A house doesn’t become a home until it's filled with love and the shared experience of challenges faced as a family.
It may be a house in name, but for close to 50 years the Ronald McDonald House has been a home away from home for families around the nation facing some of life’s greatest difficulties. As led by pediatric oncologist Audrey Evans in 1974, the first house, in Philadelphia, was a simple concept that offered the comforts of home for families whose children were undergoing long-term treatment for often life-threatening illnesses.
The idea spread around the nation and, in 1980, the Arkansas organization Parents and Friends of Children Inc. opened the guesthouse — for families of Arkansas Children's Hospital patients — that would grow into the nonprofit Ronald McDonald House Charities of Arkansas (RMHCA).
“There is no organization in central Arkansas like RMHCA in the sense that our primary purpose is to provide a means for families to stay together when there is a child receiving critical medical treatment,” says RMHCA board chairman Sam Baxter. “Of course, a family could stay in a hotel room, but they will never have all the support mechanisms that RMHCA provides: a nice, clean room for the entire family, meals, play areas, support of our staff and other families going through similar circumstances and more.”
From humble beginnings, the original, eight-room house in Little Rock has expanded to include a 32-suite facility that replaced the original house in 2016, serving families with children up to age 21 at Arkansas Children’s and those with babies in the neonatal intensive care units (NICU) at Baptist Medical Center and UAMS.
The house provides families, free of charge, a private suite, snacks and nightly meals, two full kitchens, laundry facilities, living room, indoor and outdoor play areas, celebrations, activities, services and programs that include an on-site salon staffed by volunteer stylists, a ladies and kids closet, yoga, relaxation classes and more.
The house also offers the immeasurable support of other families experiencing similar circumstances. Since its opening it has served more than 41,000 families at a cost savings that is equally hard to measure, Baxter says.
“If you work through those numbers and take into consideration what it would cost families for hotels rooms, meals, laundry, etc., we provide millions of dollars of services to our families each year, and that doesn’t include the emotional support provided.”
RMHCA hasn’t stopped its services at the doorstep of the house. In 2009 it debuted the Ronald McDonald Care Mobile which, in association with Arkansas Children’s and Delta Dental of Arkansas, brings dental care and oral health education to underserved children in the state. To date it has provided $3.9 million in free dental services.
In 2020, the Ronald McDonald Family Room at UAMS (RMFR) added another range of creature comforts for families with babies in the NICU. The RMFR, so far serving 1,200 families for free each year, features four sleeping rooms where families can stay up to two weeks at a time as well as facilities and services including meals, snacks, a play area, laundry, showers, lounge, TV room and internet access. The RMFR also provides programs for inpatient, antepartum moms.
“The only thing a family should have to worry about is focusing their love and attention on their child,” says RMHCA Executive Director Janell Mason. “Without the Ronald McDonald House and the Ronald McDonald Family Room at UAMS, these families would likely not be able to stay with their child during a lengthy hospitalization — and no child should have to face treatment alone.”
The Family Budget
The RMHCA didn’t always offer such well-appointed facilities, says original board chairman Sam Perroni.
“We literally survived on a shoestring,” Perroni, a former attorney, says.
Parents and Friends of Children Inc. was conceived during a flight Perroni shared with a fellow church member and Arkansas Children’s Hospital official who had seen a version of a Ronald McDonald House on a western trip. Housing parents from outside central Arkansas had been a problem, with some having to sleep in their cars, and Perroni volunteered to help organize a group of parents, nurses and doctors to form the corporation that in 1981 became the world’s 27th Ronald McDonald House and evolved into the RMHCA.
To Perroni’s best recollection, the first house opened with a $109,000 mortgage and a $40,000 note for remodeling expenses. There were two “house parents” working for $400 a month plus lodging and utilities, while everything else was done by volunteers.
Perroni’s law partner donated his time for six years to keep the books, pay the bills and make the deposits. The house had eight bedrooms, three bathrooms, one kitchen and one living room.
“We held our board meetings in the yard under the trees, weather permitting, or a church down the street,” Perroni says. “The parents were referred by the nursing staff in the ICU, for the most part.”
Now, Mason says, the RMHCA is open around the clock the entire year, with 10 full-time employees and nine part-time staff working nights and weekends. She praises the more than 3,100 volunteers who donate more than 10,230 hours to do everything from cook meals to serve on event committees to styling hair.
Fantasy to Reality
In 2008, Mason was invited to chair the 2009 Chocolate Fantasy Ball, the RMHCA’s primary fundraiser. She had a cursory knowledge of the ball and Ronald McDonald House, but learned the extent of the organization’s mission after chairing the ball and joining the board in 2009, when she chaired the capital campaign to build the new facility.
