Erin and John Carter. Erin's clothes, shoes and jewelry from B.BARNETT. Hair and makeup by LORI WENGER. John's clothes from BAUMANS FINE MEN'S CLOTHING. Styled by ANGELA ALEXANDER.

Liam Estes has had a long day. The toddler from Fort Smith has been attended by his grandmother Fregina Jones fiddling with game apps and doing a generally decent job holding in the natural exuberance of the typical two-year-old. But a boy’s gotta do what a boy’s gotta do, and now, in the twilight of another day, he sets his pacifier like a bit in his teeth and sets out to work off a little energy. He’s quiet, but he’s in constant motion.

“Liam definitely made himself at home,” Jones says. “He will be out here [in the communal area] and I’ll turn the television on for him or I’ll even be watching a movie. He’ll sit here for a little bit and watch it, then all of a sudden he’s gone down the hall.”

Jones and her daughter, Kaitlyn Estes, are here at the Ronald McDonald House in Little Rock because the family’s newest member – Estes's two-week-old daughter Zoe – is receiving treatment across the street at Arkansas Children’s Hospital. The baby girl was born with gastroschisis, a birth defect of the abdominal wall wherein a child is born with internal organs not where they should be.

“When she was born, her intestines were out and her stomach was threatening to come out,” Estes says. “From UAMS, she came straight to Children’s and they said in four days her intestines would go back in naturally and then they would sew her up. Born Monday, did surgery Wednesday, then she was on a ventilator for about four days after her surgery.”

Estes relays these details matter-of-factly; Zoe is turning out to be one tough infant and the doctors’ every best-case scenario has played out, and ahead of schedule, no less.

“They said she’d be in the hospital for a month, but I don’t honestly believe that she’ll be in the hospital for a month,” Estes says, a gleam of pride in her eye. “I told my mom before she was even born, I said, ‘Mom, they’re telling me a month, but I know God is telling me that we will be gone sooner than a month.’”

It’s not just Zoe’s rapid recovery that has the young mother’s spirits so high, although that’s the lion’s share of it. It’s also the ability to spend the baby’s recuperative period here, in the tranquil confines of the Ronald McDonald House. Here the family can unwind after another day at the hospital, get a good night’s sleep in their own room and gather for meals. All is offered for free, although many families choose to pay a per-day pittance, as much to express their appreciation as to defray costs.

Neither mother dares to think what the financial and emotional swale would be if the 32-suite Ronald McDonald House didn’t sit here, steadfast and welcoming, beckoning them home.

“It means a lot. We are very grateful for it,” Estes says. “It’s like home because you’re here for so long. You kind of get to know people and make, I guess, a family. You become close to them. We’re comfortable here.

“I know that Zoe could have a good day one day and then the next day it could be a setback, just like a waiting game. God and the Ronald McDonald House help a lot.”

Erin and John Carter. Erin's clothes, shoes and jewelry from B.BARNETT. Hair and makeup by LORI WENGER. John's clothes from BAUMANS FINE MEN'S CLOTHING. Styled by ANGELA ALEXANDER.

John Carter’s west Little Rock office sits high in the Bank OZK headquarters building on a floor that affords views for miles. And while it would be a stretch to say he can see the Ronald McDonald House from here per se, the house feels as near as the artwork tacked around his desk.

“I guess it's just an appreciation,” he says. “Until you have a situation present itself, it's hard to appreciate the value that something like the Ronald McDonald House adds until you see it in real life.”

Carter, who today serves on the board of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Arkansas which manages the house, earned his appreciation without having spent a single night there. Eight years ago, when he and his wife Erin welcomed their second child Jayce, the baby boy was born with a serious heart defect. Jayce underwent surgery at Children’s one week into his life, and it was while spending time in the ICU that his parents began to understand the indispensable mission the Ronald McDonald House serves for families who, unlike the Carters, don’t live locally.

