Welcome Home Ronald McDonald House

WORDS Dwain Hebda
IMAGES courtesy Ronald McDonald House Charities of Arkoma

Fort Smith’s Ronald McDonald House Nears Milestone

It’s been a scary, stressful year, but Allison Davis can’t stop smiling these days. As River Valley Program Director for Ronald McDonald House Charities of Arkoma, she’s had a front-row seat for the biggest advancement in the organization’s history – the building of the new Ronald McDonald House in Fort Smith.

During the course of the project, a global pandemic changed daily life forever, building material prices spiked to record levels, people shifted to remote work arrangements and labor dried up. And yet, the long-awaited home is very nearly done, on schedule. It’s no wonder the sparkle in her voice is easily detectable.

“We’re still, thankfully, on time with it, which is very exciting,” she said. “We’re still projected to open this fall as originally planned.

“Actually, it’s because of the great partners that we have who are responsible for this project. Nabholz Construction has been amazing through this whole process. Just getting those materials ordered in a timely manner so that we weren’t behind, and then staying on top of the daily construction has been a lifesaver. I cannot sing their praises enough. If it weren’t for them, I don’t really know where we’d be, honestly; they have just been phenomenal, amazing.”

Erin Farrah, Marketing and Communications Manager, is equally effusive and between the two of them, the excitement is contagious.

“It is such a great time,” she says. “The entire time I have worked for Ronald McDonald House, I have worked on this campaign to build this house. I’ve been able to see the entire process from just starting out raising money and breaking ground to seeing it come together.

“I cannot wait to start serving more families because there is a wait list in the facility that we have now, and we are constantly having to turn people away. So, to see those rooms and common spaces being built is getting so exciting. I just can’t wait.”

The new $4.5 million house joins the Ronald McDonald Family Room, a 3,200-square-foot space in Mercy Hospital Fort Smith that provides a respite for parents of critically ill children at the hospital. Opened in 2010, it has given thousands of families a welcome break during a stressful time but has fallen short of demand.

“The challenge in our other space inside the hospital is that it’s just not large enough for the whole family unit to stay. It’s just not big enough,” Allison says. “That causes even more stress on families when they have a baby or a child in the hospital and they have other children. They’re trying to figure out who’s going to care for them, and they’re worried about their children at home.

“This new space will allow the whole family to stay together in a family-centered approach. That’s the biggest thing – when you have a sick child, you really don’t just have a sick child. You have a sick family. Being able to care for the whole family just makes my heart just melt.”

Allison said the Family Room will continue to operate, likely focusing on post-partum women who have yet to become fully ambulatory, such as following a C-section. Meanwhile, the new house will offer nearly three times the sleeping rooms, each built like a hotel suite, among other creature comforts.

“It’s an eleven-bedroom house and each bedroom will now have its own bathroom,” she says. “The space we have now, the bedrooms don’t have their own bathrooms and that can be a sticky situation.

“There will also be a playground space outside and at the end of the property; there will be a serenity garden, which will have a really beautiful water feature. That will be a place for families to reflect or meditate or just a place of solitude for those families that may just need a minute of peace, just to be able to get outside and enjoy some fresh air and take a minute or two to breathe.”

Erin also points out the central feature of the house, a large, commercial-grade kitchen. This is not only a space for cooking hot, nutritious meals, but an area where guest families can connect with each other and with the community groups that, health conditions permitting, are already lining up to bring in and serve dinner.

“That’s been another really cool thing to see, that aside from monetary donations to the house and trying to help with construction costs and interior decorating and program costs, there have been several community groups that have reached out to say we want to come in and cook,” she says. “Large groups will be able to come in and cook for families staying at the house. Volunteer groups, church groups, anyone can come in to cook, serve, and eat with families. That’s just another added amenity we will have.”

Once construction completed, time was spent on the interior, bringing in furniture, decorating and generally making the new space comfortable and inviting. It’s on track to open to families in mid-November.

At the same time, other events had to be tended to, such as final details on the Red Shoe Shindig, the organization’s largest fundraiser of the year. That event, slated for October 23, is shaping up to be among the largest in its eleven-year history after the 2020 version was forced to the sidelines.

“Among our three fundraisers every year, Shindig brings in the majority of proceeds for us,” Erin says. “This year, there will be another pitch for giving to the house separate from our auction items and tickets to finish out the campaign. We are about ninety percent done with raising money for this house. We have about $450,000 left to go.”

This year’s event, entitled Starry Night, will be held at the Bakery District. Continued support of this annual event shows the organization how much the community values its mission and service to families in time of need, with the house being a visible representation of that mission.

“Seeing an actual home that looks like a state-of-the-art facility, that creates an environment of comfort, I think that’s what people will see by looking at the house,” Erin says. “Our main goal with this house is to create a space that doesn’t feel like a sterile hospital with all the noises and the beeping and the fear that can go on while you’re there.

“I think we’ve done that, and I think it shows exactly what our mission is, to create this space of comfort and a true home away from home.”

Red Shoe Shindig
October 23, 2021
The Bakery District, Fort Smith
To donate or purchase tickets, visit rmhcofarkoma.org

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