words: Marla Cantrell
images: courtesy Susan Pruitt and the Ronald McDonald Family Room at Mercy
Six years ago, third grade teacher Candis Barnes was looking for a way to give back. She’d always been a whirlwind of energy, and she knew the skills she picked up in the classroom, like communication, empathy, and patience, would serve her well. The only question that remained was where she would best fit.
In July 2012, she was looking through Craigslist when she noticed an ad for volunteers who’d be willing to help out at the Ronald McDonald Family Room at Mercy Hospital in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
Candis booked an appointment, saw the Family Room, which opened in December, 2010. The 3,200 square foot, luxury apartment is housed on the fourth floor of Mercy, and serves families in crisis free of charge.
She was stunned by the beauty of this place, a common response from first-time visitors. Stepping inside is like visiting a boutique hotel that understands how to be both serene and stunning.
The dining room table was often full at dinnertime. The food was filling a critical need, and Candis, a talented cook, saw how appreciated she was. She also noticed how important meal time was for the parents who would talk among themselves, sharing stories and encouragement, bonding in a way only those in their shoes could.
Just a month after Candis began, her step-granddaughter had a baby girl who was admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit. While the baby got stronger, her mom stayed in the Family Room, which made a world of difference, since she lived forty miles away. Today, that baby girl is a first grader, happy and healthy.
As time moved on, Candis got even more comfortable with her position. Always observant, she would notice which of the parents seemed to be having the hardest time. She’d sit with them, offering her presence, and if they asked, her advice.
Mostly, though, she’d tell them how to make it through, taking one day at a time, and if that was too much, one hour.
May 2013 rolled around, and Candis attended the reunion that’s held annually for the families who’ve used the room. She looked around and saw the babies who’d struggled as newborns chubby and laughing in their mothers’ arms. She saw older kids tugging on their fathers’ hands, excited to play one of the games that had been organized.
Those memories were a godsend as Candis continued to volunteer. She could recall the joy of that day and offer it to frightened parents who talked to her in shaky voices. That helped her help them, and so did her faith.
She is a woman steeped in the Bible, having logged so many hours in church she could likely never calculate them all. On Sundays, she’s at Heritage Methodist in Van Buren. On Tuesdays, she’s at Cowboy Church, which is service in the country with lots of food and singing. On Wednesday, she’s back at Heritage. Every Thursday, she attends Bible study, and she also attends a life group whose mission is to worship and grow spiritually.
While faith is her stronghold, it also helped that she’d had a few rough patches herself. Those trials created empathy. The other gift she has is appreciating every day. Just being around Candis is like downing an entire energy drink. She makes you want to smile more, live better, give back. Do something!
If she could ask for anything for the Family Room, it would be for the community to get to know it better. Asking for a tour would be a great start, just seeing what is accomplished inside these walls. To date, more than 3,800 River Valley families have been helped.
None of it would be possible without people like Candis, who has logged 2,052 hours doing everything from cooking to washing load after load of towels. But it’s not just Candis. It’s the staff and those in the community, many of whom participate in the meal share program.
Any family or group can sign up to bring food. Some restaurants donate as well. Candis mentioned TGI Fridays, which brings dinner, aptly, on Friday nights. She says this is a great program for church groups, for example, that want to serve the community.
Talk of serving the community brings the conversation back to the love of volunteering. There are so many benefits, such as becoming part of something wonderful. Candis imagines what it would be like for someone who might be struggling with loneliness to volunteer at the Family Room. She said it works like this: Your hands get busy, which keeps your mind from dwelling on negative thoughts. You look up one day and realize you’ve become part of a family made up of some of the kindest people you’ll ever meet.
Not long after, you’ll be at the market, or at a festival, and you’ll see a family you helped. The hard times will be long behind them, and they’ll come up to you to let you know how much the Ronald McDonald Room meant to them. They’ll mention how your caring made them stronger, and you’ll feel overcome with gratitude that you were able to make someone’s stormy night a little calmer. And then you’ll see their sweet child, and your heart will expand to take in all that joy.
That is the blessing of volunteering. That is the happiness of giving.
The Ronald McDonald Family Room at Mercy’s top needs are:
Liquid laundry detergent
Cleaning supplies and dish washing detergent
Drinks: can soda, bottled water, etc, K-cup coffee, and creamer
Call 479.314.8030 or email email@example.com to donate.
The Red Shoe Shindig, which supports the Family Room, is Saturday, October 13, at Hardscrabble Country Club. Visit redshoeshindig.com for more information.