Watching a child fight for her life during an extended hospital stay is a nightmare reality that many families face. The stress of helplessly watching a sick child in pain, unsure of if and when she will go home, coupled with life in a fishbowl full of other equally stressed-out parents makes any space for quiet or normalcy seem impossible.
Sleepless nights filled with alarms and blood draws take their toll on caregivers who struggle to balance time with their other children left at home, deadlines at work and calls with insurance companies.
Between waiting for doctors to round and for medicine to take effect, it can feel like an eternity before the child begins to find relief and, all the while, the world outside keeps spinning. Hours quickly turn into days and weeks of a nomadic existence for parents.
For many who come from all over the world to seek life-saving measures at Arkansas hospitals, sleeping on a pull-out chair in a room with other families is their only option because a $100 per-night hotel room miles away from the hospital just won’t do.
Over the past 38 years, Ronald McDonald House Charities of Arkansas has stepped in to serve and sustain families of children being treated at area hospitals. More than just a place to eat, sleep and shower, this community-focused organization supports programs that serve the needs and directly improve the well-being of all children in order to enhance the lives of the entire family.
“Our Ronald McDonald House in Little Rock served as a home-away-from-home to nearly 1,200 families in the last year. Some families stay for just one night, while others stay with us for months or more than a year,” says executive director Janell Mason.
Little Rock’s house was the 27th to open in 1981. Now there are 373 Ronald McDonald Houses located all over the world. In November of 2016, after years of planning and hard work, construction was completed on a new 32,000-square-foot house to replace the smaller original one.
Only one block away from Arkansas Children’s Hospital, it is three times the size of the old house and, in addition to family suites, it features a huge kitchen and dining area and lots of recreation areas for families and children.
A Quiet Space to Step Away
“Every night, 32 families stay with us in the house, far from home and the support of family and friends,” Mason says. “Families staying here form special bonds, as they are going through similar traumas with their children.”
One hundred percent of funding for the home is from local individual and corporate donors, but families from all over Arkansas, the U.S. and even the world stay there.
“When families leave, we ask them to donate $10 per night of their stay to help offset our operating costs of $83 per night. Most are unable to do this,” says Mason, who cites fundraising efforts like the Night in Vegas casino party, the Annual Golf Scramble and, perhaps the most delicious event in town, the Chocolate Fantasy Ball to help bridge the revenue gap.
While 90% of the families who stay at the Ronald McDonald House have a child at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, they also serve families with children at UAMS and Baptist Medical Center.
The nonprofit’s third program, the Ronald McDonald Family Room located on the fifth floor of UAMS, opened Jan. 31 to serve NICU families.
Steps from their critical babies in the NICU, families will enter the RMFR welcomed by dedicated staff and volunteers. Each night, four NICU families will be able to stay together with their other children in one of the overnight rooms. During the day, all NICU families will have access to the RMFR where they can enjoy a cup of coffee, a meal, freshen up with a shower or wash a load of laundry.
According to Mason, RMHC has raised more than $980,000 for this project and has $90,000 to raise to meet their fundraising goal.
“It is in this quiet space parents can step away and regroup so they can be in the best position to make vital decisions and be present both mentally and physically for their babies.”
A Fantastical Night
Long-time board member Susan Davenport and her husband Dean are chairs of this year’s Chocolate Fantasy Ball, RMHCA’s largest fundraising event.
Susan originally joined RMHCA in 2006 to lend her experience as a certified public accountant. During her tenure, she has been board chair for two terms and served on several committees. It was under her leadership as chair that the board voted to move forward to build the new house in 2016.
“Serving in these capacities over 12 years made me realize what a wonderful impact RMHCA, its volunteers and its employees have on thousands of families who find themselves in a position of great need and support when their sick child is being treated in one of Little Rock’s life-saving hospitals,” Susan says.
And it wasn’t difficult to get her fellow CPA husband on board.
“I shared the importance of RMHCA’s mission with Dean and when he saw how families are helped and met the wonderful staff of RMHCA, he became an avid supporter.”
According to Susan, RMHCA must raise 100% of its necessary annual operating funds, a budget of $1.7 million, as there is no federal or state support.
The 2020 event honoree is board member and chair of the development committee Donna Clark. She founded several programs within RMHCA including Red Carpet, a semimonthly, free shopping event for ladies staying at the house.
“We are only able to do what we do to serve these families thanks to the generosity of donors and dedicated volunteers,” Mason says.
Volunteers work hard to give their best to the families who stay in the home. Donors provide meals, free haircuts and movie and activity nights to lessen the burden on these families.
New this year, the Red Shoe Crew, a group of philanthropic individuals who hope to expand the circle of friends for RMHCA, is looking to reach 100 members.
“Its energetic leadership board is working to ensure that there are volunteer, ‘fun-raising’ and resource raising activities throughout the year to support our mission,” Mason says.
Benefits for RSC members include community and nonprofit experience along with networking, but also it allows volunteers to directly impact the lives of the families who call the Ronald McDonald House home.
Home Away From Home
The original partnership in Philadelphia between an NFL team, a children’s hospital and a restaurant chain in 1974 that later became Ronald McDonald House Charities began with a dream to create a “home away from home” where parents of sick children could be with others who understood their situations and provide emotional support.
These empathetic visionaries understood how parents camping out on hospital chairs and eating from vending machines are also doing everything they can to keep their children from experiencing the fear and sadness that consumes caregivers. They knew that when faced with this fight for life, the luxury of a private room for a parent’s opportunity of solace or to gather thoughts becomes a necessity.
RMHCA provides this need for families and, according to those who lived it, gives them a few less things to worry about, a restful night of sleep, ways to entertain a patient’s siblings, three meals a day, a place to wash laundry and, most importantly, peace of mind to help face another difficult day.
Chocolate Fantasy Ball XVII
Feb. 8, 2020 | Statehouse Convention Center
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Mac, a five-year-old Goldendoodle, joined the RMHC staff when he was just 10 weeks old. As the official Director of Smiles, Mac’s primary role is to provide the families staying at the house with snuggles, a wagging tail and most importantly smiles.
Mac’s office is the first thing you see when you enter the vestibule of the Ronald McDonald House, adding a bit of whimsy when families are checking in and an important stop on the house tour. He even has a mailbox and receives drawings and letters from children staying here.
Mac has his own cadre of trained volunteers who provide exercise opportunities for him each day, keeping him in tiptop shape.
The Director of Smiles’ most-loved activity is to climb the stairs to the treehouse and have you throw his favorite ball into its two-story, spiral slide; he then runs down the stairs to try to catch it before it lands on the playground.
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