In 2011, when Lanny and Colleen Nickell attended the Ronald McDonald House Charities’ Chocolate Fantasy Ball as a fun date night, they never imagined they would one day be beneficiaries of the organization’s generosity.
That changed suddenly in the summer of 2015 when their young daughter Megan was struck by lightning on the beach and was hospitalized for a few days before tragically passing away from her injuries.
“A representative from the Pensacola RMHC came to the hospital and invited us to spend some time there and get away from everything that was going on,” Lanny says. “At first, we rejected the offer because we didn’t want to leave the hospital, but we eventually caved, and it was such a warm atmosphere. The first person I met was very warm, embracing, engaging and just trying to show sympathy and support.”
RMHC’s mission is to provide a home away from home for families of critically ill children being treated at local hospitals.
“They provide you with everything you need even when you don’t know you need it,” Colleen says. “You’re there night to night with your child waiting to hear news, back and forth from the hospital, and the Ronald McDonald House provided everything you didn’t want to think about. In hindsight though, you realize there was always food on the counter and meals ready in the fridge if you wanted them.”
The houses are designed with the whole family in mind, many providing additional resources like accredited education programs, recreational activities, sibling support services and non-clinical support services like children’s art therapy, music programs and gardens so families can grow vegetables and herbs like they do at home.
“They have so much to offer with their smiles and love,” Colleen says. “But if you needed peace, they wouldn’t bother you. It was the neatest thing. They were just there.”
“[RHMC] is kind of an oasis in the desert,” Lanny says. “It’s not where you want to be. But then, without even knowing it’s there, you look up and there’s a place that will take you in and care for you in ways you don’t know that you need.”
When they returned to Arkansas, the Nickells took their painful experience and turned it into an opportunity to honor Megan through service at the local Ronald McDonald House Charities of Arkansas (recently renamed Ronald McDonald House Charities of Arkansas and North Louisiana).
“After our wonderful experience there, that’s when I decided I needed to get on the RMHC board. So, a year or two after that, I joined the board and I’ve been on it for about five years now,” Lanny says.
Colleen works alongside Lanny, collecting and donating much-needed supplies to the organization.
“I think RMHC benefits from having advisors and people around the organization that have had those experiences firsthand,” Lanny says.
“It is definitely a blessing,” Colleen adds, “and we always want to give to things that mean the most to us — to make a difference and live for Megan.”
Along with their years of service, Lanny and Colleen have been selected as this year’s chairs for RMHCAR-NLA’s Chocolate Fantasy Ball on Feb. 17 at the Statehouse Convention Center.
“Megan loved chocolate,” Colleen says. “Hershey’s bars were basically a side meal for her, so all this ties together. This year would have been her 21st birthday and this is the 21st Chocolate Fantasy Ball.”
Last year, the event raised roughly $730,000, and the organization hopes to surpass that amount this year.
The night begins dessert-first with a decadent cocktail reception featuring the traditional chocolate martinis and mountains of cocoa creations from local chefs and bakers. Afterward, guests will enjoy an elegant dinner, music, auctions, raffle and stories from families who stayed at the Ronald McDonald House.
According to communication director Candice Hickman, individuals unable to attend can bid on auction items online or help sponsor stays for families through the “Share a Night” initiative wherein a gift of $100 covers two nights for a family. In honor of the organization’s 43rd year, Charles and Susie Morgan have offered to match donations up to $43,000.
“A hundred percent of the proceeds stay local and help provide a home away from home for more than 3,200 families each year,” Hickman says. “Some stay for a night, some stay for a month, some for more than a year, and all families stay free thanks to sponsors and donors.”
Board member and longtime volunteer Shelia Vaught will also be honored at this year’s event.
“I was totally surprised when I found out I was going to receive this award,” Vaught says. “I’m humbled to be honored at this wonderful event. I’ve had the privilege to be involved with Chocolate Fantasy Ball for 15 years and I truly support the mission of RMHC.”
The Chocolate Fantasy Ball is RMHCAR-NLA’s top fundraising event and drives its four core programs: Ronald McDonald House Arkansas, the Ronald McDonald Family Room at UAMS, the Ronald McDonald Care Mobile and Ronald McDonald House Shreveport-Bossier coming in 2025.