“When we first got to the CVICU waiting room, I mean, we were both scared to death,” Erin says. “This one mom was across the way. She looked pretty calm and she started talking to us because I think she could tell we were a little bewildered and terrified. Her son was in his second heart surgery and she said he was going to have to come back and have at least one more. And where she always stayed was the Ronald McDonald House.

“Talking to other families and parents, we learned how great of a blessing it is to have a place like that where you can go and you can still be really close to your very sick child.”

It didn't take long for the Carters to translate their appreciation for the Ronald McDonald House into tangible action. John, who already sat on the finance committee, was invited to join the board during the capital campaign that would ultimately raise approximately $9 million to build the current house.

► 9,619 nights spent by 1,138 families
► 29,875 meals served, including 9,850 breakfasts and lunches donated by Tyson Foods
► 18,880 cartons of milk and juice donated by Hiland Dairy
► 1,800+ items of clothing, shoes and other items distributed to guests
► 100+ haircuts provided to families through the on-site salon
► 1,759 pediatric patients and their siblings who received a toy from the Toy Closet
Source: 2017 Impact on Families Summary, Ronald McDonald House Charities of Arkansas

This year, the couple is chairing the Chocolate Fantasy Ball, the organization’s primary fundraiser. The Carters have a goal of raising $500,000 through the gala, which would be a record and provide roughly a third of the organization's annual operating budget. Chairing the event was a decision they weighed seriously but made without hesitation.

“I remember looking at Jayce’s crib, I think we both did, and we’re like, ‘Is it ok to touch him?’” John says. “We kind of knew that this was our organization, that we were passionate for it. It was a very clear decision [to chair the gala]. This is our year, this is our calling.

“We knew that it was going to be a time commitment, that it was going to be a lot to bite off, but having the chance to have an impact, to raise funds to benefit such a wonderful cause? Heck, you could put me in a chicken suit and put me on the side of the road, I'd do it to help.”

Anyone who saw the former house – a no less loving but decidedly deficient structure about a block away – pinches themselves at the sight of the new one, which opened in 2016. The Carters, who sponsored one of the rooms here and named it in honor of the now-healthy and happy Jayce, are no exception.

“I think the kitchen is my favorite spot,” Erin says. “I've heard this from multiple people. The kitchen in the old house was cramped, elbow to elbow. Everything was really boxy in the whole house actually; they didn't have a big open space, it was little compartments, little rooms. The new house has a great big eating area and kitchen. It's beautiful.”

On an ordinary weeknight, that beautiful kitchen area is aglow against the India ink evening sky. A girl of about seven, head bare and face beaming, skips with her mother to fill a plate. A young couple with worry-creased faces passes silently from their table toward the door, offering a slight smile to tonight’s dinner volunteers if only to remind themselves what it feels like. Others breathe for the first time all day, their yoke still by the door, but off their shoulders for the time it takes to eat.

Liam Estes is here, too, along with his mom, his grandmother and the promise of a little sister who will soon leave the hospital and doctors behind. On that day, the Ronald McDonald House will also fade into the family’s rearview mirror, but something important of it will go with them.

“Imagine you, your daughter, your niece or your granddaughter having a child that is sick and your local hospital cannot take care of them and they have to come to Children’s and you do not live next door to Children’s,” Fregina Jones says. “This place gives that parent the ease of mind so they don’t have to worry about going two hours from their child and coming back on weekends or going an hour and a half and back every other day, or not being able to bring your other children here with you.”

“There’s no place like it, because they not only welcome the mother that gave birth to that child that’s in the NICU or PICU, but they welcome the family. You just can’t beat that. That’s God working all around.”

Erin and John Carter. Erin's clothes, shoes and jewelry from B.BARNETT. Hair and makeup by LORI WENGER. John's clothes from BAUMANS FINE MEN'S CLOTHING. Styled by ANGELA ALEXANDER.

Erin's clothes, shoes and jewelry from B.BARNETT. Hair and makeup by LORI WENGER. John's clothes from BAUMANS FINE MEN'S CLOTHING. Styled by ANGELA ALEXANDER.

Chocolate Fantasy Ball
Feb. 9 | 6 p.m. | Statehouse Convention Center