She invited Baxter to join the board in 2015 and she became executive director in early 2016.
Mason recalls numerous individual stories of children — Burkley, Anthony, Autumn and Gray, to name a few — who underwent multiple specialized treatments, some numbering in the high 20s, or who had to stay for close to two years because of cancer treatments. Ronald McDonald House, Mason says, made it possible for parents to afford the complex treatments and for the families to endure the trying times in relative comfort.
“There have been more than 41,000 families who call this place their home away from home, each with their own unique story,” Mason says. “But the common thread is their need to be close to the hospital and together as a family.”
With no state, federal or insurance funding, RMHCA raises 100% of its operating budget locally through individual and corporate donations, foundations and events like the Chocolate Fantasy Ball. Now recheduled for April 9 at the Statehouse Convention Center, the ball is an award-winning gala featuring more than 6,000 decadent chocolate treats, dinner, auctions and dancing.
The event typically raises 25-30% of the RMHCA operating budget. The last, pre-COVID live event raised a record $710,000.
All of the money goes toward operation of the RMHCA’s facilities and the Care Mobile, providing families not only lodging and basic needs, but comfort, support, encouragement, hopefully a few smiles and a sense of home.
There is even a house pet, 7-year-old goldendoodle and “Director of Smiles” Mac.
“I love hearing the sound of the basketball bouncing on the court near the playground, and seeing families play with Mac,” Mason says. “More signs of ‘home.’”
McDonald’s Cooperative Organization Feeds RMHCA Success
McDonald’s restaurants are independently owned and operated by local business owners. In addition to managing and operating their businesses, each McDonald’s USA owner-operator serves in one of approximately 50 regional cooperatives to make regionally-focused decisions.
The ArkLaTx Co-op, which supports RMHCA, is comprised of McDonald’s restaurants in central and south Arkansas; the Texarkana, Arkansas, area; and Shreveport and Monroe, Louisiana.
In addition to national programs, co-op members work together on local and regional initiatives ranging from local promotions and business decisions to philanthropic support for community organizations.
McDonald’s is the founding mission partner of RMHCA and members of the ArkLaTx Co-op have contributed millions to the local chapter over the years, including $1 million to build the RMHCA’s current house in Little Rock.
Without the corporate support, as well as fundraisers and the generosity of individuals, RMHCA would not be able to offer the facilities and programs that provide lodging, meals and essential services to families whose children are facing major health crises.
The co-op supports the house through year-long, restaurant-facilitated fundraisers including Round-Up for RMHC where customers choose to round up their total to the nearest dollar and the difference is donated to the nonprofit. A portion of profits from every Happy Meal sold also go to support RMHCA.
The owner-operators in the co-op have also served as board members, committee members, event chairs, volunteers and Red Apron members.
“Supporting RMHCA has been a passion for our family,” say co-op members Kristy and Brad Allen. “It’s an honor to support such a wonderful organization and its mission for keeping families close during difficult times.”
RMHC is the primary nonprofit supported by McDonald’s USA, but ArkLaTx owner-operators also support a range of other nonprofits as a co-op as well as individuals. That support has included direct donations, fundraising efforts, community engagement and volunteerism.
Local chapters of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Our House and Centers for Youth & Families have all received aid, as well as local initiatives to support crew members and community members affected by illness, disasters and other hardships.
“Giving back to our communities through organizations like Ronald McDonald House Charities of Arkansas is in our DNA at McDonald’s,” says owner-operator Eliecer Palacios, who also worked on the design committee for the newest version of the Ronald McDonald House. “It’s inspiring to all of us to be a part of a thriving community where we live and work.”
This year, the co-op is sponsoring a program for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the area, providing donations to student services to ensure students have support outside of just academics. With the COVID-19 pandemic providing hardships for many, this is a small way McDonald’s can help students continue their education, and it’s made somewhat easier thanks to technology, says RMHCA board member and owner-operator Darryl Webb.
“This school year, the ArkLaTx owner-operators are proud to give back to our local Historically Black Colleges and Universities within our communities through an offer in our app that supports the next generation of leaders,” Webb says. “With the HBCU deal in the McDonald’s mobile app, it’s never been easier to give back and promote higher education in our community."
This is in addition to the co-op’s long-standing programs Archways to Opportunities, which provides scholarship money for crew members to continue their education beyond high school, and English Under the Arches, providing crew members with free classes to improve their English.
The ArkLaTx Co-op’s support of RMHCA has helped more than 40,000 families in the past 40 years, including a donation of more than $163,224 in 2021 and $131,400 in 2020.
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