Created in 2009, the Ronald McDonald Care Mobile features 40-foot vehicles that travel directly to areas where children are medically underserved, offering high-quality medical, dental and health education by teaming up with local health care organizations and clinical service providers.
These services are based on the needs of the community and include things like primary care, wellness visits, developmental screenings and immunizations. Educational training on topics like hygiene, asthma treatment and prenatal care for pregnant teens is available along with other tailored health topics.
The Ronald McDonald Family Room at UAMS has four overnight suites, along with day use available for families on the NICU floor. It provides approximately $200,000 in services to families each year and has served 11,000 families since opening in 2020.
“RMHCAR-NLA is locally funded and raises every dollar needed to serve families,” Hickman says. “When someone donates, 100% stays local to help local families in their time of need.”
Ronald McDonald House Arkansas hosts 32 family suites and serves three local hospitals. Each year, $1.8 million in services are provided to families, and 48,000 families have been served over its history.
“Our focus in 2024 is on the continuum of care and developing additional ways to support families during their stay and when they return home,” Hickman says. “In times of stress, you need a good meal, a community who understands, a comfortable bed and a welcoming place to be together with your family. That’s what families find at the Ronald McDonald House.”
Families who stay at the home can also expect clean and comfortable spaces for daily living, fun activities if they are in the mood to celebrate, a quiet place to rest with daily essentials and a dedicated team of volunteers and staff.
“RMHC offers a warm and welcoming home to families when they are far away from home yet need it the most,” volunteer Sue Evans says. “I feel very blessed being a small part of helping these families during one of the most difficult times of their lives.”
“Volunteers are the heart of the Ronald McDonald House and are always needed,” Hickman says. “During their tour, we match their enthusiasm with the needs of our families. Whether it is that smiling face at our front desk, cooking a meal, leading a fun family activity or helping with one of our events like the Chocolate Fantasy Ball, we want their service to be meaningful to them. When families stay with us, it is our goal to make sure they are comfortable. Our volunteers and donors help make it a home.”
Hickman says the house needs everything a typical home needs, but multiplied by 36.
“They need things like meals, toothpaste, deodorant, snacks, coffee and so much more,” she says. “Whether you make a donation, gather your friends to collect items from our wish list, collect pop tabs or bring a group to prepare an evening meal, you will make an immediate difference.”
Hickman adds not to underestimate the impact of rounding up your total by a few cents at McDonald’s. In 2023, McDonald’s customers donated nearly $500,000 to help Arkansas families.
“RMHC is a place of love, and I see it each week firsthand,” volunteer Jill Mills says. “The staff and volunteers love on families while they are here. They go above and beyond to make sure families are as comfortable as possible during their stay. It is truly a special place, and I’m thankful I get to play a small role.”
For the Nickells, their involvement is not only because of Megan’s legacy, but because of their hope for the future.
“I think it’s important to show generation upon generation how much you can give,” Colleen says. “Even if you’re not giving money, you can give your time. You can donate chocolate. You can take something to the house. You can buy an extra box of detergent. You can volunteer in the salon so the parents and kids staying a long time can get their hair done.”
“That’s what they need to continue to develop going forward,” Lanny says. “They need to cultivate relationships with the next generations that are going to be taking care of our communities.
“I remember in Pensacola seeing high school or college students washing windows, mopping floors and making cookies on their own time, and I thought that was incredible.”
With its recent expansion, RMHCAR-NLA confirms the future is in good hands. The nonprofit's new moniker reflects its growing coverage territory and services south of the Arkansas border, where a capital campaign is working to fund the first Ronald McDonald House in northwest Louisiana. Ronald McDonald House Shreveport-Bossier will open in early 2025, while northeast Louisiana will soon be home to a Ronald McDonald Family Room inside St. Francis Medical Center in Monroe.
“You don’t think you’re ever going to need it, and people often think, ‘That will never happen to me,’” Colleen says. “We want people to know that, if it does, it’s there for everyone.”
When unexpected tragedies arise, the numerous donors, volunteers and staff of RMHCAR-NLA make sure a warm, inviting oasis appears in the desert.
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