Photos courtesy of Ronald McDonald House

Ronald McDonald House Charities of Arkansas (RMHCA) is gearing up for a slate of fall events that will help the organization sustain its support of families with critically ill children. Janell Mason, chief executive officer, said promoting the organization’s mission is an ongoing challenge and events such as RMHCA’s fundraisers are an important way to stay in front of the public.

 

“Everyone has certainly heard of Ronald McDonald House,” she said. “It tends to be a household name, but until you’ve taken a tour or heard a family’s story, you can’t really begin to grasp all that happens here.”

Janell Mason

The Arkansas chapter of Ronald McDonald House started in 1981 in an eight-bedroom house two blocks from where the charity now calls home. The current 32,000-square-foot, 32-suite house opened its doors to families in 2016. It provides families with a place to find comfort during extended stays at nearby hospitals. Rooms, meals, snacks and play areas for young siblings provide a welcome respite from hectic schedules and days full of stress and anxiety related to the wellbeing of a child.

 

The staff of RMHCA maintains offices inside the home, which puts them face to face with the families they serve every day.

 

“We see the mission of Ronald McDonald House in action,” Mason said. “We see the struggles our families are experiencing. When they come in at the end of the day, they tell us what happened at the hospital, and we lift them up the best we can.”

 

Last year, RMHCA studied the impact of its services, and the numbers were astounding. More than 46,000 families have stayed onsite since the charity’s inception, for a total of more than 410,000 nights.

 

“Based on our analysis, the value of services received – rooms, meals, snacks, toiletries, etc. – equates to $43 million in free services that our families have received over the years,” Mason said.

 

It takes an army of volunteers and a constant focus on fundraising to sustain operations at RMHCA, and while the donor wall is studded with the major benefactors in the community, support comes in all sizes and denominations.

 

“The $5 gift we receive in the mail is just as meaningful to us as a $100,000 gift,” Mason said. “To think about someone writing a small check and finding a stamp to mail it to us, it just means the world to me.”

 

EVENTS CULTIVATE COMMUNITY

 

For many nonprofit organizations, events are an important part of the overall fundraising strategy. It is no different for RMHCA, which hosts get-togethers throughout the year in order to cultivate relationships with donors, volunteers and friends in the community.

 

“We don’t have a product to sell, so 100 percent of our budget is raised and donated,” Mason said. “Our events play two significant roles for us, and one of those is obviously fundraising, but the other purpose is to raise friends. Events give us an opportunity to introduce our mission to people who maybe haven’t thought of getting involved with Ronald McDonald House.”

 

The event schedule heats up this fall with an annual golf scramble Sept. 25 at Pleasant Valley Country Club, of which 100 percent of the proceeds go toward advancing the mission of Ronald McDonald House.

 

“The golf tournament has been happening for more than 30 years,” Mason said. “It’s a great event because our golfers are treated first class, and they really enjoy themselves.”

 

Just three days after putters are put away, friends of Ronald McDonald House will gather to cut the cards and play casino games.

 

“What we’re really excited about is A Night in Vegas,” Mason said. “Our first year for the event was in 2019, and it was a huge success. It’s fun for people who don’t necessarily enjoy standing around and talking for hours. Having the energy and excitement of casino games breaks things up a little bit and makes it fun for everyone.”

 

This year, A Night in Vegas will be held Sept. 28 at the popular music venue, The Hall, near downtown Little Rock.

Sharmane Andrews
Photo supplied by Simmons Bank

“Simmons Bank is our sponsor, and Sharmane Andrews from Simmons is the event chair,” Mason said. “We have worked with her on several things in the past, including last year’s Blue Jeans and Bubbles event, and she is just a wonderful human being.”

 

A NIGHT IN VEGAS

 

Andrews has been attending RMHCA events since joining Simmons Bank as its chief compliance officer in 2016.

 

“My husband and I always go to the Chocolate Ball,” she said. “Eventually I decided I wanted to contribute more, so I joined a committee.”

 

Working on Blue Jeans and Bubbles challenged Andrews to find ways to get younger members of the community involved with the charity. The night was informal but full of energy, benefiting from the picture-perfect October weather in Argenta Plaza. This year’s edition will return to Argenta on Oct. 19.

 

Andrews said the no-fuss-no-muss vibe of Blue Jeans and Bubbles will be the approach for A Night in Vegas.

 

“We are so used to getting dressed up for galas and events like that,” she said. “This one is less formal and is intended to be a night of fun and games and people enjoying each other’s company. It’s supposed to be a night out on the town without all the work that goes into going out on the town.”

 

Andrews is leading a committee of around 25 volunteers to organize the event.

 

“We’ve been planning since May, and we’ll be doing things all the way up to the night it takes place,” Andrews said. “We’ve been working hard to make it seem like a genuine night in Las Vegas, with casino games and card tables. It’s business casual and definitely not ritzy, but we’ll have ladies using aerial silks and walkers on stilts to spice things up. It has been really fun to plan.”

