not-so-impressed-kid-kind-of-way, staring at the duchess as photographers took photos.

"How do you manage?" said Ferguson.

"Taking it day by day," said Connelly, the mother of five. She told the duchess that while Tyler would be headed home today, Connelly would be back next week with another son Dylan, 7, who needed open heart surgery.

Nearby, Jhon Galeano, 13, of Northeast Philadelphia, waited patiently in his wheel chair with a lap full of yellow roses for the princess. His mother Alba Correa, 37, stood next to him.

The two became overwhelmed as they told Ferguson that Galeano's cancer had recently returned. Ferguson gently guided the two into a room and shut the door for a private 10-minute conversation. Ferguson is the mother of two, princesses Beatrice, 19, and Eugenie, 17.

While most kids were on the receiving end as Ferguson gave each presents, 13-year-old Ryan Cooper bestowed on the duchess a book, his own child's guide to cancer.

Cooper, of Southampton, N.J., wrote Things That Make You Go Hmmm, to help kids going through cancer treatment. The self-published book details his experiences at St. Christopher's, explains the ins and outs of treatment and offers up advice.

"Always keep your spirits high and hope for the best," wrote Cooper.

His cancer has spread and is in the final stages said his mother, Theresa Cassady. While they are hopeful, she said, they do not expect him to live much longer.

"He is frightened to a degree," said Cassady when the duchess asked how Cooper was handling the illness. "We try to build him up."

Ferguson read excerpts of the book as she stood by Cooper's bed, and noted that his curly red hair was much the same color as hers.

"This is really good," Ferguson said of Cooper's book as she gently touched his arm. "I'm going to put it on my Web site. It will help millions and millions of children."

The city already has one Ronald McDonald's House at 39th and Chestnut Streets.

Contact staff writer Mari A. Schaefer at 610-892-9149 or