Susie Morgan, photographed in downtown Little Rock. Hair and makeup by Angela Alexander.

Morgan Peeples, 8, and her brother Carson, 5, half-walk, half-run into the soaring lobby of the Ronald McDonald House in Little Rock. They’re familiar faces here and they high-five and hug their way through a line of staffers en route to a playroom right off of the massive communal dining area. 

But the two kids aren’t here to amuse themselves with the dolls, books and games that fill the brightly-colored playroom or to run around the all-abilities playground that lies just outside the back door. Instead, the duo asks politely if they can straighten up the playroom for the next child, be they a patient or a sibling of one. It’s a task they’ve become accustomed to in a place that feels like a second home. 

“I was really excited because I wanted them to see how important it is to volunteer,” their grandmother, Susie Morgan, says. “So they would come up here and they’d go in there and straighten things and just started getting comfortable with being a part of it. Now it’s like, ‘Can we go to the Ronald McDonald House?’”

Like her grandchildren, Morgan is a volunteer here, serving on the board and having helped raise the millions that got the sprawling, five-story Ronald McDonald House built and open in November 2016. In devotion and commitment, she’s one with legions of supporters and volunteers passionately committed to making a resident family’s darkest hours a little brighter. 

“I think this house has so much more of a visible presence for people and the families that we’re serving,” she says. “Everyone that drives through to go to [Children’s Hospital] for a friend, a child, a grandchild, whatever, sees the Ronald McDonald House. 

“The staff has done such a fantastic job of saying, you know, ‘We did it; it’s wonderful, we’re proud of it, we want you to be proud of it, we’ve got a real home that meets the needs of a lot of people during a stressful time.’ People want to be a part of something like that.”

Susie Morgan, photographed in downtown Little Rock. Hair and makeup by Angela Alexander.

It’s mid-afternoon and Janell Mason, executive director for Ronald McDonald House Charities of Arkansas, is showing off the house’s middle floors. Here, 32 suites provide living quarters to families of all income levels whose children are receiving life-saving medical treatment. Many are at Arkansas Children’s Hospital a stone’s throw away, but the house also serves other Little Rock hospitals. 

Most families are from out of town – staying an average of nearly a month – but the occasional local family also stays here to be close in case the worst of prognoses comes to pass. 

It costs roughly $80 per day to house a family, most of which is covered by the organization thanks to the generosity of monetary and in-kind donors. Families are never charged a fee to stay at Ronald McDonald House, but they are asked to contribute $10 per day to defray expenses, if possible. No one is ever turned away due to an inability to pay or donate.

The house still has a showroom look to it; surfaces gleam from floor to ceiling, windows sparkle, furnishings are new and bright. Everywhere you look, someone is cleaning, polishing, wiping down or sprucing up some little detail – erasing a smudge left by a toddler or fluffing a settee’s cushions to better cradle the bone-weary parent who’s been witness to their child’s grueling day-long treatments. The spotless halls are quiet, peaceful.

“We literally were in a staff meeting and we stopped and said, ‘We can’t believe that we get to come to work here, that our families get to stay here,’” Mason says. “I get choked up when I talk about it.”

What’s so overwhelming for Mason, and anyone else who’s been involved with the organization for more than a couple of years, is the nearly incomprehensible differences between the current house and the one they moved out of, a cramped and creaky structure not far from this spot. That house ran largely on love and the dream of one day having a place like this; a place that welcomed more drawn and worried parents and housed them comfortably, a place that provided privacy, yet allowed residents the opportunity to buoy each other, bound by their common circumstance.      

“To see our families feel the comfort of the house — you know, they’re dealing with so much,” Mason says. “It’s one step forward, two steps back some days with their child’s health. It’s tough. I’m just so happy they get to come here.”

Mason never needed Ronald McDonald House in the classical sense; her grown children got to live the kind of childhood that every parent imagines. But the pull of serving those who aren’t so fortunate, whose children daily face the cruelty of life-threatening, prolonged and sometimes irreversible illness, was powerful enough to draw her out of retirement to chair the group’s capital campaign and later take over the executive director job. Today, she manages 21 full- and part-time employees and volunteers by the score.

“I think everybody’s been touched by a long illness,” she says. “If you just put yourself in their shoes, if you think of a child who’s sick, critically ill, and that child has been sent to Little Rock for life-saving care — I mean, I just get chills. 

“To me, that’s why people support it. They realize that when a child is sick, the last thing a family needs to worry about is where they’re going to stay, what they’re going to eat.”

Just like their grandmother, Morgan and Carson are regulars at the Ronald McDonald House, where they can be found tidying up the playroom, joining in holiday activities or making friends with Mac, the four-legged “director of smiles.”

Just like their grandmother, Morgan and Carson are regulars at the Ronald McDonald House, where they can be found tidying up the playroom, joining in holiday activities or making friends with Mac, the four-legged “director of smiles.”

Ronald McDonald House is arguably the most-recognized nonprofit in Little Rock, thanks to decades of national media campaigns by the global entity Ronald McDonald House Charities and the participation of thousands of McDonald’s franchises with the familiar change boxes. For many of the same reasons, it’s also arguably the most misunderstood. 

“A lot of people see Ronald McDonald House but they’re not really quite sure what it does,” Morgan says. “There’s a misconception that McDonald’s corporate funds all of this, that we’ve got global or national backing. We have to do most of that here locally.”

In fact, of the Little Rock house’s roughly $1.5 million annual budget, only about $200,000 comes from the change collected at McDonald’s restaurants. The rest is raised through various events, such as an annual golf tournament and the Chocolate Fantasy Ball, of which Morgan is this year’s chairman. Last year, that event took in just more than $400,000. This year, the event’s 15th iteration, Morgan is swinging for the fences targeting half a million. 

Along with these, the organization has done a remarkable job of harnessing sponsor dollars to help defray operating costs, with 87 cents of every dollar going directly to services. Different tribute walls throughout the house attest to gifts large and small, corporate and private, all of which add to coffers. 

Mason is still on her walkaround when she approaches one such display, a new initiative where for $1,000 or less donors can buy a customized plexiglass heart and even install it on the tribute wall themselves if they wish. She stops and points to one such plaque memorializing a man killed in a motorcycle accident. Its surface, lightly dulled by smudges, is the only thing that’s not shined to perfection here.

“His family came up here and they all had their hands on that [plaque],” she says quietly. “It’s still covered in fingerprints. We’re never going to touch them.”

Of all the unique features in the house, the one that sticks in the minds of patients and their families the most is the cupola that perches atop the structure. Compared to some of the house’s other amenities and features, it’s somewhat pedestrian-looking, at least during the light of day.

But at night, as Ronald McDonald House continues to quietly hum 24/7, it’s the illuminated cupola that shines the brightest, what staffers and patient families alike refer to as the “Beacon of Hope.”

“What we say is, it’s a night light for children who stay at the hospital; they can look over here and know where their parents are,” Mason says. 

It might seem hard to imagine what the people behind Little Rock’s Ronald McDonald House dream of now that they have the house they’d waited on for so long. But for Mason and Morgan, one look at the dozen or so families on the waiting list on any given night and the answer to what’s next is simple – more. 

“I look at this place, I look in the faces of the people that come in and volunteer their time to make meals and the staff being so happy and I think it’s a place of hope. I really do,” Morgan says. “I think it’s a place of love and family and hope, and that tomorrow, it’s going to be better. And I think it’s a place to feel safe. That’s how I view this place.” 

Chocolate Fantasy Ball  |  Saturday, Feb. 10, 6 p.m.  |  Statehouse Convention Center 
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