 

Andrews is a native Arkansan from Helena who moved to Atlanta as a high school senior. She spent the next 20 years of her life away from home. She returned to the state in 2011 and, after joining Simmons Bank five years later, began to blossom in terms of community involvement.

 

“Simmons is a community bank,” Andrews said. “The bank has always supported its neighbors. That’s something that’s at the heart of Simmons as a whole. We expect our employees to serve as volunteers and give back. I’m fortunate to work for such a giving organization.”

 

Helping with last year’s Blue Jeans and Bubbles and chairing this year’s A Night in Vegas committee has given Andrews a new appreciation for nonprofit fundraising. The committee’s goal is to raise enough money to pay for the equivalent of 4,000 nights for families of critically ill children.

 

“All of a sudden, I’m the one asking for sponsorships,” she said. “It’s a lot of work, and I certainly have a new appreciation for what Janell and her team do to keep the lights on, but it’s so worth it to help families in need.”

 

PAST FAMILY PERSPECTIVE

 

Stephanie Fletcher’s family is one that needed help and found it at RMHCA. Her daughter, Annabelle, was born with a congenital heart defect called hypoplastic left heart syndrome, which required open heart surgery shortly after arriving home from the hospital. The diagnosis was missed during Fletcher’s pregnancy, so the whole ordeal was an unexpected whirlwind.

 

“We live in Independence County near Batesville,” Fletcher said. “It’s two hours to Little Rock, and we farm for a living, so it was a real challenge when we had to be at Arkansas Children’s Hospital with Annabelle.”

Ronald McDonald House

Families dealing with the illness of a child enjoy warm meals, a quiet night’s rest and loving support for siblings at Ronald McDonald House.

The first few nights were spent in the hospital before Ronald McDonald House called and offered a suite in its new facility. The family arrived at 10 p.m. for a tour, and they were blown away by what they saw.

 

“The place is amazing,” Fletcher said. “It wasn’t at all what we were expecting. It’s really nice, kind of like a souped-up hotel with all the services and amenities that families in our situation need. We stayed for over 70 nights during the time surrounding Annabelle’s first surgery. Ronald McDonald House was a lifesaver for us.”

Fletcher said the home was a comfortable escape from the emotional roller coaster that she rode every day in the hospital environment. A hot meal was provided every night at 6 p.m., and coffee and snacks were available throughout the day.

 

“Our oldest daughter, Madeline, is 12 now and only knows Ronald McDonald House as a place that brought her happiness,” she said.

The Fletchers returned to RMHC as Annabelle underwent two more surgeries to correct her condition. In total, the family stayed at the house for nearly half a year over the course of their three visits.

 

“Ronald McDonald House served us so well,” Fletcher said. “The people there are such a wonderful asset. You find yourself leaning on them during your most traumatic times, and they go out of their way to provide love and support so that you can put all of your focus on your child’s recovery.”

Ronald McDonald House Charities

Fletcher’s experience at RMHCA was so impactful that, in 2020, she decided to join its board of directors as the past family representative. In her role, she provides the perspective of the families receiving support from the charity. She is the voice of the thousands of people who have felt Rondald McDonald House’s loving embrace.

 

“My husband says it best. He says, ‘Ronald McDonald House puts its money where its mouth is,’ and it truly does,” Fletcher said. “The people here give families a safe zone during their most trying times. It’s a place to rest and relax and prepare to provide care for your child day after day, until it’s time to go home.”

 

GETTING INVOLVED WITH RMHCA

 

There is much on the horizon for RMHCA. Several programs are under development and at least one major announcement is coming soon. The new activity points to an exciting future, as well as a lot of work for the organization’s distinguished board of directors.

 

“Our board is a strategic board,” Mason said. “I am so honored to be able to work with them and to have their guidance and support with the decisions we make.”

 

The organization has expanded in the past, opening a family room at UAMS that operates in much the same way as the regular house, but on a smaller scale. While she is not prepared to discuss the future developments in detail, Mason said once they are announced, people will immediately see their importance to families of critically ill children.

 

“Opening the family room at UAMS on the NICU floor was a big moment for us, as was opening this house in 2016,” she said, “but I think the best thing is how our board has positioned this organization for program growth and expansion of services to families.”

 

For people who connect with RMHCA’s mission and want to help, there are numerous ways to get involved. Mason said one of the best first steps people can take is to tour the house and see the mission in action for themselves.

 

“As you look around, you’ll see several volunteer opportunities,” she said. “You can volunteer at the front desk, you can cook a meal or put together toiletry kits for families. People can find their niche, no matter what their skills or interests might be.”

 

There are donation boxes onsite, and of course, monetary gifts go a long way toward helping RMHCA meet the needs of families. Donations can be substantial or small. As Mason said, $5 checks are just as meaningful as those written for much larger amounts.

 

Those interested in volunteering can do so by joining a committee, just as Andrews did last year when she helped plan Blue Jeans and Bubbles. Now she has her sights set on A Night in Vegas, which is really just the next piece of what is shaping up to be a long-term commitment to the charity.

 

“Once I retire from my career in banking, I plan to do volunteer work for my favorite charity, Ronald McDonald House,” she said.

 

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